Posted on Leave a comment

Empathy and the Shoah: The Act of Colorizing a Catastrophe

I. Culture in Conversation: Yusuf Tolga Ünker, Artist, Researcher

“There is safety in viewing the black and white photos from the Holocaust era. When we see the haunting eyes and faces of the tormented and tortured souls who were victimized by Nazi brutality, we can distance ourselves from the horrors that befell them due to the old look of those black and white images.” Against Oblivion Exhibition, October 2020

First, tell us a bit about yourself, your background and where you are from?

I’m an artist from Istanbul, and was born into a family of artists. My father Aykut Ünker is also a painter who started his art career at quite a young age. He was awarded his first prize in 1968, in the Young Artists Competition in Bulgaria. My mother and my father greatly impacted me in developing a passion for the arts, as well as my sister, who is a professional opera singer. They greatly supported us in our career paths. My mother also served as a great source of inspiration, as she encouraged us with her deep interest in art. I graduated from a specialized art high school, and did my Bachelors and Masters degrees at Mimar Sinan University in painting. I was a teacher for a while, however I wanted to continue my career path in academia. Since 2012, I’ve been an assistant researcher in the graphic design department at Maltepe University.

When did you first become interested in Jewish history and culture, and when did it first begin expressing itself in your art?

My interest in Jewish history and culture was first sparked in middle school when I started watching documentaries about World War II produced by the BBC. In high school I read Mein Kampf. The horrendous hate and statements against the Jewish people made me curious, and led me to research the Holocaust. I was already colorizing photos of other subjects in high school, and in university I continued my research on World War II and Jewish culture, which ultimately led me to begin colorizing photographs from the Holocaust.

Can you explain the inspiration and motivations behind you and your wife’s recent exhibition of colorized images from the Holocaust, Against Oblivion?

First of all, it’s important to note that my wife has contributed to, and helped me with my other exhibitions as well. As we well know, the reactions to works on this subject are not always positive, and my wife provides me with constant moral support and encouragement. She also supported and helped me during the preparation of this exhibition. The exhibition was curated by Jens Rusch, a well known German curator. The photographs in this exhibit were selected and curated from the private collection of an individual named Norbert Podlesny, an author on the subject of the Holocaust.

The subjects in these photographs are mostly from the ghettos; People discriminated against, and held captive in their own neighborhoods, or forced to live in the rundown areas of the city. These images show their lives in what we can accurately refer to as “open air prisons.” While the photographs from previous exhibitions were chronologically capturing the events of the Holocaust, these photographs show the daily life in the ghettos, giving us a glimpse into the routine and hardships of the individuals. For example, it is possible to see people plucking weeds from between stones by force, and other similar jobs that were imposed on them as indentured servants of the Nazi regime. This exhibition shows that the Holocaust is not limited to concentration camps, but to the minute aspects of daily life.

Do you have any connection to the Jewish community in Turkey? How have they received your work?

After I had my exhibition of colorized photographs from the Shoah in Florida, I wanted to exhibit it in Istanbul as well. The Jewish community gladly helped actualize the two exhibitions in Istanbul. These shows were hosted by The Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews, and curated by the museum manager, Nisya Isman Allovi. Afterwards, I made a third exhibition at the Ulus Jewish School of Istanbul, with the intention of bringing this education and empathy to the younger generation. They expressed their appreciation and thanked me for my work, thus building a good connection with the local community.

Opening Night of the Exhibition at the Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews. Pictured (L to R) Fikriye Unker, Renan Koen, Yusuf Tolga Unker, Nisya Isman Allovi

How is your work received in Turkey? Would you say that the general consumer of art is interested in Jewish culture or history?

Some people try to connect my work to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. However the events in my works and restorations are purely historical, and not meant to make a political statement. We should, and must be able to separate these two issues. Even though some people have made negative comments on my work because of this, I have mostly received positive feedback. I don’t think there is a general interest for Jewish culture or history in Turkey. I can see that I am moving forward on my own on this subject in the art world, and I want to turn the material I have into a book in order to reach a broader audience, and communicate with a variety of different communities.

What do you think the most valuable lessons are that you’ve learned from your work with Holocaust photography, or Jewish visual culture? How can this be used for progressing and reviving arts and culture?

While this small nation of people, who were scattered around the world for ages, suffered a great deal of pain, violence, and genocide, they did not collapse or disappear. Instead they jumped back on their feet even stronger, and managed to return to their ancestral homeland as one. To build a peaceful world, we have an obligation to learn from the evils of the past and teach this to others. I believe that the best method that can be utilized to do this is through art, and art education.

Are there any major Jewish artists or thinkers who have influenced you, either in your work, or in your worldview? If yes, how so?

As for those who have influenced me, one of my largest artistic influences is surely Isidor Kaufmann and Alois Heinrich Priechenfried, whose works and lives have led me down the rabbit hole of connecting my art and colorization to Jewish history. I constantly look for more reading material related to their works, and dream of seeing their art in person, in the various museums and galleries in which they are housed.

What are some of the current upcoming projects you are working on?

Right now, I am working on my thesis, a short film project on the subject of the Holocaust, of which more details will be available in the near future. I don’t want to let out too many surprises ahead of time.

Are you hoping to make any collaborative works with Jewish or Israeli artists, and if so, what kind of projects are you hoping to build?

One of my hopes is that after the pandemic, I would like to plan some kind of an event related to this subject material of the Shoah, with multiple different artists. My vision is a cross-cultural project related to the Holocaust, or other aspects of Jewish history, and cultural interactions between peoples. One such event that I hope to plan, is an interactive event where Holocaust survivors could share their experiences and stories, while their images become colorized as a backdrop, adding “life” to their historical legacy as it’s spoken. The ultimate purpose of these artistic projects that I’ve developed, and hope to implement in the future, are to educate those who know nothing of the Holocaust, and to combat the varied ways that antisemitism still permeates in the world. One needs simply to open their computer to any social media outlet, and find an array of vile and rampant conspiracies, ranging from political conspiracies of Jewish subversion, to Jews being the servants of Satan, aliens, which only scratches the surface of absurdity there is to find. Art can be a key tool in eliminating such ignorance and hate from the world, and communicating the intricate history and cultures of the Jewish people.

Additionally, I would love to work on cross-cultural art events and exhibitions with Israeli artists, as a method of building bridges and peaceful interactions between the Turkish and Israeli people. To conclude, I hope that this colorization project related to the Holocaust, and understanding history in general, can be a starting point of building a peaceful and cooperative vision for the future.

Selected Colorizations and works of Yusuf Tolga Ünker, and Fikriye Kesti Ünker:

Link to the Online Exhibition Against Oblivion on the platform Kunstmatrix, which offers an interactive digital tour to see additional colorized works of Yusuf Tolga Ünker, and his wife, Fikriye Kesti Ünker.

Link to the Youtube Video on the Channel of Curator Jens Rusch:

Posted on Leave a comment

The Careful Art of Being Misunderstood: Letter א, Intensity & Heaviness

A Letter to Democracy,

It seems, among one of the more careful and egregious attributes of the artist, is to be consistently and miserably misunderstood. Words of light turn weighty as lead, and passionate and excited expressions ward off once-interested crowds of liberals engaged in “the humanities” and starry-eyed “romantic companions.” An exhausting cliché, as repetitive and tired as a David Lynch film.

The alternatives are silence or madness, equally unacceptable in their cost. You don’t deserve for me to stay quiet, and I certainly don’t deserve to lose my mind for you. We’ve all been there, picture this: You tell a remarkable story of interest in how a character in a film is portrayed, or the fatal decision of a character in a book. What was Shylock intending to do with his pile of flesh? Isn’t the borderline-chauvinistic but gentle expression of sex and intimacy in Kundera’s books fascinating? You look at someone and ask them what they think about Picasso’s representation of death, and they kind of stutter and roll their eyes. Nobody wants to talk with you about the beauty of the cricket’s chirp when slowed down. Nobody cares about an obscure historical fact about Mount Ararat. They all already know, and don’t care, how you feel about capitalism. At first you’re amusing, even sexy. Dark. Willing to say things and ask things out loud that others don’t. You say what you think, and what they think. They’re captivated by green eyes, and overly-direct and tactfully tactless lexicons coolly uttered through the smoke of hand-rolled cigarettes. But, after a brief moment of time, answers become scarce. The sex appeal and the intellectual exhilaration ends. People shy away. They mistake “dark” for “heavy.” They mistake José Martí for Friedrich Nietzsche. As ugly as Diego. They mistake the cry for company and camaraderie, for the growls of isolation. Nobody has the energy to discuss the archery techniques of Babylonian Soldiers in the 5th century BCE, or the final poems of Sadegh Hedayat, or the moral ambiguity of ancient Chinese literary characters at three in the morning with you. They’ll just give you Freudian sophism, tell you that you need to “calm down.” Better get used to it.

Pipe dream. Heavy pipe. Made of lead. You were once meant for their consumption and now they shy away. Some are unnerved by you, others just grow tired. “You’re intense all the time,” cries out the hollow person, he or she who seeks constant airiness in a world which demands something more. “Sorry, but this is simply too much,” (Sorry to hear that) “Maybe we’ll talk later,” (Probably not) “Interesting idea, will answer you soon!” (They won’t). And then it always ends in them telling fond stories of you to their friends, because of course, they knew you when you were no one, when you were strange and heavy. And they will claim to have known you when you return to nothing.

When you’re light. When you’re Jep Gambardella. When you’re Jay Gatsby. When you ask for remarks on a painting, most people will simply click a “like” on your page (as is the wonderful and horrifying nature of the social media era), and best case scenario they tell you it’s “nice,” or “beautiful.” (Which is a lot worse than being told to “calm down.”) No, it is not. Photographs of lilies are beautiful. Curly red hair is beautiful. The sunset at the marina is beautiful. Pinecones and dandelions are beautiful. Paintings expressing pain, and guilt, and light, and lust, and growth, require a slightly more clever answer.

And suddenly I’m lead, and so are you. And you feel that I’m strangling you with my “complaint.” “You’re intense all of the time.” Gatsby never gets invited anywhere, Gatsby is the invitation. And at his funeral people grew tired of his weighty, bombastic offerings of pleasure and allure. They were far too busy to answer Nick’s calls. People go to Gatsby’s Shabbat dinners, they eat his heavy food and drink his heavy leaden wine, and then they leave so they won’t have to hear his heavy stories- but they’ll tell all their friends they were at Gatsby’s feast of lead. Until they weren’t. Intense. Because lead goes to your head, “You know that Rome collapsed because of lead poisoning?” Yeah, I did. And I’m not shocked you know, either. Thanks. And on that note: the past few years, Kundera has been brewing in, and tormenting my mind, “Her drama was a drama not of heaviness but of lightness. What fell to her lot was not the burden but the unbearable lightness of being.” And I want to hate him for writing these lines and making me feel this, but I can’t. Because I can’t bring myself to hate at all. I paint because I love those people who think I’m too much, and I’ll be bold enough to speak on behalf of most of my fellow artists that they likely feel the same. Without them, how could we continue?

Lead builds character. I can simply accept that anything the artist says will be misinterpreted by the living, that they will feel alone in the hungry crowd during their lives, and that they’ll be the victim of those racing to reinterpret them, those who called them “too heavy,” once they’re gone. Can I simply accept that months bound in solitude to my apartment and psychological tempest thanks to Corona? It wasn’t really any different than “normal.” Sure, I’m heavy. But you never had to feel my weight. You didn’t have to see me. You were all too scared of an artist. You all dropped the weight. I had to feel you. I had to see you. See you looking through me, like you scan the cover of an interesting book in a second-hand bookshop, and then watch you turn around and walk away. I didn’t have the option of being afraid, even though God knows, I wanted to be.

You walked away at the slightest sign of heaviness, but I had to carry your weight of judgement. Because fear is a protection mechanism hardwired into the human psyche, and the artist disrupts the vibrations of the normative psyche, and judgement is society’s antibody.

I had to stand on the shores of jagged heaviness and stare into the ocean of judgement, and it fills me with the light which you’ve tried to steal from me. All it can do is make me want to paint for you more. The water might be refreshing after all?

And please, as I take that beautiful plunge, don’t flatter yourself into thinking this article is about you, dear reader. Do me the favour and don’t feed the animals. Let the words on my lips be “More weight.” Because my friends, nothing is heavy nor lead once you’ve looked at the stars, and tasted salt water, and heard a thousand crickets play to the tune of the chorus. The universe has voted- even the artist, hungry for life.

Posted on Leave a comment

Inspiration In Ashes and Fragments.

In terms of reintroducing one’s self to the disorienting and disheartening world of fine art, one is forced to surround themselves with constant inspiration, and in a way, violently remove all obstacles in order to reach the level needed for artistic submersion. While others shut their doors, lock and key, and immerse themselves in art catalogues and cliche literature about solitude and expression, I opt instead to drown myself in my land. What better a source of inspiration for the rebirth of a phoenix then digging his hands deep into the soil of the Temple Mount, and uncovering fragments and artifacts of a world long gone? A world before myself, but a part of my and my forefather’s story nonetheless? 

Often, the artist must undergo self-destruction in order to remerge complete, restructured, and rehabilitated in his craft. Same can be said for a nation, thrust through history and brought to its knees. The history of the Jews as destroyed, shattered, burned and bulldozed, only for us to piece it together once again. The flame of the artist doesn’t blow out, and the history of a people can never be erased. The phoenix didn’t ask to be fed, and was blessed with a thousand years of life, as the Midrash attests. 

On occasion, the words of the Talmudic Sages ring objectively true, “Whoever has not seen Herod’s building has never seen a beautiful building in his life.” (Bava Batra 4a:6), and in holding a few glimmering stones and sherds, my mind recreates that Jerusalem from two millennia ago. My imagination and my ancestors meet in reality, and the only inspiration I need to begin is held in this unseeming hill on the Mitzpe HaMasuot. I hold these broken pieces of the Temple’s inner vessels in my hands, and I’m forced by a deep and sad instinct to recall the words of Ariel Sabar in the concluding chapter of his book My Father’s Promised Land, “Each time a language dies, another flame goes out, another sound goes silent. When the whispers of Aramaic and Dama, and Plains Miwok are last drowned out by the shouts, what do we do? We should pause to mourn. But then we must tell our stories in a new tongue, so at least the stories may survive.” We too stop for a brief moment and mourn the loss of our ancient structures, the radiant white and regal robes torn, the loss of hymns in our ancient dialects. We then continue to push forward in our new statehood and reality, our new Israel, slowly piecing together every mosaic tile, pot sherd, and bone fragment to unveil the full story of people’s trajectory.

In truth, our story hasn’t ended. Our story has persevered, and our defeat has become our victory, our adversary’s spite has become our treasured discovery. Our story continues as the Jewish people. Our story continues as Jerusalem, inhabited by many from all faiths and nations. Our journey continues as Eretz Yisrael, somber and sweet. Through destruction, we learn more about ourselves. In sifting through the rubble of our collective history, I discover more about myself and my people in a way that’s tangible and transcendent. In a way that’s rooted. In a way that makes me want to paint again, this time with the strength of my predecessors. The Sifting Project makes one feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves, a piece of the puzzle. It is as the great archaeologist Flinders Petrie stated in his Methods & Aims in Archaeology, “The man who knows and dwells in history adds a new dimension to his existence…He lives in all time; the ages are his, all live alike to him.”

For this, I am indebted to the Temple Mount Sifting Project, and call upon you, who is hungry for knowledge and truth. Journey from your place of dwelling and sift with the many thousands of volunteers from across the globe. Perhaps you too, will pick up the brush, or the lens, or the pen, soon after, and above all – You must remember that history can not be destroyed so long as the embers of memory still burn.

You can follow this link to read more about the history of the Temple Mount Sifting Project, their unique and important finds, and learn how to participate yourself: