A Breath Of The Modern From Millennia Past


Painter Ahmet Güneştekin is a prominent name in contemporary art in Turkey. He has traveled to some five thousand villages to research and collect Anatolian legends in the light of written and oral history.

Güneştekin believes that international success in contemporary art is possible by remaining true to one’s essential values. We had a pleasant and illuminating conversation with this master painter, who defines contemporary art as creating not ‘what is seen, but what is thought’.

What comes to most people’s minds at the mention of contemporary art are complex, incomprehensible works about which one could say, ‘What’s so special about that? I could paint that.”  What is your opinion?

Painters today cannot paint without having a deep theoretical understanding of painting and a good knowledge of such basic elements as perspective and chiaroscuro as well as drawing, representational painting and the whole artistic tradition.

When contemporary painting is done without knowledge and experience in those areas, a certain lack of balance is readily evident in whatever work emerges, as if there is something missing. Art is a delicate balance, almost a form of mathematics.

If you can’t solve its formulas, you won’t get anywhere. This is immediately apparent in a work done by rote. A work of Picasso may appear quite childlike at first glance.

But when a good art critic or reader looks at that work, he immediately grasps that he is in the presence of a great work of art backed up by a serious philosophy of art based on a serious form of mathematics. It is impossible for a person who is not familiar with the artistic tradition to produce a modern work of such originality.

Although your works are produced with a modern technique and approach, when we look at them we observe reflections of our own cultural world, like serpents, suns and crescent moons. How do you explain this?

At a time when we were far from and far behind the west in contemporary art, we came from behind and closed the gap by drawing on our own values in a concrete way. I believe contemporary Turkish art has made great strides in that sense. The independents, for example, followed by the D Group and later isolated gains. In other words, there is no reason for us to have a complex.

 I perhaps am making a difference with my insistent emphasis on the universal within the local. In my opinion, this is a meaningful stand to take against the Euro-centric attitudes of modernism in the post-modern information age.

Why is it that Turkish painting has not yet achieved worldwide recognition and demand?

There is still a large gap between us and world contemporary art, and that gap needs to be closed as soon as possible. In the past, a number of young artists were sent abroad and trained on government scholarships. But when they returned they brought back western orientalism.

 Western art was constantly imposed on us, and for a long time there was no artistic movement of which we could say, this is our art. But the founding of the Republic in 1923 unleashed a wave of enthusiasm for modernism. Several names immediately spring to mind that are remembered with respect in that regard.

At the same time, however, the art of different countries finds a market depending, to some extent, on their economic power. You can be sure that some day Turkey is going to rise to the first league and Turkish art is going to make the headlines.

There’s a lot of talk about the aspiration of contemporary artists to be ‘stars’. They say it’s not the work but the artist himself that is the brand. How does that resonate with you?

An artist has to be ambitious, but that ambition is only meaningful when it is in the name of producing something better. Here in Turkey, however, big egos, have dominated for a long time. Attempts to be beyond criticism, a self-indulgent desire to be treated like a VIP.

This  is a dangerous mental state because it can lead to narcissism. And once you’ve become a narcissist you can’t change easily. It is a sickness that affects your productiveness and makes it impossible for you to improve. A state of mind that produces supposed ‘experts’ who are constantly criticizing everybody else, who revolve around their own axis and produce no works.

Unfortunately, this sickness was quite widespread for a while among artists. But all that has changed now, and Turkey is going forward with some extremely intelligent young artists who hold out hope for the future. Artists should be in the limelight only for their art.

How do you explain the growing popularity of and demand for contemporary art in Turkey?

A bold new generation with aesthetic values has grown up in our country. These people have not turned their backs on western art entirely, but by that same token they don’t blindly take it as their point of reference either.

Perhaps the west’s superior techniques and contemporary concept of art have been taken as a criterion. As a result we have begun to develop our own understanding of art and artistic values, and artists who produce works in that vein have begun to be accepted and sought after.

Can we speak of a contemporary art economy in Turkey today?

A significant art market and art economy has developed in Turkey in the last five years. The year 2009 was a boom year in that respect when a work by a living artist, Burhan Doğançay’s Blue Symphony, sold for 2.2 million Turkish liras. It was a turning point in the art market.

Everyone realized that this business is a bona fide sector and one of the most rational and profitable investments one can make. Suddenly, interest turned from classical art to contemporary art, and the art business started booming. The price range in classical works of art is generally known.

But contemporary works of art can appreciate by 30 to 200 percent a year depending on the artist’s performance. There is a group of well-informed art buyers in Turkey now, and they are interested in the works of artists who seek to innovate rather than running in place and repeating themselves.

 Parallel with that, the infrastructure of the business is also getting stronger. Critics, dealers, art investors and consulting firms are emerging. Finally, artists can now earn millions of dollars during their lifetime. The trend is very good at the moment, but it’s not enough.

Where does Ahmet Güneştekin derive the inspiration for his works?

I was born in a very rich geography. I came into the world in Mesopotamia, the cradle of many languages, religions and civilizations. Whoever grows up with the richness of that experience is nourished by it.

Being born in such a land is pure luck, and for an artist especially it is very great luck indeed, because you get a firsthand acquaintance with art and artists of every culture.

 But entering the academy and then rejecting that training was also a big adventure for me. It was thanks to that that I found my own way and developed my own style, without being influenced by any other artist.

Ahmet Güneştekin superlatives

Among the three top income painters in Turkey based on earnings from art.
First in Turkey by average number of works sold.
Güneştekin, who reinvests in art what he earns from it, is building the largest art center in Turkey owned by an artist.
He has traveled to 5,000 villages in all provinces of Turkey.
He is the only artist who has held shows in 55 of Turkey’s 81 provinces.
He has held painting workshops for 10,000 children.
Together with other artists, he has organized art days in 39 provinces.