Love on Canvas: How A Swiss Artist Came to Istanbul in the 80s

We are sitting in the living room of the Swiss artist Ursula Katipoglu in Kuzguncuk, a calm quartier of Istanbul. There are paintings of hers and of her husband on […]

We are sitting in the living room of the Swiss artist Ursula Katipoglu in Kuzguncuk, a calm quartier of Istanbul. There are paintings of hers and of her husband on the walls: Ursula´s paintings are showing colourful abstractions mostly of mountains and cities. Yusuf´s paintings, in contrast, are telling stories in sober colours. Ursula is originally from a rural region of south-east Switzerland, and Yusuf comes from Trabzon. They have been living and painting in Kuzguncuk for over 35 years.

Let us start from the beginning of the story: In 1978 Ursula and her friend came to the north-east province Trabzon at the Black Sea for vacation. There Ursula met one of the few artists of the city, the painter Yusuf Katipoğlu. Back in Switzerland, she organized an exposition for Yusuf with a friendly gallery owner to which Yusuf went with the slides of his works one year later. One year and many letters later, Ursula decided to move to Istanbul and continue her artistic career in Turkey.

Ursula Katipoglu
Ursula Katipoglu

Together with Yusuf she rented an apartment in Kuzguncuk and started to discover the city on the Bosporus through numerous excursions with the eyes of a curious artist. Especially her impressions about Istanbul´s architecture changed the style of her works in the course of the first years: In Switzerland she had received a classic art education and had also worked with traditional glass painting but now her art became more and more abstract. Ursula talks about market stands which were still covered with fabrics sewn together from different and varicoloured materials back then. “Such impressions were transformed to abstract paintings on the canvas.”

However, what did it mean for a Swiss artist to come to Turkey in the 80s? Ursula remembers: “Then, there was a pretty closed art community, less impact from Europe and just a few art galleries.” In contrast to Europe, painting had just a few well-known representatives in Turkey and no sweeping tradition. The Turkish appreciation of art was limited to craft-work like carpet weaving, fabrication of embroidery or the production of crockery. Even today it is an exception to put paintings on walls instead of religious messages, wedding pictures or kilims.

Although Ursula´s colourful oil paintings aroused huge interest in the art scene of the 80s among “dark, more melancholic paintings”, as she describes, she and her husband could not afford their living only through art and the money put aside was hardly enough for one year. Therefore, they exhibited their works in Switzerland now and then. In answer to the question of why she has stayed in Istanbul and not returned to Switzerland, she says promptly and clearly: “Yusuf couldn’t stand living there.”

Swiss Artist Istanbul

Has she missed anything? Yes! For a long time, she could not join discussions and participate in more serious conversations, which was because of two reasons: On the one hand, language courses were hardly in demand during the 80s, the time of the military coup in Turkey. On the other hand, she focused rather on visual aspects as an artist. Hence, it took her a long time to have command of the Turkish language. For the education of her two sons, she prioritized then the Turkish language in order to offer them, as children of a foreigner, a linguistic uniformity and therefore avoid confusion. Moreover, she did not see any necessity to teach the boys Swiss German. Standard German is a kind of foreign language for her although it is familiar to her sons

Swiss Painter Ursula KatipogluUrsula tells us that till this day money is not spent for art in Turkey, there are rarely collectors and art classes in schools are unfortunately not seen as important. The artists of Kuzguncuk draw back more and more. Touristic hypes prevail in the nostalgic quartier at the base of the Bosporus bridge. Ten years ago Ursula tried with other artists to carry art on streets; however, her opinion is that today just the newly rich buy “decorations” without any interest for art.

In the past ten years Ursula and Yusuf exhibit successfully in the gallery in Kuzguncuk often times, but in Switzerland their last organized exhibition was ten years ago. High custom stipulations turn exhibitions outside Turkey to a very expensive undertaking.  Yet, within the framework of a family organized and consciously small exposition they could again present their works there in fall 2014.

Ursula wonders sometimes: “What would I have done if I had stayed in Switzerland?” and she answers pleased: “I think that Turkey was good for me.”

We leave the final word to her. “You may also say that young art gets more in demand but old artists don’t want to face up this hustle and bustle of competition. I think you´re getting slowly older,” she says and laughs.

Text: Cornelia Belkin, Tuğba Yalçınkaya Translation: Serap Güngör

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