On Cengiz Çekil: In Conversation with Vahap Avşar

Cengiz Çekil, installation view from With a Cleaning Cloth, Rampa, İstanbul, 2013. Photo by Nathalie Barki. SALT Research, Cengiz Çekil Archive.

The below text is part of a series of monographic responses to the works of the late artist Cengiz Çekil (1945–2015). For this series, we invited artists and writers to write on Çekil’s conceptually rigorous, formally sparse practice, to be able to situate his works in the here and the now. Çekil’s use of quotidian materials to contemplate and comment on the trying circumstances in his native Turkey presents a visual lexicon that is straight-forward and condemning. His works retain their modus operandi of resistance, a politically charged concept that became a malleable, tangible material in his hands. As we try to grapple with what it means to publish with the artist at the center, his insistence on artists taking charge of their own processes of historicization comes to mind—”if not you, then who?”

As part of this series, I initiated the below conversation with artist Vahap Avşar after Çekil’s passing in 2016, via e-mails between New York and Istanbul. Over the years, in many conversations with both artists that I now regret not having recorded, I understood the mutual impact that they had on each other’s practices, evolving from a student-teacher relationship to Avşar becoming instrumental in the re-productions of Çekil’s earlier works from the 70s in the 2000s as a collaborator. In this conversation, we trace the lineages of concepts and forms that are indicative of the generative relationship between the two artists.
—Merve Ünsal

Cengiz Çekil, Manifesto III, 1977, seal print on manifold paper, 7 sets of 4 manifestos, 30 x 21 cm each. SALT Research, Cengiz Çekil Archive.

Merve Ünsal: I would like to start off this conversation with the last body of work that Cengiz Çekil started but unfortunately could not finish. For this series, he was working on and with the word “bedava.” Bedava, as in “free”–gratis–, is a notion, often used in marketing in Turkey. How did Çekil relate to this notion? 

Vahap Avşar: The first time I recall Cengiz Çekil talking about the concept of “bedava” was in the summer of 2013. He was thinking about making some paintings with the word “bedava” for a long time. He was obsessed with the concept itself—marketers giving things away as a tool to trick customers. You open up Hürriyet—a mainstream newspaper that Cengiz was subscribed to—, and there are pages and pages of ads targeting people with lower incomes. Cengiz seemed surprised to see that this deceptive marketing appeared to work well as a sales strategy and he explored it as a pervasive human condition. He talked about “bedava” as a universal concept and connected it to religion.

Cengiz Çekil, Yes!, 1982–86, painting with mixed media. SALT Research, Cengiz Çekil Archive.

MÜ: He insisted that human beings believing something could be free is age-old, as well as the harsh reality that nothing is really free, including the apple that Eve picked. We could perhaps talk about his tendency to connect things “universally” through specific words and notions here.

VA: Cengiz was analytical in his thinking. He would pick a word or concept that bothered or excited him, turn it around in his head for a long time until he found, what he called a “universal truth.” Words or concepts would usually come out of his daily life as a result of the sociopolitical situation in Turkey, as in the case of “bedava” phenomenon. He would take that key word, cross-pollinate it with concepts from his knowledge of visual arts, philosophy, or politics, then have these large, encompassing theories, something he would call a “human condition” or “the drama of humanity.”

When he talked about his obsession with the “bedava” phenomenon, he would mention how the marketers cleverly used the “free” concept to deceive and lure the customers because since the time of hunter-gatherers, human beings always wanted things to be free—the idea of harvesting, hunting, collecting without the hard work of growing. He then talked about religions using this concept to keep masses together with the promise of heaven where everything is free.

Cengiz Çekil, Text-Image/Yes No: 6, 1985, sketch. SALT Research, Cengiz Çekil Archive.

MÜ: Thinking about this relationship between language/concepts and visual works, do you think Çekil was a visual thinker? How did he go back and forth between visual language and verbal language? What was the process of transformation like?

VA:  I don’t think Cengiz was a visual thinker as much an analytical thinker. Concepts and words triggered his mind. I think “bedava” was not interesting to him as a typographical gesture but as a social concept. We may never know this with certainty as he never realized this project, but I know how he made the Evet (“yes” in Turkish) paintings in 1985. In that project, he was talking about two concepts: one, the state’s brutality and agenda to censor, oppress, and watch individuals after the military coup and two, individuals’ helplessness under the totalitarian regime. He talked about how people say “yes” to everything the state dictates under torture. In those paintings, he simply combined these two concepts using commercial sign paintings, with a play in perspective and using color theories. During the making of the work, typically for a long period of time, he would focus on a single concept, which was a generative process for him. The Evet paintings also employed the flatness of miniatures and used the iconography and tradition of Alevi “word pictures” (yazı resim) [1]

Concepts played the most important role and visual elements were important but secondary in his process. He did not draw or paint regularly. He worked with ready-made objects. He collected materials but would not turn them into works immediately. He would collect them then fight with them sometimes for decades before transforming them into artworks.

Of course, there was also the concept of avant-garde, which he held up high as a criteria or his modus operandi for every single project he did. Everything he made had to be new and pioneering. He was constantly searching for the cardinal truth in art making.

Installation view from Cengiz Çekil, Waxings (1999),including the artist, İletişim Bookstore, Izmir. SALT Research, Cengiz Çekil Archive.

MÜ: In thinking about flatness as a surface both in and out of painting, I want to talk about Mumlamalar (Waxings) (1999), which is a series of square paintings on jut where Çekil used candles and smoke to create geometric forms. The relationship with “muska” [2], a trope he uses in this work, both in form and in function, strikes me as a direct reference to art as a holder of some sort of a healing power.

VA:  In this body of work, Cengiz borrows a method from traditional healers—healers use smoke as a result of a burning candle and attaching a small fetish object on to the cloth of the person they are healing.

For instance, Cengiz uses healers’ strategies in Yaşanmış Bir Yılın Takvimi (Calendar of a Year Lived) from 1977. Again using fume as a painting material, the artist methodologically marks the days with crosses on a piece of fabric—there are no numbers or words on this calendar, but just the marks of days past. There he uses wax and paint on a canvas rolled like a traditional wall calendar to create a logo with the letter A and M, which means vagina in Turkish (am). He talked about being influenced by the book he read early on about Anadolu Büyüleri (Anatolian Spells) and Cinsel Büyüler (Sexual Spells) by İsmet Zeki Eyüboğlu [3].

Cengiz Çekil, Waxings, 1999, mixed media on jut, 50 x 50 cm each. SALT Research, Cengiz Çekil Archive.
Cengiz Çekil, Waxings (detail), 1999, mixed media on jut, 50 x 50 cm each. SALT Research, Cengiz Çekil Archive.
Cengiz Çekil, Calendar of a Year Lived, 1977, wax and paint fume on fabric, 90 x 200 cm. SALT Research, Cengiz Çekil Archive.

MÜ: I want to continue with Temizlik Bezi İle (With a Cleaning Cloth) from 2013, a 144-piece installation made up of 81 x 60 cm framed canvases with their backs facing the viewer. Çekil repeated the same form on each piece, stretching a generic bright yellow cleaning cloth using string, attached to the four corners of the frame so that the curves of the cleaning cloths look like the outlines of the female genitalia. Different colors were used for the background, in what the artist has stated to signify the stages of a bruise. Also included in the compositions are different types of lace, which frame both the cleaning cloths and covers the frames. This work was heavily criticized by several women artists for having a male-oriented perspective on violence and the female body. Çekil was hesitant when starting this project. I remember him saying that he wanted to make sure the work was not just about the “fantasies of a middle-aged man” [4]. He spent a lot of time figuring out the materials and the format.

VA:  Cengiz was concerned about how violence against women has been normalized within the society he lived in and how institutional structures failed to fight against this violence. Spending time with him in his studio, talking for hours and helping him with this project, I realized that he was fascinated by the dualities he was creating with this work: cleaning cloth (labor) versus fetish cloth (leisure), violence (bruise purple) versus eroticism (white or black lace), the masculine (himself) versus the feminine (what he was trying to understand), to name a few.

Cengiz Çekil, With a Cleaning Cloth, 2013, mixed media, 81 x 60 cm. SALT Research, Cengiz Çekil Archive.

MÜ: He wanted the work to speak for itself and for people to be able to react to it from their own experiences. I’m drawn to think about Obsession (1974), which was exhibited at Rampa in 2013 alongside With a Cleaning Cloth. Obsession is a framed object that resembles a spider’s web, with an unzipped, black leather pencil case in the middle; the teeth of the zipper and the form of the pencil case are suggestive of the female form again, but there is violence within the form this time. These are the two works that deal with sexuality directly. I think their being exhibited next to each other was a problematic curatorial decision—the two works were in full opposition to the point of neutralizing their respective statements. Obsession is what its name denotes and there is something elegant about how direct it is. This work has the mechanics of the coca-cola bottles of Çocukluğa Doğru, Çocukluktan Beri – (Towards Childhood, Since Childhood) (1975), transforming a familiar object, and the ready-made in Su Isıtma Aleti – (Water Heating Tool) (1977)—it transforms a quotidian object in a straight-forward way. You helped him re-produce this work in 2013. I remember he was hesitant to re-produce it. Why? 

VA: This body of work is a perfect starting point to examine the dualism Cengiz bred his whole life. I’m talking about the dualism as a result of it, his dilemma of being from a rural town but claiming the cardinal point of intellectualism (which is typically reserved for the affluent metropolitans), his support for the minority and the oppressed as opposed to his love for the Republic of Turkey, his sensitivity to feminist issues as opposed to the super macho personality he displayed, and the list goes on.

Cengiz wanted people to think he has made the work partly on the issue of domestic violence. That was the layer he added with the color purple in the background used in With a Cleaning Cloth. I remember that in the beginning of the process, he was working with the color salmon and talking about how that was the most popular color for the interiors of houses in small towns in Turkey. He introduced the color purple later in the process. My question is whether the color purple was a smoke screen disguising his real intent or reasons behind making the work to begin with. Çekil “the man” was obsessed the idea and materiality of the cleaning cloth and the lace on the back of a canvas but after contemplating on how to transform it into an artwork, Çekil “the conceptual artist” felt the need to add a layer which would complete the work and to avoid it being “plain.” We will never be able to find the real answer as to why he felt that need or to make that leap.

Cengiz was hesitant to re-produce Obsession partly because he thought it was a juvenile work. He produced very few works during his 50-year career as an artist. The reason why I pushed him to re-produce the work Towards childhood, since childhood as well as Obsession (both works he made for a show in Paris in the 70s and both got lost) is because they were very important works in his oeuvre—the use of ready-made objects in simple sculptural compositions to relay his ideas was a method and form he would return to over and over again throughout his practice—and we only had old photos of them.

Cengiz Çekil, Obsession, 1974, wood, wallet, linen yarn, 250 x 250 x 25 cm. SALT Research, Cengiz Çekil Archive.
Cengiz Çekil, Obsession, detail, 1974, wood, wallet, linen yarn, 250 x 250 x 25 cm. SALT Research, Cengiz Çekil Archive.

MÜ: Energy, resistance, and human resilience are paramount for many of Çekil’s works. I was recently thinking about  Uyandırma, İletişim Taşı (Awakening, Communication Stone) from 1987 and I was struck by the latent energy of this work—a stone that can be violent, stagnant as an object, standing in for that very simple yet invasive act of violence, throwing a stone through somebody’s window. In Turkey, the stone thrown at the window serves as a “warning.” In Saklı Işık (Clandestine Light) also from 1987, construction supplies, fluorescent lights, electrical cables, and cerecloth are used to create a geometric sculpture lit from within. It also has this ominous quality, delineating the outside from the inside, creating a space that we can only access through the emanated light, set up on a piece of cerecloth. Cerecloth formally connects these works, but I also suspect there is something about the resilience through distilling life-threatening events into these anti-monuments. Through these commonplace objects and minimal compositions, Çekil appears to merely point to trauma, both personal and social, creating iconographies that are very bare-bone.

VA: Awakening, Communication Stone is reminiscent of personal traumas. My studio where we spent a lot of time together was upstairs from his apartment in Bornova, a brand new town with rows of apartment buildings erected overnight on top of farmland, grape vines in the fertile ground in the mouth of the Izmir gulf. The town was laying new cobblestones in the area. One night I picked four or five of them and brought them to my studio. They were about 10 x 10 x 10 cm cubes cut out of granite. We talked about how they were beautiful but violent objects. They sat on my shelf for a long time and one day Cengiz came up with an idea: He wanted make a “communication stone.” He wrapped one in heavy weight canvas. We stamped his initials and packed it with steel string. The object he designed was almost a sign or signifier for the way and which the society we lived in operated. There is a constant threat of danger and this violence is just sitting there, ready to become a perpetration at a moment’s notice.

Awakening, Communication Stone was inspired by an experience Çekil had in the late 70s. He was teaching art at a middle school in Van, in the early 70s right after he returned from Paris as part of a mandatory assignment. This was a payback to the state for the grant he was given to study at Beaux Arts in Paris. There were people who were not happy about his dedication and unusual ways of teaching and being. One night he woke up to the shattering of a window in his bedroom; he dived from bed to the floor where several bullets had missed him. He also knew the episode I lived through where a rock destroyed the window of our living room in Malatya in 1980, which led us to flee, uprooting my family in ways we never recovered from.

Cengiz Çekil, Awakening, Communication Stone, 1987, stone, fabric, packaging tape, paint, 10.5 x 9 x 9 cm. SALT Research, Cengiz Çekil Archive.

MÜ: Terry Eagleton proposes that tragedy can be used to describe not only an unexpected, striking event, but a chronic and more plain situation: “. . . but there are steady-state as well as big-bang tragedies, in the form of the sheer dreary persistence of certain hope-less, obscure conditions, like a dull bruise in the flesh” [5]. It is possible to say that Çekil works with tragedy and the sheer plainness of it. His objects from everyday life create a lexicon of pain, pain of the everyday, using the everyday, transforming the everyday.

Cengiz Çekil, Installation view from 2010 of Clandestine Light, 1987. SALT Research, Cengiz Çekil Archive.


[1]  Yazı resim, literally translated as word or text pictures or paintings, is a tradition in calligraphy of writing so that the words resemble forms. This tendency could be related to the notion of iconography and religious symbolisms of embodiment and unity of existence.

[2] Muska is an often triangle-shaped talisman, carried on the body to drive away illnesses and negative energies.

[3] Both books deal with the different traditions of spells and non-religious belief systems in Anatolia, highlighting the incongruity between Islam and these deeply rooted practices. Eyüboğlu also talks about the Islamic clergymen’s use of Anatolian traditions to “treat” people. Both books are only available in Turkish as of yet.

[4] Notes from a conversation with the artist, 2011. 

[5] Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (Wiley-Blackwell: Hoboken, 2002).

Cengiz Çekil, Calendar of a Year Lived, sketch. SALT Research, Cengiz Çekil Archive.

Vahap Avşar was born in Malatya in 1965. He graduated from the Painting Department in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Dokuz Eylül University in 1989. He met Cengiz Çekil and worked as an assistant at his sculpture studio. Avşar pursued his master’s degree in Design and Architecture in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Bilkent University, Ankara, where he worked as a research assistant. In 1992, he went to the Netherlands as part of an international study program and studied at the Ateliers Arnhem. In 1995, he completed his doctoral degree in Painting at Bilkent University. Avşar settled down in New York after his residency program in 1995. He had a break from producing art and started making art again in early 2008. Since then, Avşar has had several solo exhibitions and has participated in many group exhibitions in Turkey, the Netherlands, the U.S., Germany, France, Cuba, Canada, and the Dominican Republic. In addition to his art, he co-founded Brooklyn Industries. Avşar lives and works in New York.

Merve Ünsal is a visual artist based in Istanbul. In her work, she employs text and photography, extending both beyond their form. She has participated in artist residencies at the University of Delaware, Lewes; Delfina Foundation, London; Praksis, Oslo; the Banff Centre; Fogo Island Arts; and was a participant in the Homework Space Program 2014–15 at Ashkal Alwan, Beirut. Ünsal holds a MFA in Photography and Related Media from Parsons The New School of Design and a BA in Art and Archaeology from Princeton University. She is the founding editor of m-est.org.