Have you ever had a room full of strangers standing before your artwork, paralyzed, with tears running down their cheeks? Sarp Kerem Yavuz has! Dr. Askel Casson was excited to bring this French-Turkish visual artist onto campus on February 27th after months of planning in collaboration with the International Arts and Culture Series, Center for Middle East Studies, Art Department, and Gender Studies Program. Yavuz graduated from Oberlin College in 2013, in Dr. Casson’s hometown, and works with photography, light production, and video as a multimedia artist. His art is powerful, touching on father-son relationships, traditional Turkish designs, and tear gas while exploring many aspects of gender, politics, religion, and violence. “He’s the perfect guest,” expressed Dr. Casson. “Not only is he relatable because he’s only four years out of college, but he also talks about his experiences in ways that intersect with so many disciplines, from gender to politics to his identity as a foreign student and a gay man. He’s able to share his creative process without holding anything back.”
After spending his morning with Dr. Casson exploring Pittsburgh for the first time and stopping by The Mattress Factory, Yavuz held a workshop for Professor Katherine Mickle’s Photography course in the Graphic Design Studio. Student A. J. Miller, a senior Mathematics and Art major with a Statistics minor, was extremely touched that Yavuz asked about Miller’s work, noting that Yavuz took the time to review each student’s work on an individual basis and provide feedback about the student’s “elevator pitches” for their artwork. By six o’clock, over seventy-five students were assembled in Vincent 116 to hear Yavuz’s story, some for a second time!
Yavuz’s first work touched on the universal subject of “Daddy Issues,” as he was intrigued to learn more about father-son relationships because he grew up without a father-figure after his parent’s divorce. During his freshman year at Oberlin College, Yavuz began working on “Substitutes For My Father,” for which he spent the next four years taking photographs and collecting stories. In 2013, Yavuz opened his first exhibit, displaying the photographs, overlaid with selected texts in a powerful and beautiful way that protected anonymity. Just as those viewing this exhibit were moved to speechlessness, the audience sat eagerly waiting to hear about his subsequent works.
Transitioning to the subjects of gender and identity, Yavuz reflected on his experiences at Oberlin. In particular, he recalled noticing how sensual many of his male counterparts were with each other, particularly his friends on the soccer team in their locker room. Knowing that he was gay at twelve years old, Yavuz commented that though the locker room etiquette was non-sexual in nature, his mere presence as an outsider made it so. Therefore, he questioned if these straight men, who were so comfortable in their own skin with their daily activities, could be photographed and framed in a way that might appear to be eroticized by outsiders. Named after popular Levi jeans at the time, Relaxed & Straight was his next work in combination with his “In the Closet” series.
Yavuz then explored Middle Eastern politics with the audience, speaking of his participation in the Arab Spring protests, where some of his friends were tear gassed and imprisoned for fighting the existing and oppressive government and its policies. This inspired to Yavuz to create a piece that highlighted the police brutality without showing images that so many had become unsensitized to. At this time, he was introduced to AKIRA, a Japanese anime film that highlighted the conflict between a younger generation and the people in power tear gassing them, exactly as he had witnessed that summer. This sparked the creation of Revenge, a four-minute art film disguised as a pop song to show how desensitized to violence Turkey was becoming, masked with enticing and distracting images which ultimately blended together. “I really want to break your heart tonight,” the lyrics repeated, which Yavuz then negated in his next video entitled, Hollow, which repeated, “I lied before, I don’t want to break your heart.” Seeking to break the rules of not only politics but also religion, Yavuz’s showed pieces of his exhibit, Mashallah, which means “God bless” or “God
willing.” For this piece, he had used signifiers of the culture, the flowery patterns used to glorify Allah in Islam, transposed over men to create thought-provoking artifacts.
Always trying to create something new and unexpected, yet in line with his previous works, Yavuz wondered what his next move would be when he was asked to create an exhibit for a Turkish museum last year. As the maps of the moon were released, Yavuz remarked that women on one side of the world in America were stepping foot on the moon, while in Turkey, parents were keeping their twelve year old daughters at home from school. His next work would embody women as larger than life, with a map of the moon covering the floor, which women’s heels made impressions on, as it was made up of a spongy substrate. These tiles will be featured in his next work, Lunar.
Though the event was set to end at 7:30 pm, many students stayed until almost 8 pm, asking questions about Turkey’s current politics, his art, and his journey through undergrad. Following the event, one student tweeted, “Honestly, I went to this for extra credit, but I can’t get over how much I loved it. Wow.” Another posted, “Yesterday’s presentation was so great. I had no idea what I was in for with such a sensational (but as it turned out, extremely relevant) title, but whatever I expected, the reality was better.”