Painter, art teacher and basketball referee
Born in 1941 in Limassol
Humble in the service of art
Hardly a week has passed since the launch of my book Art and Creativity in North Cyprus, when I was asked, “Why was Salih Oral not included?” And I had to confess that I had never met him, never seen an exhibition by him in all the years that I have been in Cyprus, except one year ago at the United Nations exhibition Art Attack. There I saw one painting of his which documents his long-term involvement in basketball. But I had heard of him as an art teacher and in that capacity, he was highly praised.
So, with my new book in my bag I went to meet him at his home in the old Turkish quarter in Kyrenia just opposite the Orthodox Church, in a small house with a big garden all around where the noise and hectic world is excluded. Salih and his wife Fatma had moved back into the freshly renovated house only in November, so a lot of work awaits him in the garden, the sort of work he loves.
Salih and Fatma Oral, two tall people, greeted me at the entrance of the house, both very erect and good looking, with calm and friendly smiles. There are no paintings of his on the walls in the living room as I had expected, except one which was leaning against the wall, a recent painting in oil pastels, of Kyrenia harbour. “I had to get away from oil and acrylic; the vapours have become poisonous to my lungs. So for the last six years I have reduced my medium to pastel and colour-pencil. But this year, I will try to paint with acrylic again in the open air.” Later that morning, I could see that the old harbour of Kyrenia has very often drawn his artistic attention, but from most unusual angles, and painted in different styles and media, in oil, on canvas, on board, in a more graphic way, but always following the strict rules of composition.
“My understanding of monuments and their relation to nature and the human body goes back to my childhood in Limassol. I was born there in 1941. Art education in my time of elementary and secondary school education was next to nothing; there were hardly any educated art teachers and no material available such as art books or materials. My first contact with the arts was through an painter of film posters – in those days, each film poster was painted by hand. I stood there watching him, there, outside the old Rialto Cinema; or the artist who did the advertisements for Coca Cola on huge canvasses. Later, I was to do posters myself, big sized ones where I needed help to finish them. And yes, while we are at it, I also did the slides for the cinemas, for film announcements and advertising.” I now learn that the young Salih Oral copied everything which came into his hands in order to learn from it, and this he did on any kind of material to hand. His teacher was most impressed with the relief he cut in marble of King George, the model for which he took from the back of coins.
“In secondary school, I began to do drawings in the surrounding areas of Limassol, for example the Kolossi, the old castle. We kids travelled there by bike and it was great fun and there was the wide world for me to discover, the wide world of beautiful details.”
I remember my own young days when the bicycle meant freedom for us. You saw more because you were not bound to go the proscribed, manmade ways. Did he have many friends and what were they doing together, what games were they playing?
“I have always been very involved in sports since I was very young: biking, swimming, football and basket ball and for my sports clubs, I used to record the sports events by drawing them. And all my life, I have never stopped investing my time and work in our sports. For example, I was the basketball referee for over fifty years. Hence the background for the painting you saw at the UN art exhibition.”
Salih Oral grew up with the idea of studying art one day, although he was very good at sciences and had great interest in geography. In his college years, he started to earn some money as a sign writer, as his parents had restricted income with three children to care for. His father worked in the harbour and his mother earned some extra money doing the famous Cypriot lace work and crocheting.
“Another source of income was sign writing; it is a discipline in itself; it was the background for my later studies of calligraphy, very helpful. Whatever you do in life, has an impact on your further development.”
In 1963 Salih Oral went to Ankara to study the arts at the Gazi Educational Institute with the intention of becoming an art teacher. He had very good teachers, among them the renowned Adnan Turani, Turan Erol and Refik Efikman (painters) and Mürcede Icmeli (graphic designer). “I enjoyed the time tremendously in Ankara as I learned so many things about the arts and we students had access to all disciplines. At that time, there were other Cypriot art students like Günay Güzelgün, Özden Selenge; my very close friends were the Turkish artists Hayati Misman and Hasan Pekmeci, both well known artists. Only recently, Hayati Misman showed his great graphic work in Nicosia. Those were fruitful years. For our holidays, I was unable to return to Cyprus as the police would have arrested me as one of the fighters against Eoka. But there was so much to do at the Gazi Institute, and since I was also very interested in classical music, I was often a guest at their concerts.”
Does he think that music has a great influence on people, I ask him.
“Oh yes, definitely. It has a great influence just as all creative activities have a positive impact on the personality of a person, especially young ones. In clinics, arts and music are often used as therapies. The act of creating or performing results in a sort of affirmation of individual values.” The knowledge of this effect makes a good teacher, doesn’t it? He nods, Yes.
Salih Oral graduated in 1968 and went back home to Limassol where he started teaching in secondary schools. “There, in 1970, I met my wife Fatma. That is, my sister’s daughter told me one day that she had a very nice teacher and that I should marry her, which I eventually did.” How obedient Salih is to the women in his family. Fatma came from Paphos. They have two daughters who both became art teachers which was to be expected with a father who is a teacher of teachers.
“You know, my art teaching to children – or later to teachers-to-be – included not only the basics of art but also handicrafts, working with wood, and especially for children, a playful approach to arts. A mind can only develop imagination when it is free and not forced or fed with unnecessary information. I went around the island quite a lot as do all teachers. Usually it was a two-year-turn, but then after 1974 when the Green Line was established and we were made to move north, we landed in Kyrenia, where I first taught at the Anafartarlar School. Finally, in 1975, I became a teacher to future teachers at the Kyrenia Teachers Training College, where I taught for 20 years altogether.”
I can hardly stop Salih, he is concentrating so deeply on the curriculum of his teaching life that I wonder when he had found time to work for himself, just for himself.
“Oh, I did that in the evenings. I had a tight schedule, because in the afternoons I gave lessons, private art lessons, and I had good students.” I can confirm that, because later in the morning Salih took me to his studio across the yard. He showed me some drawings, life drawings done by some very talented students of his, some of whom I knew personally. Salih Oral concentrates on teaching them drawing, drawing still life and anatomy with pencil and charcoal which is the basic of it all. They used to go out for the day to work amongst nature, work and celebrate with a picnic. The success of a teacher can be recognized by the success of his students in later life. And of that there is plenty of evidence.
While we were going through his life which is marked by incessant work, Salih gave me a photo album to peruse and I am really shocked that these poorly taken photos are the only evidence of his life’s work. But nevertheless, I can clearly recognize the value of it. There are several distinct and different periods in his art life, the purely graphic period which I personally like best as it touches something in me; it has such a clear message. Then he went through a phase of constructing his paintings using a philosophical approach right through to abstraction. Looking over the entire span of his work I can recognize that love for his country, for people and family life is his basic motivation. His deep feelings for nature especially come through in his paintings of farm workers, harvesting and traditional values. With his carefully balanced presentation of light, space and body mass, geometrically painted, he has succeeded most successfully in making us see the atmosphere, and there is in all his paintings a kind of tension exciting the eye and mind.
“First for me comes composition, then the colour – I love colours, warm and exciting – and only then do I regard the theme. Yes, I want to bring out the essential and I leave out all distracting details, concentrating on the balanced laws of nature and physics. I think that I was the first Turkish Cypriot artist to use graphic understanding in my painting. I considered it highly important to include graphic work in my teaching at the Teachers’ Training College such as wood prints or lino cuts, engraving on metal.” It has to be mentioned that there were no printing presses in North Cyprus to be had, it was only by physical hand pressure that prints could be made.
Now that the house is theirs again after renovation, Salih Oral will continue to give art lessons, though reduced, and as long as his students take the trouble to come all the way from Lefke or Famagusta to learn from him, he will gladly share his knowledge, experience and time. “The others who don’t do the homework I give them need not come; it is only a waste of time.” And time is something which runs out so easily. Salih Oral has not been competing with others, he never made a show of himself, as he expresses it; he has remained humble in the service of art.