born in Evdim/Limassol in 1935
Passionate pioneer of Turkish Cypriot abstract art
In the beautiful Old City of Famagusta, in one of the side streets not far from the cathedral/mosque, is the Menteş Art Gallery which has been run by Ayhan Menteş and his wife Ayten since 1985. Mrs Menteş sat at her desk by the door supervising the curiosity section, which has all sorts of souvenirs for sale. But mingled among these are beautiful abstract paintings by her husband hanging on walls or stacked up on the floor. I turned to meet the artist, a white-haired man of 70 with a handsome smile, who welcomes me.... and I felt myself transported into another time. Ayhan Menteş is a passionate man with eyes which show he has lived and tasted all the many shades of life, from poverty and bitterness to love, recognition and success; a wide span indeed.
To understand the people I interview I have to return to their very childhood; this gives me the key to unlock their personality. Then I glean further information from the artists' work, the feelings they express and the words they use when they talk about it - and from their body language. I felt I could read Ayhan Menteş like a book, and my eyes followed his grand gestures used to emphasise his words.
“I was born in 1935 in Evdim, a village not far from Limassol, the son of farmers,” he said. “My father was a very generous man, and although he never understood my art, he was proud of me - I realised that only much later when I moved out of the house and took my pictures from the wall.” With these words Ayhan got up, opened his arms wide and, with tears in his eyes, said: “I had never realised that he was proud of me.”
“We owned two oxen, one horse, one donkey and some goats. I drank the milk of the horse next to her foal and I think she loved me as much as she did her foal, as she one day protected me from a dangerous snake.”
Life on the farm was simple, but for Ayhan it was a rich world for discovering rocks, shells, insects, the bright light and heat of summer in its overpowering simplicity and the cold nights in winter, when the family sat around the fire telling stories. Everything in nature had a meaning for him, and the many forms he encountered led him to draw and record it in his mind. His young life was imbued with the colour and legends of his country and it was no wonder that he became a supported pupil of his art teachers.
In 1950, at the age of 14, Ayhan was invited to go and live with his uncle in Ankara, where for four years he attended one of the best schools. It was there that he gained access to all sorts of new experiences. “I discovered museums, the opera, libraries with their immense world of knowledge new to me, galleries and the art life that goes with it,” he said. “I was able to discuss art with real artists and I lived on a completely different level compared with how I lived in my homeland Cyprus. Turkey had just opened her doors to foreign cultural bodies and that is where I went; I studied languages at the various institutes, watched films, studied books and magazines, especially on art. With the help of a present from my biology teacher - a microscope - I was introduced to a different world of micro-cosmos and the sketches I made from this I used later in my paintings.”
Back in Cyprus for his holidays, he was thrown back into the reality of sheer poverty, working in a brick factory, far away from the luxury of easy access to books and knowledge.
“What I did at the factory involved clay and I formed it taking as models everything in nature, at the same time using my recollection of historical artefacts. Being a frequent visitor of ethnology museums, I had no difficulty finding the clues which led to the culture in Cyprus - the Hittites, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Europeans, Ottomans - and all the cultures in between which came to the island and brought their goods for trading, which influenced the basic patterns in my people's crafts: carpet making, woodcarving, embroidery and many others crafts.”
He took much pleasure and interest in finding out all he could about the origins of the symbols for heaven and earth, man and woman, fertility and nature. Wherever he lived and worked, he was frantically on the lookout for books, in which he could find what he was looking for: answers to the burning questions inside him.
“On one of my walks through the city of Ankara, I one day discovered in an antique art dealer's shop prints of Willy Baumeister, a German abstract painter (1889-1955) from Stuttgart who did much to promote abstract art in Germany.” He was fascinated. (Abstract art was convenient after WW II, as figurative art was regarded as Nazi art). The find had a great influence on him and his own abstract art.
When Ayhan returned to Cyprus he did several jobs to eke out a living: he painted pictures for tourists, translated books, mainly fables and legends, and once, he worked as an interpreter at the criminal court which certainly helped him to further improve his English.
Not for the first time, he met somebody who saw his pictures and advised him to work for a teaching certificate and to pursue further education through a scholarship. He worked hard for admission to the Teachers' Training College in Morphou/Güzelyurt.
Throughout that time in the 1950´s - suffering from the outbreak of terrorist activities - his paintings became violent, disharmonious in colour and form; nightmares, mirroring his soul.
All through his years of learning, Ayhan Menteş was encouraged by art teachers, such as Stelios Votsis, a contemporary Greek Cypriot artist, from whom he learnt the psychological approach to art. For example that the colours blue and yellow represent suffering (see Picasso in his blue period). But suffer the artist must, because only then does he attain maximum creativity. Votsis also said that creativity was the basis for humanity.
“In those years of terrorism and unrest, Turkish Cypriots developed a strong need to uphold their culture as a sign of national pride, and so I wrote down all the collected legends and wrote short stories,” he said. One of the books will be published shortly. He sees writing as similar to sculpting: through shaping words, a form is created.
At the end of the 1950's Ayhan was granted a scholarship at the Gazi Educational Institute in Ankara but before he left Cyprus he became engaged to 16-year-old Ayten Asım.
“When I returned to Cyprus in 1961 my art was still viewed with mistrust and little understanding as people were struggling to meet their daily needs. But then one day, a gallery in Larnaca took my pictures – which made it possible for us to marry,” he said. Then two of my pictures went to London for an exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute Art Gallery which was opened by Queen Elizabeth II herself, and I even sold one. I was delirious with joy and hope, because it was my first experience of international recognition.”
Many people died in the years after 1963. His school was burned down with his books, paintings and sculptures. His wife left him with the two children to live in a safer place and he had to flee from his home. He lived in a shack in the poorest of circumstances, but he continued to paint there and withdrew spiritually into the world of Buddhism. These years of conflict left their scar on Ayhan. He was ailing in spirit, struggling against the odds, but doctors could not pinpoint what was wrong with him.
“Just in time, another angel of destiny entered my life in the guise of Dr. Rommel, who helped me win a scholarship at London University. London was a fascinating place for me not only from the point of view of culture and knowledge, but also because of its multicultural society. I came in contact with Far Eastern art, its psychology, and it impressed me deeply. I had the opportunity to travel and I visited all the important places for art on the Continent - France, Germany, Italy - where I sometimes paid my hotel bills with sketches and paintings.” Three months before his time in London was up, his wife came to London and he introduced her to all its marvels. But then they decided it was time to return to Cyprus and they did so in 1970.
“There, at the Namik Kemal School in Famagusta, I finally started teaching art and art history,” he said. “No-one can imagine the horrors we went through in those times until 1974 when the Turkish Army landed before the evil (Akritas) plan could be carried out to annihilate all Turkish life on the island.”
Slowly life became manageable again. In 1985 he and his wife opened their art gallery, and tourists flowed back into the city. Ayhan was appointed president of the Cyprus Plastic Arts Association.
Turkish Cypriot artists started to show their art, first nationally then internationally and through these exhibitions links were made to the outside art world. Ayhan had long-standing connections with Germany, and was now able to follow them up, often being invited to put on solo exhibitions there.
Ayhan Menteş has come a long way; he is still painting and thus carrying forward the cultural heritage of Cyprus. Today, he has his collectors and friends worldwide, and from among them, I leave Professor Bruno Cora, of Perugia Academy in Italy, to deliver this conclusion:
“The symbolic language in Ayhan Menteş's pictures has its origin in ethnographic sources and in his sub-consciousness. With their mystical forms and poetic expressions, they convince us of his deep love for life”.
(Published in Cyprus Today on November 11, 2006)
-A new book has been published “Abstraction in Visual Art – comparing the art forms of the ancient orient compared to art forms of modern Europe.” The research was carried out by Winald Stöppel for his Dphil thesis at the Bauhaus University Weimar, Germany, on the basis of his studies of the work of Turkish Cypriot painter Ayhan Menteş. ISBN No 978-3-86624-350-7 – www.dissertation.de -
-At present, Ayhan Mentes is trying his hand and eternally-young brain at digital art. He finds learning new techniques most exciting and interesting.
-He is still searching for and translating old fairy tales from around the world and translating them into Turkish. I told him to have this collection published and translated into other languages; if he doesn't, they will be lost and forgotten.
-There is a most wonderful book he showed me “Anadolou Motifleri” by Mine Erbek with more than 50,000 old motives of Turkish culture.
Copyright Heidi Trautmann