Heidi Trautmann

743 - Feminist CANAN carries the flag of Equality to Nicosia - A 2-day seminar at EMAA’s Nicosia

By Heidi Trautmann

 I will have to begin with the end of the evening, that is when I realised that I had left my car lights on and I had to return to the lit rooms of lecture and enlightenment still filled with young people and feminists to be, also some male ones, and had to confess to them quite timidly that I had a flat battery and that I had no booster cable, nor did I know how to open the bonnet – I had never done so before on this car of mine. Two young women helped me within no time and while driving home smiling awkwardly to myself I realised that I grew up in quite a different world and the fights that I had to carry out then were more silently done.

 My meeting CANAN, the artist, feminist and activist before the other guests came in, was a surprise to me, was she a normal good-naturedly looking woman with a warm smile which suited her so well, not at all what I expected from a feminist. The audience that came in were mostly young active looking women, some of them I knew, some young men were there also but who left early during the lecture.

CANAN – here I have to exlain that the lecturer and artist has a while ago changed her name to just CANAN, she has done away with her surname when she learnt the legal restrictions that are connected to the name change when divorced. So she is today nothing but herself. Canan was born in Istanbul in 1970 and first studied Economics and Administrative Sciences, then Painting, both at the Marmara University.  She was awarded prizes, had many successful solo exhibitions and took part in many international group exhibitions with her paintings, installations and video films. From 2006 onwards she was invited to do talks and lectures worldwide.

The group of feminists is – as I was told by my friend sitting next to me – much more active in Turkey than in Northern Cyprus; they have many more reasons to fight for she said. Society has changed massively in Turkey in the last years with pressure from many sides and to the occasional traveller to Istanbul for example more obvious by the women covered up; when ten years ago you would hardly see women with scarves, today you would hardly see one without.

Women’s fight for their rights has been a ever present phenomenon worldwide for the last century and women fought with all their means, CANAN does it with her art.  Women should be free to choose their way of life and should be equally treated in all respects as men are. However, the old image of womanhood still exists in the heads of the male world, in society and by governmental ruling parties; the scarf, the women’s behaviour, her body and sexuality, her freedom of movement,  all that has become a political tool.

CANAN explains her work and her views and experiences by showing examples of her art work on screen, she proves that the image of the Eastern woman in former times, the Odalisque and her duties has not changed much. She is still regarded as an object of lust and property.  With her lectures she not only wants to bring to the open the rights but also strengthen the confidence of women who do not dare to believe in their rights and generally obey the rules of society, and especially their family. She told us that ten years ago the daily death rate of women in Turkey killed by their family, husbands or lovers for jealousy or for family honour was about four, today we have to record seven on the list.

On CANAN’s  website  I found an interview, a journalist had conducted with her and there she says it more precisely.  

Before I let her speak with her own words,  I must congratulate her for her courage to continue her work for the women’s rights in our socalled modern times when these threats, also for other social and political reasons are increasing. However, I must observe for reasons of comparison that the situation of women in Western middle class societies has not changed much and many women would not even care to change anything. We also have women beaten up by their husbands or even killed, young women or children sexually abused and killed. There should be more intensive and professional ways of education in human  interactive cooperation between man and woman and within family life. Just recently there was the open call by a young female student complaining that she has learnt nothing about how to enter life as an independant  member of society, she has been taught maths and languages but not how to survive.

Her interview:

Canan Senol
'I am an activist, feminist artist'
Beginning this month I met the Turkish artist Canan Senol in Istanbul. (I visited Istanbul as part of the 2010 Orientation trip organized by among others the Mondriaan Foundation). One of the topics of our conversation was a recent video-animation of Canan Senol, entitledExemplary that is now being shown at the exhibition ACT V: POWER ALONE , (part of the year-long program Morality), in Witte de With in Rotterdam.


Comparing the politician to the artist, I think Canan Senols work provides a nuance and openness to the subject that is interesting.

Working on the interview with Canan Senol two weeks later coincided with the debate around Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new book Nomad and I realized that the two things had everything to do with each other. Both women are storytellers, and both tell the story of a woman in a period of transition, moving from a rural area to a modern city and society, resulting in the clash of modern secular values with the moral conservatives of religion, in this case Islam. In the book Nomad the protagonist is Ayaan Hirschi Ali herself, who recounts her personal journey from the pre-modern mindset of nomadic Somali society to a modern Western one. In the video-animation Exemplary the protagonist is Fadike, a Kurdish woman who moved from a small village at the countryside of Turkey to Istanbul. Ayaan Hirschi Ali’s book results in the searing indictment of the cult of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’ in the Netherlands, which according to her disables Muslims in the West from making the necessary ‘mental transition’ towards western values of freedom and democracy. Hirschi Ali’s story provides interesting and political daring viewpoints, but I have a problem with her one-sided point of view. Comparing the politician to the artist, I think Canan Senols work provides a nuance, openness and complexity to the subject that is interesting.

Ingrid Commandeur: The video-animation Exemplary tells the sad story of the beautiful Fadike, who has no other choice but to obey to the traditional, moral values of her ‘wicked’ mother. She ends up in a forced marriage and her husband sexually abuses their son. The only way Fadike is able to respond is to resign in her faith. Can you tell something about the background of this work?

Canan Senol: ‘In my work I’m concentrated on the very local and personal life of people, because I believe that the personal is the political. But my work also relates to geopolitics. Michel Foucault and his book on surveillance and punishment in which he develops the notion of present society in which everybody seeks to restrain themselves and live up to unstated expectations inspire me. Foucault uses the structure of the panoptic building, in the sense of a circular prison with a room in the middle for the guard, as a symbol of the disciplinary and normalizing society. The inmates feel under constant surveillance and naturally behave as such. I use the Panopticon as a symbol to show how religion, the family and the state disciplines the individual’s private life. I’m concerned with cases in which the societal discipline cause assaults on the individual’s integrity, as is the case in the story of Fadike.’

Ingrid Commandeur: Do you think the Panopticon as a model is applicable to a certain part of society?

Canan Senol: ‘No, I think it holds a certain kind of truth to society at large. It’s a complex process in which religion, society and governmental powers are intertwined. It tries to take control over the body and mind and uses the body of the women as a political tool. I see it as a universal model.’

Ingrid Commandeur: The animation is build up with drawings that resemble classical Ottoman miniature, combined with collaged fragments and photo material. The sadness of the story of Fadike contrasts with the aesthetic language of the forms that are used, was that a deliberate choice?

Canan Senol: ‘Thinking about how Turkey became modern and why we lost the connection to the history of our culture, gave me another vision on art. I was educated within the educational system of the Bauhaus-model in Istanbul. I had no idea of the art history of the Ottoman painting or Islamic art. When the republic of Turkey was created this brought about a rupture between the old and new culture. Because of the change in language and alphabet, we were cut off of an important part of our cultural heritage. Nowadays people are not interested in this part of art history anymore, but I think it is important. I used old Ottoman miniatures as an inspiration for the story I wrote about Fadike, as well as for the drawings that I made. These drawings are interspersed with photo-material and then animated in the form of a vide

'Thinking about how Turkey became modern and why we lost the connection to the history of our culture, gave me another vision on art.'

Ingrid Commandeur: The narrative style of Exemplary is akin to One Thousand and One Nights. Why did you choose to go back to this way of storytelling?

Canan Senol: ‘You could say that during the process the miniature is reworked with new media, but at the end it more or less comes back to its original form. To me this resembles the history of Turkey. The history is exoticized not only by the West but also as part of the Republican culture. Ottoman miniatures are seen with an oriental mind: lustful, they arouse curiosity, it’s like a fantasy, it’s a look, but it’s not about the real things. I want to make them real again. The narrative style of One Thousand and One Nights has a double layer; it’s always about a story in a story. I have copied that literally but also in the way form and content work together. The personal story of Fadike is not only a story about immigration, it’s also a story about the modernization in Turkey and how this influenced the life of women, and the form is also criticizing the way we deal with our past in defining the Ottoman period as “The Other”.’

Ingrid Commandeur: How does your work relate to the present Turkish society?

Canan Senol: ‘Actually I’m not Turkish but Kurdish, but I usually call myself an artist from Turkey, because being an Kurdish artist is problematic. When you look at my artworks you can see how I feel as a women in Turkey. It’s a very delicate subject. If you look at Islamic culture you can find all kinds of negative, but also positive aspects about women. So I really want to stress the fact that’s not about Islam per se, but how the system is working. For me it’s not important which party is in the parliament and whether they call themselves conservative or democratic. If you look at how many women were in the parliament since the beginning of the republic; very few. In Turkey modernism and democracy went hand in hand. There was a modern image of the Turkish women created: but their mind didn’t change. This is what I want to criticize; the body should not be used as a political tool. In other words: women have rights but are not able to use it because society hasn’t changed. The current government couldn’t even change the forbidden rules of the veiled women. In official places like the court or school it is still forbidden for women to go without a veil. The power that is behind this, that is what holds my interest.’

Canan's comment on her change of name:

Please note that I have changed my name. 

I was born in 1970 and named Canan Şahin in accordance with Turkish Civil Law’s clause numbered 321, which is “If the mother and father of the child are married, the child will carry the surname of the family, if they are not the child will carry the surname of the mother.”

I have entered Marmara University Faculty of Economic and Administrative Sciences, Department of Business Administration as Canan Şahin in 1987, and graduated in 1992 as Canan Senol.

I got married in 1991, and in accordance with Turkish Civil Law numbered 743’s 153rd clause, which says that “a woman who gets married carries her husband’s surname”, I got my husband’s surname and my name is changed into “Canan Senol.”

In 1997 an amendment was made to the 153rd clause of Turkish Civil Law, that opened the possibility for the woman to carry her older surname, prior to her husband’s surname, but only if they are used together. Therefore, even if the commonly accepted family surname is still the husband’s surname, if a woman prefers, she would have also the options to use her father’s surname if she was a single before the marriage, her earlier husband’s surname if she was a widow, or adopter family’s surname if she was adopted, together with and prior to her husband’s surname.

I have entered Marmara University Faculty of Fine Arts, Department of Painting as Canan Şenol in 1994, and graduated as Canan Senol. I have also continued my professional life as an artist, and produced my artistic works as Canan Senol.

In 2010, I have decided to divorce my husband. Initially, I was not thinking about changing the surname “Senol”, as I got used to live with this surname for 20 years. I am known by this name, I signed many of my artistic works by this name, and my name is referred as Canan Senol in many books. Until the time, I have learned the laws about the surname::

The 173rd clause of Civil Law numbered 4721’s Second Book is as follows, “In case of divorce, the woman keeps the personal condition she achieved through the marriage; however, she will start to carry her older surname before marriage. In case she asks to keep her surname from the marriage, and if it is proven that keeping this surname will be beneficial to the woman, and it will not do any harm to the husband, the judge will decide that she will keep her husband’s surname. In case these conditions change, the husband may ask this permission to be removed.”

This is the favor of “father” Government to his son “the husband”. I refuse to use this surname that depends on the permission of the husband and the government. I reject to get this permission. I am bored and fed up with facing with permissions and impositions in every stage and field of my life. The surname that was forced to be used while getting married, is turning into the permission of the government and the gift of the husband when getting divorced. I renounce the “benefits” the surnames will provide me, and I renounce surnames.

From this day on, I want my name to be recorded just as “CANAN”. In this day, which we celebrate the 100th year of International Laborer Women’s Day, I am struggling to become the pure CANAN.

CANAN, 2010"






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