Tomrul Tomgüsehan (born in Lefke in 1945)
and Hasan Eminağa (born in Kyrenia in 1948)
Potters in North Cyprus
By Heidi Trautmann
Millions of years ago Cyprus was a landmass which rose and disappeared seven times, leaving mountains behind on two islands, with the mesaoria submerged between them under the sea. The resulting volcanic ash developed into smooth clay. Already in the Bronze Age the inhabitants of our island made use of this clay to create pots and amphorae for their daily use but also to decorate their caves and worship their gods. The first creative impulse of mankind was not used for war but for the family, tribal pride and celebration of life.
The potter’s profession, one of the oldest, is still alive today. In many countries of the world it is a well recognized profession, held with pride; the learning process is long and extensive, and a young trainee can count himself lucky if he finds a good teacher. A good teacher is an adept who has been taught the secrets of the earth, the rules of the art and the chemical concoctions of the wide realm of glazes.
In North Cyprus, we have but two such potters. We have ceramists who opt to make sculpture or use clay matter for architectural purposes but we only have one single commercial ceramics workshop, Dizayn 74, owned by the master potters, Hasan Eminağa and Tomrul Tomgüsehan.
On 13 October 1974, these two friends, both graduates from the Fine Arts High School (today Marmara University) Department for Ceramics, founded the first pottery workshop in the Northern part of the island, and its status has not changed: it is still the only one.
I am sitting opposite Hasan Eminağa and Tomrul Tomgüsehan in the well known Dizayn 74 Studio between Girne and Karaoğlanoğlu; their partnership has proved to be a solid one. I ask them how it all came about, had they had something in mind like this when they left college and became students of fine arts?
“No, not really, it was more a question of destiny,” said Tomrul, “I had attended the Electrical Technical College in Lefke where I was also born and had to work after school to provide for my family. There were four of us children and my mother worked in the UN camp; it was not an easy life. We had to pass scholarship exams and I was offered a choice of three disciplines. In the beginning I did not have much self-confidence in fine arts and thought I would never manage. But finally I ended up in Istanbul in 1967 in the Fine Arts High School where one year later I met Hasan Eminağa.”
“Oh yes,” said Hasan, “in those years there were very few students with us from Cyprus, perhaps three. Also, I did not really know what to go for, when one day I met my old maths teacher from Cyprus who advised me to go for ceramics, saying it would have a future in Cyprus. I am thankful for his advice. So in 1968 I entered the same University as Tomrul. I was born in Girne and came from the Technical School with emphasis on building. My family grew vegetables and we sold it at the market. Life in Istanbul was quite strange for us; how different it was! We did not have a lot of money so we could hardly ever go home for the holidays.”
What was the teaching programme during those university years, I want to know.
“The first year we were taught the basic arts, but in the second year we were slowly introduced into ceramics, all the techniques of working the clay, on the wheel and in sculpting. Also we studied theory and practice in the laboratory to learn the composition of paints and glazes. Decoration was another very important part of our education. Tomrul graduated in 1971 and I in 1972, and after four years we returned both home, Tomrul to Lefke and I to Girne.”
Tomrul continues: “I was a qualified man now, but so what? The economical and political situation in our country was such that we had no hope for a secure future. I went back to working in the mines for 2 or 3 years, but my mind was leaning in another direction. I saw no way out of our impoverished situation and I applied to emigrate to Australia. By 1974 everything was ready, I had the visa, the ticket, but when I was due to leave for the harbour – it was a Friday I remember – all my future crumbled when the Turkish Army landed the following day on the island. The ports were closed, and I was stranded.”
Hasan had also returned to Girne without immediately knowing what to do with his accumulated knowledge. The only thing he knew was that he wanted a pottery studio. For six months he continued to help with his family’s business and he set up a stand with fresh vegetables opposite the court where today the old court’s coffee shop is, there under the Judas tree. “The money I made I saved for the establishment of my pottery studio. It was my dream and I worked hard to bring it closer to reality. A little money for a wheel, a little for a kiln, I had it all ready in my mind. The Turkish Cypriots were summoned by the Ministry of Tourism to declare what services they could offer out of the whole population. So I went to say that I was a qualified potter. And I was given the opportunity to take over a deserted pottery studio outside Girne. That was the same building where we are now.”
I don’t have to ask any more leading questions because Hasan and Tomrul are caught up in the world of their memories. Tomrul continues: “Hasan came to ask me whether I would be prepared to open a potter’s studio with him, when he saw my dream of Australia had been shattered. I jumped at it. And we started cleaning up the place which was in a terrible mess. There was one kiln left but it was broken; there were shelves and some sacks of glaze. Finally, on 13 October 1974 we opened our studio as the proud owners. In the beginning Hasan did the work on the wheel and I did the decorating.”
“I had my home in Girne,” said Hasan, “but Tomrul slept in one small room at the back of the studio building, as it was too far to go back to Lefke every night and there was not enough money. During the first months, we earned no more than 15 British pounds a month, which we divided equally and so we rolled up our sleeves and hoped for the best. We applied to the Geology and Forestry Departments for permission to dig for clay and so…yavaş, yavaş we started developing.”
I went with Hasan to see the clay depot at the back of the studio building with several basins in which the wet clay was being processed. Hasan explained: “We know where the deposits of clay are on our island and we get a lorry full from time to time and unload it here, then the process of slaking it down starts in one pool, is then transferred to a second pool for 2-3 months. Then, when we need clay for our pottery, or even for orders from other ceramists, we take a certain amount out and work it through several sieving machines, to separate unwanted matter from the clay. It is then put into a special machine to extract the water, after which the clay has to be worked to take out all the air bubbles, otherwise the earthenware would just explode in the kiln. And from here we take our daily amount of clay which we work into the ware we sell to customers and which also fills our storage shelves.”
I hear a tone of bitterness enter Hassan’s words. “Oh yes, the situation has changed considerably now. We don’t get the attention we used to get some years ago. The tourist is no longer made aware of our local handicraft, neither in governmental touristic advertising material, nor in hotels or information centres.” Or the tourism policies have changed, I think. The local handicraft should be more supported and shows should be offered in the high season. In many tourist souvenir shops they find cheap mass ware from Turkey or even from China. Hand made ceramic articles are not cheap, that is for sure.
Hasan takes me to the next room where all the kilns are lined up. Not one in action! “We used to fire three loads a day some years ago, now we fire not even one a week! Look at all the ware in our shelves. We used to have 18 people employed in our team, now we have one on the wheel, one to work the clay, one part time decorator and the two of us, Tomrul and myself and our wives. Those were the days, when we were full of energy and hope, when the business was growing and we could take on young trainees.”
Tomrul, whom we had left behind to continue working on a new model of amphora, picks up the thread: “In 1975, I was still living in a small room at the back of the studio but when I met my future wife I had to have a house of my own and soon I moved to Edremit. It was all going well. My wife Selmin is still with us here in the decorating department of our studio, having created many designs during all those years.” Selmin had come to bring us some Turkish coffee and there is a gleam of creative fulfillment in her eyes. But as I know from Hasan’s daughter Eda Eminağa, the graphic designer, her mother worked as well in Dizayn 74, just as the children did who were trained in their school holidays.
“Yes,” said Hasan, “I met my wife, Şaziye, in 1977 and we got married in 1978. She was at my side, yes, we worked side by side for all those years. They were very fruitful years, when Rauf Denktaş still came to visit us at the studio. We never stopped developing new techniques, new designs, there was our famous wild flower series, the fruit and olive twig series, the local scenes with shepherds and donkeys, and all was painted by hand by our decorators, not one looked like the other, each piece is an original.”
They soon founded the Ceramists Association for the further education of young students, to promote the profession of potters and ceramists. And that seems to be another problem with Hasan and Tomrul.
“You know, we are both over sixty now, and we don’t know who to choose to take on our business. Our children have decided to go their own way. Not only them but also our studio trainees say that compared to the income, the work is very labour intensive. We don’t want to do this bone breaking business. One day, not very far in the future, we will lock the door and never come back. What a tragedy! ”
I look at them both, these two men and their wives who have given all their heart and energy to the potters’ business and further education, who even go on tour with their wheel to promote our tourism in European Tourism fairs, and are welcomed and remembered by so many visitors; these two men will have to let North Cypriot pottery die? How can that be? We must not let it happen. The old ones say, when farmers and craftsmen lay down their tools, the world will end because then we will forget how to sustain ourselves from the good things of the earth.