Ottowoman’s veil lifted in portraits

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Ottowoman’s veil lifted in portraits
Oluşturulma Tarihi: Nisan 03, 2009 00:00

ANKARA -Painter Reyyan Somuncuoğlu's collection 'Ottowoman' lifts the veil off the Ottoman harem in an exhibition and reveals the strong and self-confident women of the age. Ankara's Erenus Art Gallery is hosting 16 new harem portraits from Somuncuoğlu.

The Ottoman harem, a source of great inspiration for Western artists, has led to the production of many Orientalist paintings that depict "Ottoman women" in a mystical and exotic way.

As a result most Ottoman women were absent from paintings as individuals, instead trapped in an "exotic world" crafted for them by Orientalist painters. Turkish female painter Reyyan Somuncuoğlu, however, has set out to break this image by treating Ottoman women as individuals with distinct characters and making them the centerpiece of her portraits.

"We are acquainted with portraits of Ottoman sultans but we have not seen their mothers who raised and protected them. Being kept behind the curtains is not what they deserve," Somuncuoğlu said, speaking to the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.

"Western painters focused on the harem and eroticism when they depicted Ottoman women. However, I want to display Ottoman women’s individuality, their sorrows and happiness," she said.

Lifting the veil off harem

Somuncuoğlu’s collection titled "Ottowoman" lifts the veil off the Ottoman harem and reveals strong and self-confident women of the age. Indeed, Somuncuoğlu’s journey into the world of the Ottoman Empire started with her paintings where she depicted elegant imperial boats. "My study on imperial boats led me to Nakshedil Sultan, who was allegedly the first to have a sultan’s boat," she said.

Pointing the claims that Nakshedil, born in 1776 and named Aimée du Buc de Rivéry, was the cousin of French Empress Josephine, Somuncuoğlu said she was kidnapped by pirates and sent to Istanbul as a gift to the Ottoman sultan. Somuncuoğlu drew attention to the fact that there were many women of different origins in the Ottoman harem who brought their own traditions to the palace.

"After Nakshedil, I searched for other powerful figures of the harem and also painted the portraits of Hürrem, Kösem and Safiye, who all came from different cultures," Somuncuoğlu said, adding that her previous exhibition was based on portraits of these four women.

Kösem, of Greek origin, wielded great influence over the throne as her sons Murad IV and Ibrahim I were both sultans. Hürrem, who was born to a Ukrainian father, was the legal wife of Süleyman the Magnificient. Safiye was of Venetian descent and was wife of Sultan Murad III.

Currently, Erenus Art Gallery in Ankara is hosting 16 new Ottoman harem portraits from Somuncuoğlu.

The Ottoman women in Somuncuoğlu’s portrayals draw attention with their big eyes and sealed lips. "Big eyes show that these women see everything while sealed lips mean that they keep many secrets," Somuncuoğlu said.

Not only the variety of their backgrounds attracts Somuncuoğlu to harem women. An important ingredient in the portraits is Ottoman women’s fierce struggle against each other to become the number one in the harem, which can host as many as 800 women. "While I was painting these ladies, I tried to empathize with them. I think one has to become not only cruel, sharp-tongued and curious but also protective, tender and loyal to be the favorite of the sultan," she said, adding that only through big eyes and sealed lips, she could reflect all these contradictory characteristics in the same portrait. The portraits also reveal the inner power of the Ottoman women who managed to have a place in a man-dominated age.

Sixteen portraits in the exhibition depict 16 beautiful Ottoman women in pompous clothes. The clothes painted by Somuncuoğlu also raise interest in the historical era’s lifestyle and traditions.

Somuncuoğlu pointed out the "kına gecesi" (henna night), a pre-wedding ceremony for women, as one of the traditions that has lost importance over time. In order to remind society of this forgotten ceremony, she also painted the imaginary portrayal of a young bride with henna on her hands.

Under the guidance of history

Somuncuoğlu conducted an intensive study on Ottoman culture under the guidance of historian Cemal Kutay before starting to paint the Ottoman women. During her studies, she also attempted to contact the families, whose members were a resident of the sultan’s harem once upon a time, but failed.

"Even today we cannot learn a secret about harem life from these families. They do not accept to speak about the subject," she said.

Somuncuoğlu, a graduate of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Mimar Sinan University, was granted "Woman of the Year" award by the American Biographical Institute/ North Carolina in 2004. Her works are on display at Adile Sultan Palace in Istanbul. The capital’s Erenus Art Gallery will continue to host Somuncuoğlu’s collection "Ottowoman" until April 7.
Erenus Art Gallery -
Cinnah St. No:10 Çankaya - ANKARA
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