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Daughter of Semiha the Diva: Interview with Zeliha Berksoy


Semiha Berksoy. Ariadne auf Naxos (Self-Portrait), 1998

During the exhibition, "Portraits", displaying the paintings of Semiha Berksoy, at Galerist in March, 2019, Zeliha Berksoy, the daughter of the late high dramatic soprano, actress, poet and painter remembered growing up with her mother. Even at home, she exuded her signature qualities as Turkey's beloved bon-vivant of the visual and performing arts, an iconic woman whose legacy continues to mesmerize and fascinate art lovers across the world with her vibrant, colorful soul. Zeliha Berksoy is also an actress and opera singer with a bountiful career. She carries the family's artistic traditions that began in Çengelköy, where Semiha Berksoy was born into their aristocratic Turkish family of artists in 1910. What follows are reflections and anecdotes by Zeliha Berksoy, the daughter of a woman whose light has only brightened in posterity, as her art has continued to inspire the world since her death in 2004, including for Manifesta II (1998), Venice Biennial (2005), Istanbul Biennial (1997), Sharjah Biennial (2019) and Kunstverein Hamburg (2021).

Fictive

Please share a story that is defining for you in terms of how your mother assumed her different roles in the family and society, as mother, and as artist. During what times, for example, was it very clear that she was an artist, and when she was a mother? Or did her way of living between family and artwork evade such distinctions?


Zeliha Berksoy

She always treated me as an adult. She took children equal to others and treated that way. She was never mean, but was not spoiling. This was because she lived many unfortunate events, was restrained and misbehaved towards. She wanted me grow a strong and successful person. When I decided to become an actress, she did not taught me about it, she did get me lectured but rather than providing me with her experience, she wanted me to learn for myself which in the end made me stronger. Fictive

How do you see the portraiture of your mother in relation to her other artworks? Is it characteristic of her highest aesthetic, conceptual accomplishments, or more of a side venture? Did you ever watch her craft one? How did she value them creatively?

ZB

On an incident, we were in a museum in Berlin, and there were works of Bernard Buffet, both small and large scale paintings. She pointed at the small work telling me that it was an incredible work of art, lacking nothing in value in comparison to the bigger works. The fact that it was a Buffet made it equally valuable.

Fictive

Where did visual artwork stand for your mother in relation to her performing arts, and also to her poetry and writing? Did she tend to take her singing more seriously, for example? How did she see herself? As a singer, actor, an artist?


ZB


Semiha’s life was formed as what we may call gesamtkunstwerk. Her career in opera, theatre/drama, and her artistic creations all accompanied one another. They were equally important mediums for her artistic outlet. When art was the subject, to medium or form was secondary to her. She was all three of them.

Fictive

The family culture in which your mother was raised, in Çengelköy among artists and intellectuals, seems to have been integral to her formative years. Do you know the origins of the family's artistic roots, culturally speaking?

ZB

Semiha was born in Çengelköy in the Moralı Mehmet Bey mansion to an intellectual Istanbul family. Her mother Fatma Saime was an elegant woman known for her embroidery, haute-couture tailoring, and her painting. Her mother’s creative character has influenced Semiha from a very early age. Fatma Saime is also the person who first taught Semiha to sing. When she was singing her first Mozart pieces at home, her mother shows her dance/stage moves to accompany her singing.

Semiha Berksoy. Daime Koray, 1959

Fictive


Did your mother talk about her experience performing onstage as a Turkish woman in Nazi-era Berlin? What did that experience mean for her? How is the "Ariadne auf Naxos" curtain painting unique to her other pieces of that type? As a stage performer yourself, what is the significance of the curtain, and its rendering into a medium for visual art?


ZB

She saw herself as Ariadne of Ariadne auf Naxos. That painting on cloth shows her in the age she played Ariadne in Berlin. Of course she would mention her experience of Germany of the period: Turkey was rather powerful in 1938-39 and at the Turkish Embassy they hold an event where Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop is also invited. Fictive


Please recount the most memorable anecdote that you know of between your mother and Nazım Hikmet.

ZB


Semiha visits Hikmet while he’s in the Çankırı Prison, and mentions him that there will be an opera play by Carl Ebert in Ankara. Hikmet straightaway suggests they should play Tosca. Semiha agrees on the condition that Hikmet translates the libretto, as Hikmet, in prison, is in need of an income of money. After her return to Ankara from this visit, she announces to the administration that she wants to play Tosca. But they strictly oppose her wish for Hikmet to translate because during the İnönü regime, the rule is quite anti-left and Hikmet is in prison for his political beliefs. Hasan Ali Yücel, the minister of National Education then does not allow, which leads Semiha to go up to Hikmet’s uncle Ali Fuat Cebesoy who serves as the Minister of Transport at Kuvâ-yi Milliye, alongside Atatürk. Cebesoy allows the play (Tosca, 1941 which is very famous in the Turkish history of opera due to its political set in comparison the Turkish political atmosphere of the period) – which later has a big cost on Semiha’s career…

Fictive


Do you remember any instances in particular where your mother acted out in protest against the animal slaughter ritual of kurban bayram?

ZB

Those bayrams always made her feel desperate. Semiha was a great lover of animals; we would feed the birds, cats and the dogs on time every day. With birds, the sparrows would come first, then the seagulls, and lastly the crows. Semiha admired the crows; she thought they were really fancy with their feathers of reflective black. There were roughly forty stray cats that we fed. On Kurban Bayramı, she would be in deep sorrow and never turn the TV or the radio on. She would see these sacrifices as murder.


Fictive


I understand that your mother dressed very elaborately, and generally had a distinctly grand presence in person. Was this ever an issue as the years went by? How did you feel in her presence in social settings when she took on her larger-than-life persona?

ZB

She always dressed magnificently, all through her life as if she were on the stage. She would only dress from Cemal Bürün, a haute-couture tailor at Nişantaşı, even her stage costumes were Bürün. Later in the 1990’s she’d told me that she regarded her look as a piece of art as well, her face as a canvas, the signature make-up as painting. She regarded her crimson cheeks as a way to defy death, an act of courage that can also be found in some of her paintings like the Woman Trapped in a Mangle (Self-portrait), 1972. The people loved Semiha. She stopped putting on that make-up on our return from Vienne. One day we were at a café in Tünel, some women called to me to ask if Semiha was unwell and why didn’t she had her crimson cheeks on. Semiha took her lipstick out and painted her cheeks again.


Her dressing and make up gave courage to other women. Seeing her as an example, they understood it was okay to dress as they wanted and put on makeup as they wanted.



Semiha Berksoy. "Portraits" at Galerist, 2019

Fictive

Your grandmother passed away at an early age. Your mother's portrait of her is evocative. Did your mother speak of your grandmother? What do you know about how her portrait might speak to who she was in life?


ZB


For the family, Semiha’s mother Fatma Saime, was the energy source, the magnetic centre, after her passing due to Spanish flu, the family drifted apart. Saime Hanım has always been an icon, a source of inspiration and creative obsession for Semiha. Her spirit always fueled the artistic fire in Semiha who believed in the spirituality of arts. Fictive


Did your mother talk about meeting Ataturk? If so, what did she recount?


ZB

Atatürk wanted to legitimize the arts in Turkey, establishing the national theatre and national opera and bale, inviting and hosting internationally successful artists (Ebert and Paul Hindemith), forming a creative milieu. He then offers Ahmet Adnan Saygun to compose an opera (Özsoy Opera) at the age of 24 after his return from Paris, Semiha is 24 as well at that time. The opera is first staged in June 19, 1934 in honour of the Iranian sheik’s visit. Atatürk calls it a turning point in the music history of Turkey.


One evening, Atatürk invites the artists over to the mansion where he kindly asks Semiha to sing from Ayşim, her role in Özsoy. Semiha being quite witty, had her notes to Madame Butterfly with her, believing it would prove her vocal talent further. Atatürk approves, and Semiha sings Madame Butterfly. Semiha would recite that he got really excited and shouted: “Ok ay!”, meaning the arrow hitting the moon – orders Semiha to be sent to Europe to study opera. Unfortunately, not all men around Atatürk are as visionary, so Semiha goes back to Istanbul. Followingly, they put an exam to send the talented musicians to Europe to study, and surely Semiha wins, and goes to Berlin in 1936. And in the 75th birthday anniversary of Richard Strauss, she plays Ariadne of Ariadne auf Naxos at the Berlin Academy.

Fictive


Describe the subjects of the portraits. I would like to know more about them from your perspective. Please explain the special importance of these figures for your mother, and for yourself.


ZB

- Behice Siyavuşoğlu: my grandmother. Semiha really respected her mother-in-law.

- Leman Arseven: wife of Celal Esat Arseven. She was really beautiful, she spoke perfect French, played the piano, and she would paint in an impressionist manner. She painted a portrait of me in her studio in Kadıköy. - Daime Koray: Semiha’s aunt. - Ekrem Reşit Rey: Brother of the composer Cemal Reşit Rey. There was a joke going that because they were such intellectuals, even their cat spoke French. - Cahide Sonku: Semiha’s beloved friend, actress at the city theatre. Her, Semiha and Melek Kobra, with two more names, were five really close friends. - Elizabeth Schwarzkopf: a famous opera artist that studied in the same class at the academy with Semiha. She also sang for the vinyl recording of Ariadne auf Naxos. - Muhsin Ertuğrul:a quite important figure in the history of Turkish theatre, also a tutor and mentor to Semiha. - Turgut Zaim: studied art together with Semiha, and again a close friend as well. When Zaim was the stage decorator at the Ankara Theatre, Semiha takes these portaits over to show him. Zaim really likes them and advises my mother that she should work on larger scales with oil. So he has a great influence on Semiha’s art. - Gülrü: Granddaughter of Güner, Semiha’s sister. - Melek Kobra: Semiha’s close friend as mentioned in relation to Sonku. Her father was an important composer Muhlis Sabahattin Bey, the writer of operetta Ayşe. She acted in the city theatre as well, she was really talented but unfortunately passed at a very young age because of tuberculosis. - Vahdet Nuri Esmen: studied opera in Vienne, and was a really close friend of Semiha in Ankara. He would organise biweekly gatherings for these artists to sing at, Semiha loved these gatherings where she was freer than at the opera. - Süleyman Nazif: a journalist/writer. Close friend of the Arsevens. He would attend the gatherings as well along with the Arsevens,

Most of these portraits are done at those gatherings, Semiha took her drew the guests, there’s one of a girl who was a maid at the house, too. The house was a social group of artists, writers, philosophers, art historians.


Semiha Berksoy. Crying (Self-Portrait). 1996

Fictive


How do you feel about the way your mother portrayed you in her artwork?

ZB


She loved having me as subject and I would always tell her not to portray me funny like others but to portray me properly in a classical manner. The key about her portraits are that she brings forth the personality of her subject, if you were to know that person in real life, you could definitely see it in the works, Like Muhsin Ertuğrul, Cahide Sonku and Melek Kobra at the current exhibition.

Fictive


What do your mother's auto-portraits represent for you? The ultimate piece as curated for the current show at Galerist, is very dark. Do you remember seeing her reach such states of grim, emotional intensity?

ZB


She was not a grim person, the dark quality of her auto-portraits are the reflection of the difficulties in her life, mistreatments. She used to say Nazım was imprisoned in the jail and herself in the Ankara theatre. She was mostly blocked from performing her best, and from where she wanted. Being a high-dramatic soprano in a country where opera is merely starting to spring, and on top of that being consumed by the fascism of anti-communist regime, at 1949, one day we sold everything we owned; the furniture, the clothes, her fur, and we took a ship to Naples and through there to Vienne – I was three years old then. There she presents herself to the lecturers of the opera to sing there, and is offered a role just within 20 days. Upon this, she is called back to Ankara for her tenure. All these and more were (such as the following hunger strike of Nazım) the source of her pain.


Other self-portraits, too, such emotional intensity, such standing – like the Standing (Self-portrait), 1968, which itself is a rebellion, a persistence. Or the Climber (Self-portrait), 1968; these are paintings that express her life and identity. Chain Breaker (Self-portrait), 1968 is a great depiction of her struggle and the chains of the Ankara Opera holding her.

Fictive


Please share your thoughts on your mother's ongoing, posthumous contributions to the international art world through Galerist, appearing in some of the most important biennials and fairs around the world. Why is her artwork and legacy as a person so important to Turkey, and the world?


ZB


I am very much happy. For years we were against the selling of her art, including myself because we wanted to open a museum. The museum project still exists, as there are so many things left of her, many memorabilia, paintings, drawings, personal belongings that are documentative of the early republic period, it’s music and theatre history. I am really happy that now she is being exhibited internationally. When she was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2005, curated by Rosa Martinez, another curator conveyed there were two prominent B’s being shown; Semiha Berksoy and Louis Bourgeois.



Ecem Ümitli contributed research