Master of the Black Leaf: On the Art of Devran Mursaloglu by Aysun Bloom
Updated: Nov 11, 2021
The rumble of concrete breaking under the claws of mammoth machines could be heard from the guarded entrance into a bare, dusty building that rose up from a cool, cavernous parking garage and ascended into blank tiles and unwashed glass.
Outside, the propagandized, overburdened renewal of Tarlabaşı went on within earshot of the masses, where east Anatolian migrants glance backwards at the hot, trudging sweep of human forms, Roma families, Arab shopkeepers, African workers, Kurdish people-watchers, European vagrants.
They walked to and from life against the jarring crash of corrugated metal walls stung with the fuming shards of the city that turned from the ground up with the hope that it would welcome newcomers with a smile, a home, a community.
Inside its shadowy, neon haunts, a class of artists waited and wondered if it would grow into a nexus for creative regeneration. Its winding slopes spilled out into the freeway where galleries beckoned, where museums emerged.
The streets seethed with a writhing potency, something that could prove to authenticate the sincerity of art-making in Turkey. And the artists stole back into its buildings of rooms, silent, unadorned. Submerged in fluorescent light, surrounded by whitewash corners and industrial flooring, one artist sat in her studio, flashing a kind grin and offering a plastic cup of tea.
All about were strewn long stems of twisted, black paper, then in strips, framed, cut, folded, and manipulated in every which way the mind can fathom.
Devran Mursaloğlu lit a thin cigarette, and calmed her nerves. She would retrace her most subtle lines of thought and the patterns that have issued from her hands during her very young career as an artist who opened her first solo exhibition at Pg Art Gallery in 2012 with “knots” at the daring age of 49.
Mursaloğlu is a quirky artist, a deeply introspective and modest sort when it comes to her work, despite her powerful repute as a craftswoman with a global conscience for making novel art.
Ten years before her first exhibition, Pg proposed a collaboration after seeing some of her works at her atelier shop in Sabancı Museum. Mursaloğlu wasn’t selling them. She was simply giving pieces away as gifts, although she had graduated from her night art school courses at Marmara University.
At that point in her creative and personal development she did not see herself as an artist, but as something of a mix between decorator, designer, and artist. She warmly declined, and laughs at how she closed the phone when Pg initially asked.
In retrospect, why she later accepted a decade later remains a mystery to her even today. Looking back, she felt encouraged to pursue a career in art after her second solo show at Pg, titled, “Night Butterflies” in 2014, due to the quality of attention from critics and collectors in Istanbul.
“In Bebek, Pg worked with good, name artists like Kezban Arca Batıbeki and Tayfun Erdogmus. When I started with Pg, I saw that more than 15% were young, like Candas Sisman, Kerem Ozan Bayraktar and Elsa Ers. What I liked is that she gives a chance to the young artist. This is difficult, and risky. I have good communications with the young artists, even though they use computers, and I don’t even use scissors,” said Mursaloğlu, with her deadpan humor.
“The young artists ask me questions about my art with computer terms. I say, ‘No, I make it with my hands. I make everything with my hands.’ They say, ‘Wow!’ Kerem and Candas make art with light and sound, but they love my work. It’s good for me, my work is young.”
Mursaloğlu began working with Pg, when they invited her to participate in a mixed exhibition called “Uncanny Games” at the Tahtakale Hamam in 2011. It was a prestigious show, featuring the likes of Komet and other anti-pop artists, as well as Kemal Tufan, Gunnur Ozsoy, Ayla Turan, and Jerome Symons among many others.
Mursaloğlu made a large installation with paper, exclusively her chosen medium. And although almost repressively afraid, because her first education is not as an artist, she gradually accepted when more invitations came in. Mursaloğlu had studied civil engineering in Brussels, concentrating her talents for the purposes of construction, but soon she found herself at Marmara University, learning to make contemporary art under teachers who would also become fellow artists, Devabil Kara and Tayfun Erodgmus.
She earned a night school certificate, but still, she did not really feel like an artist. Before earning gallery representation, Devran was a designer at the Sabancı Museum shop, working out of its boutique gallery where she enjoyed a freedom and happiness well outside of the aspirational pressures of the core art world.
She never thought of working with a gallery as an individual artist. She feared the spotlight because she did not identify as an artist. “I’m working very, very hard, but I don’t like to be in the window, now also. It’s not my character, but I said yes. The same year, six months later, I made my first exhibition. It was very risky, very difficult,” Mursaloğlu explained.
In 2018, she skipped her usual biannual exhibition month of May, as her series of works were not ready for show. Her gallery did not meddle. Her meticulous, intuitive grasp across the concepts of her design demand a special respect for her eccentric processes, given to caprice and variation at every turn, though chockfull of deliberate and decisive potency.
It ultimately makes for riveting interpretive adaptation, from curation to critique, acquisition to installation. Fifteen to twenty years before working with Pg, after finishing her evening studies at Marmara University, she had shown art at the first Mardin Biennial in 2010.
She also made an exhibition that she’s particularly proud of for the sixth international Ege Art in 2015 in Izmir, for which her work she received distinction as the best paper installation. “Now I want to stop,” she said, sitting inside her studio, absorbed in the postmodern air of Dolapdere. “I’m afraid. I don’t like to make new things every two years. I make what I want. I don’t think if they’re sellable. Pg says I’m one of her best selling artists. It’s very minimal, what I do.”
Her use of the word “minimal” to describe her work is significant, in terms of the greater aesthetic and conceptual reality in which her artist colleagues work. It could be said that Gunnur Özsoy’s neo-minimalism, Kemal Tufan’s archaism, and Ayse Turan’s post-classicism align to Mursaloğlu’s characteristic relationship between traditional paper craft, and its techniques, as inspiration for her utterly contemporary approach to installation art.
And further alike is her extensive knowledge base of the classical methods and their relation to creative societies today, while remaining profoundly individualist and even standoffish to a degree, dedicated to herself foremost as the progenitor of her new ideas.
“I don’t understand sales, money,” said Mursaloğlu, as she discussed her first solo show, “knots” in which she used brown paper, afterwards shifting to black only. For eight years and running, she's only worked with paper, and always black. She says that she has no need for variations of color. If she tries to branch out in that direction, she soon finds herself recoiling.
For her, it’s all about form and structure. Some people have labeled her work design more than an art, considering her background in a museum shop. But for her, there are no boundaries. Definition is relative. And she is not merely talk, as when she started out as an artist her works immediately entered a good collection.
Her pieces are often titled after pop culture references, like a book, film, or song. It’s one of her signatory marks. For the Uncanny Games show, for example, she named her installation after the postwar French filmmaker Rene Clement’s opus, “Jeux interdits” ("Forbidden Games"). And similarly, “Night Butterflies” (“Gece Kelebekleri”) is taken from a banned Turkish novel by Haydar Karataş, who is currently living in exile in Switzerland.
She had read the book, appreciating its backstory in the hotly conflicted province of Dersim, now known as Tunceli, though she is not explicit about the political issues behind her choice of title. Especially for “Night Butterflies” she is proud of the quality of her work primarily in the context of art. It helped that the entire show sold into a good collection. Many people were put-off by its decorative look, but Mursaloğlu defends her work simply as good art, without the need to elaborate.
There were some who decried Mursaloğlu’s “Night Butterflies” as unoriginal, as some big name artists consistently use the butterfly, with one highlight being Damien Hirst’s “In and Out of Love” (2012), a piece categorically defamed as “atrocity art” for the fact that the artist apparently killed over 9,000 butterflies in his process.
But still, she does not succumb to short-sighted, trendy criticism. Finally, she named her 2016 exhibition, “All We Ever Wanted Was Everything” after the song by Bauhaus. She made a video installation with 10,000 black paper stones, which took a year to produce with an assistant. “I like the repetition of the same material,” said Mursaloğlu, who was then in the process of making new works, in her home studio.
As an older artist, she feels that she has less of an opportunity to make mistakes, whereas the younger artists are free to take major risks and can get away with one bad exhibition knowing that with time they will regain new life. While time may not be on her side, she doesn't let that get in the way of her artistic process. Her works appear to be painstakingly time-consuming with respect to the intricacy of the slightest hand-made detail, the unrestrained use of repetition, and the amount of technical research that she pours into her craft from every known tradition of paper art around the world.
“I think sometimes that I don’t have so long, but the young artists in the gallery say, ‘No, it doesn’t matter,’” she said. “It’s something very heavy for me, and everyone I think. I am someone who speaks directly, others are more controlled. It’s my character. All of my work is black. I take this life very objectively. I don’t know what my work is exactly when I finish it. It is something uncontrollable.”
One of her recent exhibitions was part of the group show, “Pictures of Nothing” at Pg. And although she has an admirable and respectable following among curators and artists, she is unsure about how many times her work will appear again. She is essentially indifferent to fame and art. Her exhibition at the Mardin Biennial, and Ege Art were completely different than the experience of holding solo shows in a gallery.
In Mardin, for example, the curator Döne Otyam and art critic Ayşegül Sönmez gave a lot of energy to her participation. Even though she prefers such collective settings, so as not to be in the forefront, she still stayed behind on the opening day in Mardin, as she had worked for three weeks in solitude, with one assistant, and was relieved when her project concluded.
“When I finish, it’s finished for me. After, it’s for the visitor to like or not like, which I respect. Working is something you do very alone. Sometimes you lose what you do, so you need someone, but someone good who will say, ‘Yes, it’s good,’ or not,” said Mursaloğlu. Normally, I want to make bigger works. I think my mixed shows are better.”
“I’m a little bit repetitive,” she says repeatedly. “I like repetition.” Her teachers Devabil Kara and Tayfun Erodgmus first taught her the art of paper at Marmara University. Initially educated in the field of construction, she would apply her skills to an open-ended setting in her garden, and work creatively with stones and cement. She liked construction material, but after seeing Erdogmus make art with paper under the influence of Kara, she also started making paper for artistic purposes.
The only obstacle was that she needed a big bathroom in her atelier, as paper-making requires immediate access to a lot of water and large, ceramic containers. She had realized then that great paper-makers need time and money, so, she now also buys all kinds of readymade paper, from ambalaj to carton, depending on what she wants to do.
While she does know how to make paper, she pauses when her ideas necessitate large sheets of material, as that demands a mill, and space for a basin. Still, she is perpetually scheming, setting her sights on the resourcefulness of Anatolian village life for future works.
She often travels the globe with her husband, a film buff, traversing the regions of China, India, Nepal, Thailand, Korea, Peru. Everywhere she takes paper, exposing herself to traditional paper crafts. She believes Japan is the best in paper art.
“In their culture there is paper,” she explained. “And there is beautiful paper in Japan. In Turkey, you can not find more than white paper. The material doesn’t exist in our country, but for some works you don’t need good paper. If you are creative, you don’t need it to be handmade. I can work with ambalaj, carton, or very expensive handmade paper. I never think of going to Japan, or Korea, to learn their traditions, because it’s their traditions.”
In one room in her studio, she has stored paper from all over the world. Her stories speak from the textures and shades of the pages that surround her, revealing the stunning, innate diversity of the fibrous sheets, long before the temptation rose to impress anything onto it. Before the crafts of writing or art were applied to paper, there was just the art of the paper itself. One of her works is a book of paper, bound in India, exemplifying one potent display of her mind and her peculiar knack for conceptual play. It includes about 60 handmade leaves of paper in tones of white and beige, each from a different country.
“Bookbinding is also something, but it’s artisanal. I know how to make it, but for me art is about concept, and what I’ll do. I can work with all kinds of paper. I’ve liked the look of writing, and calligraphy so much,” said Mursaloğlu, who appears to have practiced everything under the sun in relation to paper craft, from post-literate asemic writing to traditional origami.
“I used Ottoman calligraphy in my museum shop works. I like lines, a little bit similar to writing. To see paper very close is too interesting.”
As a French speaker, having received her formal education in the language since entering Francophone primary school and through university in Brussels, she is an active part of the multilingual art world. She has built her professional, international networks with IAPMA, the acronym for the International Association of Hand Papermakers and Paper Artists.
When she was independent and working from her atelier shop, she had more time to connect with like-minded artists, even participating in mixed exhibitions around the world. That was before she exhibited her work.
In Turkish, identifying as a “paper artist” doesn’t make immediate sense. It simply denotes something of a contemporary artist. From a global perspective, the term “paper artist” has merit. For instance, there is the Holland Paper Biennial, in the Dutch town of Rijswijk. She was regularly invited to the biennial until she began working primarily with Pg, but she remains proud to say that she has many colleagues and friends in the field of paper art.
Framing is also an important element to her works, particularly with respect to its commerciality. She is now looking for ways to remove the frame from her works for aesthetic and technical reasons so that she can venture into greater scales and proportions. The paper itself, and even her chosen shade of black is part of her handmade intimacy with the material. She rarely goes to the store during her creative process.
For her, material is simply a function of form. Among other total transformations of her medium, she fills containers with kilos and kilos of specially-made powdered paper, for which she needs the trusty help of her assistants. But despite the intensity and originality of her process, she often leaves behind odds and ends of ideas and starts before coming to the realization of a piece to exhibit. She typically takes a minimum of one year to make the creative decisions that go into producing a new work.
“I’m not clean. I’m a little bit dirty, and after I make it very aesthetic,” she said. “I’m not political. I’ll say everything. I’m very natural. All artists feel the same, but everyone is afraid and wants to be better. I’m not young, but I have time. I craft designs because that is also technique, because I don’t have an education in paper making, or in paper art. It’s something I understand, and learned alone. I think I know all of the paper techniques, but my work is not very technical. I’m a little dirty, black and dirty. In paper, big is good, and repetition because it’s a simple, poor material. You need to be decorative and artful, because the material is paper, it’s cheap, delicate, and difficult.”
She practices popular paper crafts like origami and papier-mâché to distill its techniques, and to later apply, deform and adapt them to her conceptual, contemporary art. In Turkey, however, there is little to no material for paper artists. She remembers seeing a work at the Venice Biennial that had clearly drawn from origami, folding techniques, but the originality was in the sheer size of the paper. The technique was simple, but the paper itself was the focus. In that way she adores the Korean paper sculptor Chun Kwang Young.
“I am not making paper. I am an artist. For this reason, in Turkish, I don’t like the name ‘paper artist’. I am a contemporary artist,” she said. “Tomorrow, I can use another material. Everybody changes. I think I will keep working in black, with paper. If my gallery wants me, I will continue.”
Mursaloğlu does not entertain gossip, especially in the guise of pseudo-intellectual criticism in the Turkish art scene. What she hates more than anything is the first day at her exhibitions, the opening.
“When you are in the window, all the critics come, good and bad. I accept negative criticism, but I think in our country there aren’t any negative critics, they use humiliation,” she said, appreciating the criticism that she’s received from one of her good friends, the artist Kerem Ozan Bayraktar.
In Turkey it is often only other artists who provide their fellow artists with truly constructive feedback about each other’s works. Mursaloğlu recognizes that Bayraktar is unafraid to tell her what’s not working when she experiments with new approaches in her art, and she respects his opinions because he knows exactly where to encourage her to stimulate creative growth and fresh perspectives.
As the weather warms, her atelier becomes emptier as she moves her materials and works-in-progress to her home studio, where she relaxes unfazed by the incessant chatter of the saturated, cultural scene and its instant, global interconnectivity.
“Every opening of mine, I say that I don’t want to come,” she said with a few laughs, admitting that she doesn’t understand exactly why her works sell so well. “My last opening began at around 8 in the evening, I had to go to New York the next morning at 5 o’ clock. I don’t stay at the opening. After the work, it’s about sale. It’s not art. If there’s someone who wants to interview, or a really good collector who’s interested, okay, but sorry if it’s just about commerce. You are not in MoMA or Tate, this is a gallery.”
Her first show, “knots” was held in Bogazkesen. As she considers the changes that Pg went through from Bebek before she exhibited, to the downtown scene in Tophane, there are dramatic shifts, not only in the art, but in the entire cultural reality of Istanbul as an arts city. From time to time, she would go to Bebek, where she enjoyed the high caliber of the artworks, but it was the case that only a single visitor might show up during the day.
But after the move, Pg reeled in countless pairs of eyes who hungrily roamed about the nearby Istanbul Modern and neighboring galleries. For “knots”, Pg confirmed that about 1,000 people showed up for her opening on May 22, 2012.
“In the time of Bebek, contemporary art was very difficult. For example, we would go to Contemporary Istanbul and nothing sold. Nowadays, with Instagram, people who were never interested in art, now go to Frieze. The people seem interested now in art in Istanbul. Every year is better. Before, not so many people were interested in art. It’s good,” said Mursaloğlu, who is not convinced that her studio neighborhood of Dolapdere will become a new center for arts appreciation in Istanbul.
“Bebek is an interesting area for rich people, but people know Beyoğlu for its art. But it hasn’t been stable. Bogazkesen finished. People left Karakoy. In Istanbul, there is no art area. In Turkey, we don’t have the spirit of SoHo, Chelsea. For this reason, all of the galleries move in five or six years to where it’s a la mode. It never continues.”
A kindred artist exhibiting in Istanbul is Sinan Logie, who she enjoys. He acquired one of her works after exhibiting together at Pg’s 2014 group show, titled, “[ ]”, where they discovered many life parallels and mutual inspirations in each other’s art. Logie, for example, is an architect, and was born in Brussels.
“We have the same origin. He’s also in engineering. We make construction. I make repetitions of material, but at the end it’s something constructive,” she said, thinking about the show “[ ]”, where the artists were prompted to exhibit artist books. Mursaloğlu produced hers, a compendium of techniques, and framed works from it. Logie made a digital piece, framed into his tablet.
When Mursaloğlu started her first design shop, she was based in Çukurcuma. She swears that twenty years ago when she worked there, it was a prime district famed for its antique shops, cafes, architects, artists. But by her account, everyone from that time has since left. Her atelier had become a popular destination, but that’s all in the past. It was a golden time that came and went.
Sometimes, she sees rifts between younger and older artists in Istanbul. She has no problem contributing to exhibitions that merge high art with popular entertainment. “I take it very serious when I work, but when I’m finished I don’t take it seriously. I’m not about high art and low art,” she said. “Time will tell. We are in the now. In 100 years, we will see what I am, and what the other is.”
Aysun Bloom is a journalist and artist from Las Vegas, Nevada.