Can Göknil: Contemporary Interpretations for Mythological Tales


Dilek Sener

The first thing that we need to do here is take a stroll through the bundle of questions thrown up by debates focusing on the meanings imparted by the notions of “Turkish art” and “Anatolian art” and dispel the clouds of dust that have been created by those who confuse these two fundamental but different concepts. “Turkish art” is relevant to a period that begins in the 3rd century BC and extends until the present and that takes place in a broad geographical region from Central Asia to Anatolia. Because of the elements of time and space that it incorporates, Turkish art cannot be approached as a reflection or synthesis of a single culture with other cultures among which there may be chronological associations with one another. Anatolia on the other hand has not only witnessed the development and exhaustion of societies native to it but has also, in the course of history, been a center of attraction for those who had left their own lands and were seeking new ones in which to make a home for themselves. Turkish art got started on the steppes of Central Asia. That it was able to find a home for itself in Anatolia as well is an outcome of the will of Turkish groups to add to their nomadic legacy their experience with arriving in Anatolia and acquiring a new homeland and a new history for themselves and to leave something of themselves for posterity. The first prototypal examples of this process manifest themselves in the variously named Turkish groups originating in Central Asia. Their descendants in Anatolia combined these elements with existing local ones and diverted their meanings into new channels. Thus do we observe a maturation of Turkish art in Anatolia as it embraces new avenues of exploration that proliferate and multiply and provide the ground on which investigators subscribing to differing points of view conduct their search for the roots and identity of Turkish art.

At the first Congress on the Turkish Arts held in İstanbul in 1973, Doğan Kuban discussed the efforts to come to correct conclusions by examining the issues of Central Asian vs Anatolian art and of Turkish art vs the art of Turkey according to a schema of historically chronological and regional headings:

In the cultural settings that we may define by means of the adjective “Turkish”, there have been continuous relationships extending from east to west and over long periods of time. These continuities however were not the determinants of the arts of these individual periods: one can find motifs whose origins can be traced back to the most ancient periods of Turkish history… Similarly when the Anatolian-Turkish synthesis was achieved, the continuities were not the primary determinants of the resulting art either. This is true even of Ottoman art.1

The question that Dr Kuban was raising, and it was one to which he attached the greatest importance, was whether or not the various forms of Turkish art developing independently of one another in different environments were in fact manifestations of a single cultural unity. But the question of whether or not continuities exist opens the door to yet another question that demands to be answered. When a broad review is made of the cultural and artistic environments that Turks have been a part of in the course of time, it is possible to identify geographical unities and continuities that are associated with them:

A fluid and motile cultural environment will crystallize from time to time and appear before us in a new form. This new interpretation may be a new synthesis though there are occasions when it does not attain the level of true synthesis. Generally however in every new instance to which the attribute of “Turkish” may be attached we see an extraordinary adaptive force and a potential to achieve new syntheses.2

The vitality of artistic activity in Anatolia as a category of the general concept of Turkish art is precisely what the author was referring to in the phrase “will crystallize from time to time and appear before us in a new form”.

The fundamental question that we need to consider however is this: If we assess contemporary Turkish art in terms of the confluence of geographical and historical factors stretching from Central Asia to Anatolia, what evidence is there of those factors having contributed–be it technically or thematically–to the works of today’s artists? In view of the various references that are possible given the cosmopolitan nature of the Anatolian schema, can we also say that we have identified Central Asian components when assessing contemporary art? For example consider Greek art, which has an important place in the Anatolian cultural mosaic: subjects chosen from the religious and mythological thematic panoply of Greek art were taken up again and again by many artists and reinterpreted in vastly different ways ranging from the plastic arts to the literary. Can the same be said concerning the sources of Turkish art? Compared with the familiar and even casual references of Greek art, Turkish artists have been rather fainthearted in their attitudes towards motifs and legends of Anatolian or Central Asian origin.

Since 1986, Can Göknil has been amalgamating images that she has selected from Central Asian and Anatolian myths with the basic rules of painting. In a sense, you might say that she has been resuscitating elements that lie at the roots of Turkish art by means of subjects that she has brought in from far beyond the geographical borders within which we live today. She calls to us from the boundary line where the tales of the steppelander beliefs of Central Asia meet with her artistic personality and in this way she sheds light on disputes arising over the origins of Turkish art and sets out what should be the goals of our efforts to identify a starting point for today’s contemporary art.

The ground rules of Can Göknil’s art are defined by the work that she does on the universal and local motifs of Turkish art. She imparts new meanings to traditional motifs that bring together architecture and architectural decoration incorporating new approaches and points of view concerning the technical and decorative elements of Turkish art–motifs that slowly lost their currency as Ottoman art shifted more and more towards western approaches. Stylized versions of these motifs live on today in different parts of Anatolia, where they are to be found on a variety of materials. Her approach is that of completing the chain of witnesses to the continuation of traditional folk art. Addressing all these motifs in the context of a completely different style, Göknil is able to avoid the pitfall of localism and she turns instead towards universality: for even though the themes that she employs appear today on the products of folk artists, each one of them is in fact a tiny component of the universal dimension of Turkish art. The protagonists of the tales of Turkish mythology who have for years been relegated to torpid confinement in archives and legends by the inexorable course of history suddenly come to life again and in the full bloom of their content and physical forms, they inscribe their names on the pages of a new millennium’s chronicles.

How and when did Can Göknil’s relationship with mythological tales get started? First and foremost the yarn-spinning nature of the artist’s personality inspires her to pursue the trails of unknown worlds and fetch up things that are different and fresh. In this way she began prying open the doors to a fabulous world by including in her paintings characters and events that are referred to in the myths that spring from a folk society but are buried in the depths of history. Asked why she took an artistic interest in subjects chosen from Turkish mythology, Göknil had this to say:

My interest in mythology is a choice arising from my desire to become acquainted with the essence of our culture. When putting an exhibition together, I search for and investigate a theme or motif that is rooted in Turkish culture. This quest is a learning experience for me and the things that I learn create an excitement within me. That excitement is what can result in an exhibition. This is why I find mythology so appealing, because the story-telling side of me is quite strong. One of the other things I do is illustrate children’s books That may be one of the byproducts of my work or possibly of my personality: I can’t say for sure. But what I do know is that tales are what motivate me. I start thinking about something and then I start seeing the things that I’m investigating as a series of paintings. That’s another reason why mythology is so appealing.3

Despite the vast intervals of time and space that separate the legends carried by migrations and campaigns from Central Asia to Anatolia, Göknil relates those legends to us through the medium of her paintings and in doing so, she assumes the position of a messenger conveying the beliefs of our ancestors. In these paintings, life seems to have abandoned itself to the arms of time to be tossed madly about like a leaf in the wind and the images provide people today with a fleeting opportunity to pause and review their ties with the past. As the artist does this, she also transforms the verbal traditions of Turkish mythology into visual imagery. In her paintings, Umay Hatun4 is freed from her captivity between the lines on the eastern face of the Kültigin Monument while Anatolia deities become the beings of a land whose creation myths are mysteries. In soft tonal transitions she paints Lady Umay, White Mother, red-haired Anatolia goddesses, and the fanciful offspring of creation myths sporting horns, shells, manes, and wings. Each one smiles a diffident but warm smile–the smiles of dewy-eyed legendary heroes and heroines that affect viewers deeply and spirit them away from the present, inviting them into the secret nooks and crannies of their own chimerical worlds.

Every expedition that she mounts into the world of mythology is, at the same time for the artist, a voyage of discovery into her own past and inner world and is tantamount to a mobilization of her inner instincts and dreams as well as a revelation of her creative forces. The work that she does and the themed exhibitions that she has put together are marked by creativity and relevance in the sense that they are a reinterpretation and reshaping of ancient legends and beliefs.5

In the lines quoted above, Murat Ural points to the reason for the importance of the exhibitions in which Can Göknil brings new life to the silent protagonists of legends by bringing them into focus around a particular subject. Göknil’s first exhibition of this kind, which was the result of her personal voyage into the world of mythology at MIT in the United States, took place in 1983. The focal point of that exhibition was “folk-tale ditties”. In the years that followed, the artist made new additions to the series of exhibitions that she put together around a particular theme that she had subjected to thorough and detailed investigation: Beliefs concerning Trees, 1986; Anatolian Goddesses, 1994; Creation Myths, 1997); The Magic of Magic: From the Tablets of Destinies to Amulets, 1999;6 Tales from Mythology, 2000.

Of these fascinating shows, Tablets of Destinies is especially deserving of further mention because of what it tells us about the artist, her approach, and her art.

For as long as human beings have been conscious of their existence, they have sought ways to protect themselves from evils and adversities by entrusting their lives into the hands of supernatural beings who were unseen but who were believed to exhibit their powers through the forces of nature. These supernatural beings were conceived of as protective deities who could see the unseeable and know the unknowable. They were invested with physical features–or rather with identities–that were drawn or painted and also fashioned from clay, wood, and stone. The story of the Tablets of Destinies originated in Mesopotamia in the 18th century BC. According to the legend:

The gods determined the destinies of human beings and inscribed them on tablets that they suspended from the sky. One day Anzu the Bird-Man flew up to the heavens and stole the tablets causing great consternation in the world. Terrified because their fates were now in the hands of the Bird-Man, people sought ways to protect themselves. They discovered that they could do this by engraving cylindrical or flat seals with arcane images and shapes with which they could summon the aid of supernatural beings. Some practitioners of this art became skilled magicians.

Eventually the gods recovered the tablets and order was restored; but humanity had discovered magic and talismans and continued to have recourse to them ever after. While it is true that belief in magic and talismans is widely disparaged nowadays, quite a few people still take refuge in socially acceptable and modernized forms of both as a way of coping with their spiritual ups and downs.

For a long time until theories of art began appearing on the scene to “explain” what artists do and why, a belief in magic underlay the products of human endeavor that we call “works of art” today. Some of the best known and most striking examples of this are the prehistoric paintings that were discovered in Altamira in Spain and in the Lascaux caves in France. These images, in which animal figures feature prominently, are generally thought to be symbolic expressions of hunting and fertility rituals In one group of such paintings discovered in South Africa there are figures of “magicians”, who may also have been the “contemporary artists” of those days. John Berger describes magic as “a primitive belief, at the core of which is the illusion that human will is capable of controlling concealed forces and spirits that are supposed to exist in objects and in all of nature.”7 In Berger’s view, each and every one of the supernatural beings that people conjured up in their minds thousands of years ago to protect themselves against the unknown is an illusion.

Inspired by the power that magic could wield over people, Can Göknil created the Tablets of Destinies, the sources for which were the imprints of cylindrical seals that she examined at the British Museum. She has also examined the figures on the many different kinds of seals from different historical periods that are frequently turned up in excavations all over Anatolia8 and created her own interpretations of them. As she does so, the artist confronts us once again with the protagonists of an animistic world, having rendered them more impressive and enduring through her expression of them in a variety of materials. The Tablets of Destinies for example were executed in clay and fired in the studio of Nasip İyem. With her own hands she carried earth and water into a world created from the words of legends and molded the clay into independent figures that she infused with a childlike innocence. Running her fingers over the fabulous characters shaped in her own oneiric world, she invested them with an organic unity.

Developing her works from building blocks whose origins range from Central Asia to Anatolia, Can Göknil provokes memories of ancient, enduring rhythms. The heroes of the Journal of the Creation, the goddesses of Anatolia, the spirits of Earth and Water, Lady Umay, and White Mother are reawakened from their slumbers of thousands of years and are recreated anew by the artist in present-day materials. Before starting a painting, she researches and reads about her subject, experiencing it for herself in light of the information she has gathered through references to the world of her own imagination and only then releasing the compositions arising from the confluence of aesthetic concerns to the exuberance of paint. In addition to the forms that one perceives in the artist’s paintings at first glance, it is possible to derive various tacit meanings from the stances and gazes of figures and even from differences in the materials in or on which subjects have been rendered. For example in her treatment of a myth concerning the creation of the first human beings, she has executed the figures of Ay-Atam, the first man, and of Ay-va Hatun, the first woman, on a baker’s paddle because the god Ülgen baked the first people in the heat of the sun. This is a kind of allegorical symbolism and by charging an object that has an ordinary, everyday function with a symbolic duty, the artist increases the impact of her treatment of the mankind creation legend upon the viewer. In basic terms what the artist is doing here is to report the results of her search for mythological answers to abiding human questions about creation.

In her paintings Koruyucu İlah Umay, Horoz, Av, Başlarında Balık, and Kahramanlar, Göknil employs lead in addition to acrylic paint on wood. Molybdomancy–divination by means of molten lead in which the diviner bases his conclusions on the motions, sounds, and forms resulting from dropping molten lead into water–was an integral part of Central Asian shamanist beliefs. In addition to divination, molten lead was cast into water as a way of protecting the supplicant from the evil eye and other baneful influences. It persisted in Turkish communities even after their conversion to Islam and indeed survives even today. In recounting the belief-related aspects of lead through her subjects however, Can Göknil also considers the artistic aspects as well: “I used lead on the works in wood. Not only because of lead’s protective features but also because it’s a material that pairs up well with wood in my opinion. It pulls the picture together and adds a framing dimension.”9

In nearly all the paintings, we see densely packed, centrally placed, and finely featured figures with bizarre but genial looking creatures fluttering around them. All of them seem to have but a single aim: to reach the sky. This is because, according to shamanist beliefs, they have been dispatched into this world from the sky either as a punishment or else charged with a particular duty such as transforming an evil that has accumulated on earth into good.10 White Mother,11 who spoke to the god Ülgen as related in the legend in which the god emerges from the sea to create the world, is depicted by the artist together with the Tree of Life. According to shamanist beliefs, the Tree of Life is regarded as the center of the world and also served as the shaman’s ladder on his travels into heaven and the underworld.12 In the legend, White Mother is a goddess who orders Ülgen o create the world. Here however she instead confronts us with a warm smile on her lips and peers out secretively from the shade of the Tree of Life, which has something of the appearance of a garden of paradise to it. In light of all that we’ve presented, we can say that Göknil focuses completely on the human element in her painting and leaves the issues of space and time entirely to the unbounded world of the viewer’s imagination. The figures, standing full face as they peer out and sympathetically try to understand us, are located in the plane where dreams and mythology conjoin.

Can Göknil’s works are reflections of the curiosity and originality which are inherent in her personality and which return with fresh meanings from every voyage she makes to the roots of “Turkish art” employing modern materials. Her works are evidence that Turkish-Anatolian mythologies can still be a source of inspiration, even for someone whose artistic personality is thoroughly contemporary. They are the tokens of a respect for that which is venerable or, to put in another way, for the forgotten wellsprings of our existence. Who knows what doors to the mysterious world of forgotten fables and visual tales she will be opening for us in future shows?