QUEERING THE WHITE WALLS Ulya Soley on Akış Ka’s Performance at Salt Beyoğlu, Istanbul
A crowd gathered in front of an empty white wall in the exhibition space at Salt Beyoğlu on a Sunday afternoon. After a short wait, Akış Ka, a trans performance artist, appeared in the crowd, ready to begin their performance titled “Hoş Geldin” (Welcome). Their body was painted from head to toe in patches of bright red, yellow, and blue, contoured by white lines. The center of their body was shining with glittery silver paint.
When Akış Ka entered the room, the audience’s behavior reminded me of a regular club night: it felt as if the dancing crowd scattered in front of the DJ was making room for a drag performance. Having witnessed many of Akış Ka’s performances at various parties, it was strange being in an art space with white walls instead of a darkened room lit with neon lights. I was immediately made aware of the potential limitations of a cultural institution of this kind as a space for such performances: the presence of other artworks in the space, the way a cultural institution’s architecture orients the audience, the institutional opening hours. I was curious to find out how the performance would progress in relation to other works in the exhibition, as well as to the audience.
“Hoş Geldin” took place as part of the public programming of “The 90s Onstage,” an exhibition curated by Amira Akbıyıkoğlu. The exhibition presented an interpretation of the 1990s in Turkey through performance art; although that decade was a period of political and economic instability, arts, culture, and entertainment thrived. The exhibition gathered artworks and archival material such as photographs, objects, video recordings, sketches, correspondence, posters, and brochures from selected historical performances. By including iconic TV moments, scenes reflecting daily life, and public performative gestures, the exhibition conceptualized the stage as an interface for creating communities. As an artistic practice that blurs the lines between disciplines, performance has always been an inherently experimental and political one. “The 90s Onstage” thus brought to the fore a more secular and liberal decade of Turkey, a period that is now referred to as “the old Turkey” in daily language.
Under the inclusive title “Everything Everything Everything,” artist Ali Emir Tapan and producer Efe Durmaz programmed four performance projects inspired by the exhibition. Akış Ka’s was the last in this series. Performing in an arts institution for the first time, the performer welcomed the audience to their world by presenting an abstract commentary on the exclusionary operating systems of the art world, while the title “Hoş Geldin” also references the institution welcoming the artist and offering a space where they can express themselves.
The performance began when Akış Ka walked into the space and initiated a relationship with the white wall reserved for them. Their feet made the first contact, making colored marks where they touched the surface. Then their back, hands, head, chest, and elbows followed. The movements became more forceful as the performance progressed. The verticality of the white wall slowly began to shift, as the wall instead seemed as if it were a horizontal canvas, carrying the colored traces of every move. Numerous times, Akış Ka threw themselves to the wall, and each impact of their body on the surface was incredibly loud. It was as if the artist’s struggle and fight against the institutional dynamics of the art world was being visualized and given voice to.
At times, the moves were accompanied by loud screams. Each time Akış Ka crashed into the wall with a different body part, the loud noise, the scream, and the body mark it left behind made it difficult to continue watching. As the bright colors on the artist’s body merged into each other, they turned into a brownish hue. Slowly, the paint was sweated away as the performance progressed. The forms their body took reminded me of activist moves, collaborative moves, sexual moves, dance moves, animalistic moves, and disruptive moves, along with motives such as love, comradery, and care. Nonetheless, the designated wall felt limiting, with the artist obeying to its boundaries.
The second part of the performance took place in front of the opposite wall of the gallery, where Akış Ka continued to push the limits of their body. The artist’s breathing, now faster and louder, signified that it was becoming more difficult to continue. At this point, they were painting a part of the wall with their head. Continuing with more sensual moves, they drew a heart shape on the wall using their arms. Their movements made references to the adjacent video footage from the “1st Performance Days,” which took place in 1996. Similar to what was happening live in front of the audience, the archival videos showed artists such as Mustafa Kaplan and Vahit Tuna performing against a wall. Although these performance videos presented a more experimental and abstract approach of using the body, Akış Ka appropriated their gestures to visualize what it takes to make it as a trans artist.
Of course, Akış Ka’s performance cannot be interpreted independently of Turkey’s current political situation. “The 90s Onstage” focused on a period when there was more tolerance, right before the AKP government came to rule. The current atmosphere, on the other hand, is markedly conservative, especially in terms of LGBTQA+ rights: Istanbul Pride has been denied permission by the authorities since 2015, over 300 protesters were detained for taking part in last year’s unsanctioned parade, the rainbow flag is perceived as an element of crime, the number of trans homicides has increased, and Turkey has withdrawn from the Istanbul Convention – in full, the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence – arguing that the convention was “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality, which is incompatible with Turkey’s social and family values.” 
This brings up the following question: What does performing as a queer artist in today’s political environment entail? As José Esteban Muñoz states in his influential book Cruising Utopia, “Queerness should and could be about a desire for another way of being in both the world and time, a desire that resists mandates to accept that which is not enough.”  Featuring Kübra Uzun, Kiki ggNash, Debonair Detsuki, and Akış Ka, “Everything Everything Everything” gave a platform to four prominent trans artists; however, the descriptive texts about the series fell short of openly acknowledging this fact. Recently, intentional omissions regarding identity have become more prevalent among artists, curators, writers, and institutions who are being forced to find more creative ways to express themselves in Turkey. The four performances set examples of how art practitioners can move within the limitations of a predetermined structure and create small areas to give breathing room for communities that are otherwise silenced. Although this was not underlined in the announcements, it is significant that trans artists were offered a platform as the contemporary representatives of performance art in Turkey.
Akış Ka used this platform to represent all colors by showing up painted in three primary ones: red, yellow, and blue. Performing while their body was painted in these colors that have the potential to represent all colors was a simple gesture to queer the institution, becoming especially significant when the current political situation is taken into consideration. During the performance, the contours that separated different colors on Akış Ka’s body – the white borders – disappeared slowly as the colors merged into each other with every move of the artist. Dissolving the borders on their body, Akış Ka challenged the borders between the artist and the institution, the artist and the audience, and the audience and the institution. As a permanent reminder of the performance, the marks made by Akış Ka’s body will remain on the white walls of the space, between other works, until the exhibition is closed.
“Akış Ka: Hoş Geldin [Welcome],” Salt Beyoğlu, Salt Galata, Istanbul, November 17, 2022.
Ulya Soley is a curator and writer based in Istanbul. She works at the Pera Museum.
Image credit: Photo: Mustafa Hazneci (Salt)
|||“Urgent Appeal to Council of Europe against Withdrawal from Istanbul Convention,” March 25, 2021.|
|||José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 96.|