Long Journey East: Asiye Allman

I have known artist Asiye Allman, formerly known as Avis Allman, for two decades. During that time, I have listened to stories about her yearly trips to Istanbul, her projects throughout Turkey, and her conversion to Islam. Asiye, her Islamic name, is a tall, white methodical woman from Philadelphia. Her story is fascinating during a time of lingering fear. Her interdisciplinary practice keeps unfolding in new and provocative ways that deserve more attention.

Studio Self-Portrait with Medina Panel, Asiye Allman, CAN Factory Mosque, 1995. (Photo by the Artist.)

Ernesto Pujol: You once studied carpet weaving among Turkish village women. I would like to hear your entire story finally woven together.

Avis Allman: I studied liberal arts: literature, history, philosophy, languages. I did not want to go to an art school. I have a BFA in painting from the former Windham College in Putney, Vermont, a school in the tradition of Bennington College. It had a fabulous art department with instructors who were an active part of the New York scene and associated with Mark di Suvero. My main teacher was Peter Forakis, the abstract geometric sculptor, who taught me color.

EP: What about your family upbringing?

AA: I grew up in an artistic environment. My father’s side of the family is very musical, in terms of jazz. My mother is a visual artist. She trained at the Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, and with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown. She wanted to paint, not to take care of a child. I remember her studio. She would roll out newsprint across her floor and invite me to start drawing at one end, working my way slowly to the other. Many of her friends were alternative women artists. The Delaware art scene was very Andrew Wyeth and his descendants. But my mother and her friends were coming out of abstract expressionism, in the footsteps of Willem de Kooning. They listened to a very different drummer. That spirited independence is the one element from my upbringing that connects to my current path.

EP: What did you do after your undergraduate studies?

AA: I graduated around the time Judy Chicago installed the Dinner Party. I was interested in feminist art so I travelled to San Francisco. But very quickly I discovered that I approached it from a very different place. I bore no anger. After a year, I returned to the East Coast and, being very practical, I pursued an MBA that got me a job as Development Assistant in the Fundraising Department of The Brooklyn Museum. Michael Botwinick directed the museum, and he was doing great things. This was followed by a position with the New York State Council on the Arts reviewing and assisting all the alternative exhibition and performance spaces throughout New York. Finally, I got a job running the Museum of Television and Radio, answering directly to its president, and that became my turning point.

EP: In what way?

AA: I realized that I could not continue as an arts administrator and practice art the way I wanted to.

EP: So what did you do?

AA: I resigned and, with money I had saved, I planned to travel to Greece seeking its light and colors. The Mediterranean loomed incredible. And then, in the middle of the night, while I was painting in my Brooklyn studio, I suddenly felt driven to also travel to Turkey, to visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque. Back at school, they had skipped Islamic art but I felt strangely drawn to it. However, I arrived to Istanbul extremely ill and, literally, went from the airplane to the emergency room of a hospital. Afterwards, I spent the next two weeks recuperating in a hotel bed, listening for the first time to the Adhan, the Muslim daily call to prayer. The call seemed to seep into my being, calming me. When I was finally well enough to walk, I visited the Blue Mosque with my paints.

EP: That was very daring for a Western woman artist.

AA: Indeed, I was unaware that there had recently been a military coup. I set up my wares outside and stood out in every way: as a contemporary artist, as a foreign woman, as a non-Muslim. So, I was suddenly surrounded by a crowd of children who fingered my brushes and tubes. Their curiosity was amazing. I also visited the Topkapi Palace and walked through the harem, its women’s quarters. As I walked through those rooms I had the profound feeling that I had been there before. Countless women’s stories suddenly reached out to me like a flood. The next day, I went to the museum and met Prof. Dr. Nurhan Atasoy, from Istanbul University, one of the great curators of Islamic art. She immediately saw the color and pattern relationships between my paintings and Islamic art and guided me to a smaller mosque, Rüstem Pasha, to study its tiles.

EP: How was stepping into an active mosque for the first time?

AA: I was wearing a simple headscarf. I entered in-between prayer times and sat in a dark corner drawing. Time flew by. Suddenly, it was prayer time again, but I had not finished! So a security guard came over and asked me to leave in every language he knew. And I have to confess that I pretended not to understand him. He finally walked away and I witnessed their prayer service. I quietly drew the worshippers as a collective with no traits that could identify them as individuals. The whole experience was of great impact.

EP: What followed then?

AA: I returned to NYC and attended Hunter College, where I took a graduate survey in Islamic art with Ülkü Bates.  I studied its colors and patterns. Everything was symbolic. My exposure to music came back and I read everything like abstract musical scores. But I was also beginning to form my own painterly vocabulary based on it. Later, while exhibiting in a group show in Germany, I was suddenly given permission by the Turkish government to study the palace harem. It was the first time an artist was allowed to do this. By the time I received the news, I only had one month left of the permit! So I rushed back to Turkey and ended up studying the harem for four years.

EP: That is amazing. The complicity of the universe. What a destiny.

AA: At first, the palace guards stood at either side of me all day long. But eventually, we got to know each other; they trusted me and left me alone. Those rooms become very cold in November and you almost hear voices. I unconsciously gravitated to the dining room of Ahmed III. I did not know why then, but a particular woman’s story spoke to me in that room. I now realize that a journey is slowly revealed to you over long period of time. So, later on, I would discover that one of the women of that period who was neither a wife nor a concubine but a manager in the harem, when she retired from her palace duties, she went on to build a small mosque for women that operated in Üsküdar, a municipality of Istanbul, until the creation of the modern Turkish Republic.

EP: You were having a multi-layered experience, tangible and intangible…

AA: I began to merge my western European education with Ottoman Turkish art, by way of the New York colorists, seeking a synthesis. I received incredible support from Islamic museum directors and curators. I quickly amassed a huge inventory of works on paper. A Turkish museum director, Nazan Tapan Ölcer, offered me a solo exhibition. Needless to say, I knew that it would be controversial on many fronts. The director wanted to mix my contemporary work with historical Islamic pieces. And it would be sponsored by the US State Department. The exhibition opened during the month of Ramadan at the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum across from the Blue Mosque. Leading to it, the museum gave me a workroom to stretch my paintings across from the Blue Mosque. Busloads of women came daily to the mosque and, after visiting it, walked across the street into the museum. My studio door was open. They all came in! And I began to have a vision: I too would build a mosque for women.

Asiye Allman, Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque Courtyard, 2008. (Photo by the Artist.)

EP: How was your exhibition received?

AA: It was a huge success. Even more busloads of women came to view it, plus the Turkish cultural elite. It received permission to tour across Turkey. At that point, I applied for a Fulbright and received it a year later. I argued that my research was visual, that my research output was visual, and I got it. It was an important transition for me because, until then, most of my work had been on paper. I pursued carpet weaving and headed for the mountains to learn it from women in the villages. I traveled to Yuntdag, a very remote place in Izmir, Turkey, and worked with a family whose male elder was a master in vegetable dyes and whose women were master weavers. We began by translating one of my paintings into a carpet. We created it together. My Turkish was still elementary so we communicated through artistic skill. Living and working closely with them reinforced my secret desire for a women’s mosque. Eventually, the carpet was finished and it was exhibited in Washington, DC, where Zeynep Bodur Okyay, the daughter of a major Turkish ceramic tile manufacturer, approached me and invited me to return to Turkey as an artist in residence in their factory.

EP: It sounds like the natural next step, even though it was as much about labor as luck.

AP: I traveled to the ceramic factory for the next six years. During that period, I also spent time in Kusadasi, a southern village, with a Turkish partner. Tragically, he suddenly died in a car accident and the factory gave me time and space to mourn. It was then that I began to let go of what was left of the Unitarian faith of my childhood. I realized that I had spiritually been a Muslim for some time. Through my ceramic work, I had met one of Turkey’s great religious scholars, Dr. Osman Sekerci, who now instructed me. I decided to journey to Mecca for my deceased partner, to perform an Umre, a secondary pilgrimage to Mecca that can be performed any part of the year. He had never been able to do it. But for that, I needed to officially become a Muslim, so I took that final step and the Muslim world fully opened before me.

EP: How was it embodied?

AA: There was a ceremony in the village of Can where the ceramic factory was. I was the first person in twenty-five years to embrace Islam. What was very private became very public. The event was filmed for Turkish TV. This was followed by two simultaneous exhibitions in Istanbul, at the Women’s Library and Information Center Foundation and at the Turkish Calligraphy Museum. Just months before, Necmettin Erbakan, an Islamist politician, had been elected Prime Minister. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, founder of the Justice and Development Party, was Mayor of Istanbul. So I presented my work within an environment of fear: Islam was encroaching Turkey’s westernized culture. Our fear of communism was being replaced by fear of fundamentalist Islam. The westernized Turkish elite and their cultural officials rejected me. My ceramic art patron, Dr. Ibrahim Bodur, became increasingly uncomfortable and withdrew his support. I found myself homeless in a Turkish village. But the progressive Islamic community embraced me. I moved into a small workspace without water and women villagers brought me food. An old woman brought me a bed. They made it habitable.

EP: Did you make art?

AA: I spent a lot of time praying and writing. And all the while, my two simultaneous exhibitions were still on view in Istanbul. So I worked with friends to recover the work and ship it out of Turkey. And I started to speak out for women. I had established friendships with people who were suffering, people coming in and out of jail. I too had been followed; my phone had been tapped.

White Roses for Love #1, Asiye Allman, Acrylic on Canvas, 2006. (Photo by the Artist.)

EP: How did you get out?

AA: I was suddenly invited by the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University to reside in Washington, DC as a Research Associate for one year. I accepted, but soon afterward asked myself “What am I doing surrounded by diplomats?” I struggled and accomplished some doctoral equivalent work. But my research was not the traditional academic kind.

EP: How did you meet the current Turkish political elite?

AA: It happened while supporting women’s rights. I was particularly involved with Turkish women’s right to education, whether they wore a veil or not. That got me the attention of the leaders of the progressive Islamic political party, including Abdullah Gül, a deputy of Parliament and currently President of Turkey. They could see both the activism in my artwork and the mystical element informed by the codes of Sufism. They became my audience. One’s audience is a very critical component of making the work. Turkish Anatolian women and political leaders had no art education, but they instinctively understood my work. They met me halfway. I found my audience in the movement for Islam and democracy, for Islam and human rights. Ten years before what we now call the Arab spring, I connected to the Democratic Muslim movement in Turkey.

EP: You synthesized art, religion and politics.

AA: I placed my artistic skills at the service of a process. My work reached out to the leaders of a Democratic Muslim movement, increasingly in power throughout the region. And the people I worked with in the trenches eventually became key government leaders.

EP: How did September 11 affect your practice?

AA: As a visual scholar, prior to 9/11, I was one of the voices sharing first-hand cultural observations with friendly policy makers in Washington, DC. My artwork was a bridge on behalf of the Middle East.

EP: But I remember that you suddenly went under the radar.

AA: My German-American family suffered very much during the First and Second World Wars. They experienced discrimination. I knew that it could happen again to them through my involvement in the Middle East process. So I withdrew; I opted to work quietly, developing the more philosophical and spiritual aspects of my artwork. In 2005, I came out and choreographed a performance in a mosque. The desire to create a mosque for women had never left me. I staged a performance piece at the Sehzade Mosque, an Ottoman imperial mosque located in the District of Faith, on the third hill of Istanbul, where I collaborated with Selman Okumus, a young Imam and a reciter of the Koran, a Hafiz. We occupied a space in the complex and I created an ephemeral mosque for women during one night. We utilized the prayer hall of the mosque’s school. I selected verses from the Koran and installed tapestries I had created with a group of women. They displayed the names of important women in the Koran, and their stories. The audience was seated outside, in the mosque’s courtyard, listening and watching it through live video.

EP: That sounds like another turning point.

AA: That audience consisted of a very select group of policy makers, including officials from the Presidency of Religious Affairs. I had to earn their trust for what I wanted to do next, as my twenty-fifth anniversary of making art in Turkey approached in 2008. I commemorated it with a retrospective in Istanbul, and with an exhibition in the courtyard of the Blue Mosque. The courtyard was hung with very large banners. I engaged its arches and its visitors were my performers. My greatest fear was whether I could create something that had impact even as it remained respectful.

EP: And you achieved it.

AA: I achieved something extraordinary. It was a huge leap, a very rare thing in the Muslim world.

EP: So, what is Asiye planning to do next?

AA: My thirtieth anniversary of working in Turkey is fast approaching. Last September 2011, I ran into Tayyip Recep Erdogan, the former Mayor of Istanbul and now Prime Minister of Turkey, during his visit to New York. He singled me out within a huge crowd, across a stateroom. He called my name and the press corps parted, wandering “Who is this woman?” It had been four or five years since I last saw him. You have to understand that I know him since he worked at a grassroots level, when he was imprisoned. And he invited me to visit him when next in Turkey. Then, in December, I was in Istanbul with no hope of seeing him because his mother had passed away and he was very ill. But he received me in a special private audience and we remembered his mother. On my way back to the States, I sat next to a Turkish architect on the plane and shared my dream of a women’s mosque with him. We are now meeting this fall in Istanbul to collaborate on the building’s design. It is time to return to the vision I once experienced; it is time to build a mosque for women in Istanbul.

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