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Reimagining Cities, Ali Yaycıoğlu

Ali Yaycıoğlu is a historian and artist living in Palo Alto, California and Istanbul. He is professor of Ottoman History at Stanford University. He received his Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Histiry from Harvard University and then he carried out postdoctoral studies at the Agha Khan Program in Islamic Architecture at Harvard and the Program in Hellenic Studies at Princeton Universities. He started painting when he was a child and he has continued drawing and painting since then. He participated some collective exhibitions in Turkey and Eastern Europe. Ali Yaycıoğlu also makes book and journal covers for publishers in Turkey and the US.

We talk to Ali about his inspiration, creative process and future plans.

What was your journey to becoming an artist and have you undertaken any formal art training?

It was a journey indeed. My first education was in an art school for children in Ankara. The school was supervised by two prominent Turkish painters, Eşref Üren (d. 1984) and Osman Zeki Oral (d. 2012). It was the early 1980s. I attended some exhibitions as a child painter in Turkey and Eastern Europe. Then, I continued to practice art during my high school years. Meanwhile I worked in my father's civil engineering and architecture firm, where I learned technical drawing. I continued my art journey during my college years in Turkey and graduate school years in Canada and the US. I carried out graduate study in Islamic history at McGill and did a Ph.D. in Ottoman and Middle Eastern history at Harvard.

There, I developed a profound interest in Islamic (Ottoman and Persianate) painting as well as history of architecture. In fact, my Ph.D. proposal when I applied to Harvard was on Ottoman mosques. I did not continue this project. But, after my graduate study at Harvard, I became a postdoctoral fellow at the Agha Khan Program in Islamic Architecture. For the last 5 years, I have taken my art life more seriously. I try to combine my interests in history, art, and technical drawing.

You have a strong admiration of history and architecture, why architecture in particular?

As I mentioned, I worked in an engineering and architecture firm and learned technical drawing. I have been always interested in space and its representation in drawings. Space has been always a miracle for me. Especially urban space. I love thinking on the engagement and tension between nature and architecture, topography and design. If you study technical drawing, you have a great tool to play with spatiality. I remember myself staring at Ankara and Istanbul from the parks on the hills, drawing dimensions, lines, spirals, colors... in the abstract. At one stage, I started sketching cities. I decided that I should learn cities via sketching while travelling. I kept sketch notebooks for Ankara, Istanbul, Paris, Vienna, Isfahan, Montreal, Boston, San Francisco....

Through your work you depict imaginary cities and landscapes, where do you find your inspiration?

Of course, I am inspired by many artists and traditions, from the 16th- to17th-century Dutch landscape painting to the 18th-century Italian urban painting, from 19th century German romantic landscape painting to the early 20th century Japanese drawings.... But Seljuk, Timurid, Ottoman, and Safavid painting have a particular place in my way of thinking on space. I try to understand how natural and built space, landscape and architecture were produced in Ottoman-Persian art. But I should say that the inspiration is not direct. Yes, I try to learn the history of Islamic painting... but then I do not necessarily establish a direct link. Inspirations are very indirect. Sometimes I borrow certain elements from different traditions and then I reinterpret them; I have my own adventure.

What meanings do these buildings and cities hold for you?

Building and cities are human constructions. They are product of labor and certain imaginations. So, I respect the built space. It does not mean that I love all built spaces. Often, I prefer pastoral environments to spend time. But the built space to me is extremely inspiring. Built space is a historical process. It has layers of time. A city with its architecture is a historical setting, in which multiple times are interwoven. Built space has layers of class, gender, race.... It has memories. It houses joy and sorrow. It ruins. All these make the built space a wonder to draw.

How does Islamic history and culture influence your work?

Islamic history and culture have a profound impact on my work. As I said, I have been studying Ottoman and Persian painting. They are important sources of inspiration. But not only painting; I am very much interested in how space and place were conceptualized, produced, and practiced in Islamicate world(s). As a historian, I intend to write a book on production of space (as Henry Lefebvre formulated) in early modern Ottoman world. For this aim, I have been reading on Islamic geography, cosmology, and architecture. I hope to somehow integrate my painting and my historical scholarship in this book project.

Does your identity and heritage impact your creativity?

Yes of course. I grew up in Turkey. My way of seeing space was shaped by the spatial context of Turkey, particularly Ankara and Istanbul. But also, in my art there is a touch of spirituality. Sometimes I problematizes the spiritual (for instance the way that I depict the letter و with cloths and traffic cone); sometimes I just accept the spiritual via calligraphy. I adore Islamic calligraphy. As a person who grew up in Turkey, Arabic letters have been always a bit of an enigma. After I learned Ottoman-Turkish, then Arabic and Persian, Islamic calligraphy became an essential part of my life.

You draw and paint, what mediums and materials do you use to create your works?

I use pencil, pastel, acrylic, gauche, watercolor and oil paint. I use almost all mediums. I am also into digital painting. It is new but I want to do interactive art via digital tools.

Your work is incredibly detailed, what is your creative process and how long does it take you to create a painting?

It really depends. Some of them takes days. Some of them hours. Details are a big part of my work. I do not like the term miniature but yes, there is an element of miniature painting in my art. I want people to see different details in my paintings. Details are open ending stories, and they go beautifully with drawings of urban space and architecture.

The colours you use are so vivid, how do you select your paints and colours, is there a lot of blending and mixing to get the right shades and textures?

Acrylic is a great tool for vivid colors, especially on dark paper or canvas. As any artist, I have my own obsessed color set: various reds and oranges, different tones between blue and green. Greenish blue, blueish green. I love purples, my grandmother's favorite color. Silver and gold.

When I use oil and water or gauche, yes, I do lot of blending. Again, with oil painting, I do lots of texturing. I often mix mediums: pencil, acrylic, even oil paints and silver and gold markers.

What has been the most challenging work you have created and how did you overcome obstacles?

The most challenging work is two Seljuk-inspired zodiacs. One of them is an interpretation of Seljuk model with detailed figures, architectural representations, and ornaments. The other is a reinterpretation of the first one with historical and contemporary figures, and objects. I drew the first one for my wife Patricia Blessing, who is an historian of medieval Islamic architecture. The second one was to accompany it, but it was sold. It is in private collection in LA now. I miss it.

What do you hope audiences feel or think when they encounter your work?

I hope them to see different historical, social, material layers ensembled. In a way, yes, there is an historical depth in my paintings, but in fact they were ahistorical, even anti-historical. I hope to disorient the sense of time and space and give a little bit freedom from historical and spatial assumptions.

What are your creative plans and hopes? Projects in the pipeline?

I want to do larger scale paintings, on larger canvases and perhaps on walls. It does not mean that I will stop small scale, even miniature painting. I have been doing book covers. I will probably continue that. A couple of publishers are interested in preparing a book on my art. In fact, with two of my friends, we started a project. One of us has prepared a charming codex with a beautiful binding. I have been drawing on each page. And the other friend will curate the codex. She will ask different writers to prepare short texts on my drawings. We will see.

What does the future of Islamic arts and culture look like to you? What are the opportunities and potential?

There are lots of opportunities for artists who somehow associate themselves with Islamic artistic traditions and cultures. First, Islamic painting, architecture and material culture should be well appreciated. This is crucial. As I said, I am not traditionalist. But a sincere and learned engagement with the tradition can be very inspiring. At one point, I am not sure "Islamic art" as modern or postmodern enterprise is a useful term. Even for premodern Art, the term Islamic art is problematic as recently our colleague Wendy Shaw argues in her What is Islamic Art?. Perhaps a better term would be Islam-inspired art.

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The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


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