What is it that Turkey has as a country that South Africa does not have?
I feel immensely privileged to have the opportunity to experience a culture so vastly different from my own. It is very difficult to compare the two countries. Turkey, as a culture and a society, draws on such diverse geographical and cultural experience, and as I venture further into the country its ancient origins become more and more apparent. For me, as an artist, I am continually amazed by a country that has so many visible manifestations of reverence for the sacred. The cave churches of Capadoccia, the Deyrulzafaran monastery near Mardin with the cave of the sun god beneath contemporary chapel, the Roman mosaics of Zeugma or the mosaics of the Kora Church, Istanbul, are some of the examples that immediately spring to mind.
I think I have to distinguish between my experience of Istanbul, which is the city where I now live, and the rest of Turkey, only parts of which I have visited, as a tourist. So I feel more qualified to talk about Istanbul than the rest of Turkey. The contemporary modernity of Istanbul appears to separate it significantly from the rest of Turkey. But just down our road, we still frequent the local butcher, baker, grocer, shoe maker and so on, instead of going to a big anonymous supermarket.
Where in the world can one have the kind of weekend experience one has in this city, shopping in Eminonou, drinking tea, visiting museums, having your special pen fixed by a specialist pen fixer in Sirkeci, all in one day and then the next, spending the day in Kanyon: movie, burger, some shopping. Does any other city embrace this kind of diversity?
How do you feel about being a foreigner or a foreign artist in Turkey?
Well there are two sides to it. One gets stared at a lot, but its hardly ever hostile and I tend to absorb it as part of my job description here as a 'yabanci', although I mostly don't want to be a 'yabanci' - I mean, I live here now. Somedays you really don't feel like the stares but on the other hand thank goodness people are still interested and curious about each other. But really I've been here two years now so I've had lots of opportunity to change my mind, but I think Turkish people on the whole are wonderful. And with that come all kinds of things that I love like the tea “porters” who supply an endless supply of cay to the industrious and their clients. Caybahceler are also wonderful, my favourite being Emek Cafe in Yenikoy where I can watch the ships passing (favourite subjects for painting) and where my son can feed the fish or the birds.
What are you doing right now, what do you work on?
I'm working on a series of paintings which are a response to Istanbul. These are founded in an ongoing process of drawing the city in my notebooks, its people, places, moments as I encounter them in the city. The big paintings, oil on canvas, hook the viewer in by referring to recognisable aspects of the city, the Bosphoros and its fishermen, the rooftops of Galata, the bridges but they go beyond the obvious, exploring ideas, relationships between the city and its inhabitants, the presence of the Bosphoros and the pull it seems to exert on the built environment and the people. The paintings, as I reflect on them now, explore ideas of transience and permanence, history and modernity. The paintings I think celebrate Istanbul, precisely for its willingness to embrace all it is, precisely because of its chaotic dislocations and contradictory nature. The paintings respond to its beauty and its ugliness but somehow celebrate both. Painting has to be entertaining, which is not just to say decorative - it must provoke the eye and the mind.
How does your Turkey adventure begin?
An early memory is staying in Buyukdere with my family, a rain storm, and I remember everyone was jumping around avoiding puddles, getting wet, cuddling in doorways of all the little shops and seeming to be delighting in it all. It was an immediate contrast for me from the other modern cities I have visited in America and Europe where everything can seem so well regulated, even the people.
What are the places you like to go or activities you enjoy in Turkey or Istanbul?
There's so much! Our recent visit to Antep, Urfa and Mardin was a highlight.
Locally, there are myriad tea spots along the Bosphoros. Kanlica and Kuzguncuk are great too and I recently discovered Fener. I used to have a studio on Istiklal Cadessi, always exciting, and everyone always looks like they're having such a good time there. Asmelimiscat is fantastic for all the little restaurants, bars and cafes, and Babylon, where we've seen some good music including Brooklyn Funk Essentials which we loved. Emirgan and Park Orman are great in the summer, but we miss reasonably priced public pools. And then I haven't even started to mention all the amazing historical places; Hagia Sofia the most splendid building in all the world, or the wonders of the Topkapi Palace.
Are there any similarities between the communities of South Africa and Turkey?
They are both extremely interesting societies, both transitional rather than fixed societies. I feel a greater connection to Turkish society in many ways than I do to European society where cities, institutions and society feel a lot more rigid, set in their ways. Also there are strong values inherent in traditional society in both countries that have prevented both countries from being completely absorbed by Western secular materialism. To put it another way: both countries still have heart.
What differ you and your artworks from others?
Well, that's hard to say but I've been painting for close on 20 years and people who now own my work all over the world, including collectors, writers, academics and business people often write to me to say how much they enjoy viewing and having my work around them every day. This is really gratifying to me and I think its linked to what I have said about painting needing to delight and entertain the mind and the eye. But for me painting is a way of life now.
What are your opinions about the art community of Turkey? Why do you think that Turkey, as a country with 70 million populations and descended from a strong culture, could not have raised any artist that universally known?
Firstly, the art world is a fickle place. Who succeeds in the grand universal picture often has less to do with ability and more to do with promotion, art politics, economics, fashion and so on. But with the Biennial, Contemporary Istanbul and other internationally attractive art events I think this will come in time. But I believe it's more important that Turkey nurtures its own art community and then also a community of art collectors and buyers, because after all artists have to make a living too. Turkey needs to economically support its artists with funding and exhibitions. I think art education (by qualified teachers) is a priority in schools, educating a society that has an awareness of art and its importance - also in promoting a humane society - that needs to go beyond just an appreciation of its monuments. That's why exhibitions are so well attended in London or New York: an appreciation of art and artists is so deeply enmeshed in the society.