Gülsün Karamustafa

Gülsün Karamustafa’s work has often reflected upon the hardships of forced migration as political, ethnic and economic borders are continuously redrawn. She first addressed this issue in a series of sculptural installations from the early 1990s that use fabric to evoke the vulnerability of displaced subjects. In Kuryeler [Courier] (1991), for example, three plain, white children’s vests have scraps of paper and film fragments sewn inside, which we can barely make out through the semi-translucent fabric. Nearby an unattributed quote recalls how, when crossing frontiers, exiles would give children their most precious possessions for safekeeping, framing the work within a subjective but unspecific lived experience.

Muhacir [The Settler] considers the impact of forced displacement upon women’s lives in the context of the wars that tore apart the Western Balkans in the 1990s. Dedicated to both of Karamustafa’s grandmothers, the double-screen film is loosely inspired by the ordeal that brought their families to Istanbul (one from Crimea through Bulgaria, the other from today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina). As in Kuryeler, however, these biographical references are abstracted to represent a common history: the recurring wars and migratory waves that have scarred the region since the late nineteenth century, hence putting the recent conflict in historical perspective. As if bringing two old postcards to life, the film uses a symmetrical structure to counterpose the portraits of a headscarf-clad and western-looking woman, set against the backdrop of a Balkan village and a Western Turkish city. 

With the outbreak of war, they are dispossessed of their belongings and made to swap places, the interstice between both screens standing in for the frontier between countries. Even if we might first think that they have each now landed in the right context, their apparent estrangement reminds us that identification processes and feelings of belonging are far more complex than merely matching figure and ground. – HV