Turkish artist Bahadırhan Pekşen
rebuilds his practice following
by Kate Mothes
“Reconstruction is a series that started before the earthquake and found its identity with the earthquake,” says Bahadırhan Pekşen, whose home and studio were leveled completely by the earthquakes that struck parts of Turkey and Syria in early 2023. “Maybe when you type Hatay or Antakya in the news, you can see some buildings still standing, but all of them are damaged and will be demolished by demolition teams. Right now, the city and people’s minds are like a construction site, and it will take years to recover.”
Pekşen began the body of work he now calls Reconstruction in 2020, already a trying time globally during the pandemic, in what would reveal itself to be a prescient creative direction. The day before the earthquake, Pekşen had seven large pieces stretched and ready to show, and a few more were spread out on the studio floor, waiting to be put on frames. Now, he says:
There is no house to return to or studio to work in. There is a new life to be built from scratch and a city to be rebuilt. Despite this trauma, we need to remain in a positive state of mind and continue to work and produce. This is easy to say, but it requires a very serious physical and mental performance. The impact of the incident on the news is fading day by day. Forgetting is a healthy manifestation of human nature. But for those of us who experienced it firsthand and still have no other alternative but Antakya, the issue is still hot with all its effects.
Continuing with these works has been an affirmation of optimism in catastrophic circumstances, enabling him to begin the process rebuilding his and his family’s lives. He is currently working to build a house and a studio in the Amanos Mountains outside of Antakya, and has focused remaining energy on his canvas works.
Blurring the boundary between painting, installation, and conceptual art, Pekşen’s practice begins in nature. “I transfer the soil, topography, surface elements, sun, wind, and rain of the coordinates I am in, over and over again, to my canvas and surrender (it) to time,” he says. The materials are based on different colored soils that relate to different geographic regions, which he uses to create pigments combined with oil paint. His geometric compositions are rich and earthy, with pieces of canvas sewn together to create an organic, patchwork surface. He often photographs them amid the ruins of buildings, nodding to the way nature can quickly reclaim what was once a shelter.
Inspired by Gutai, the Japanese avant-garde group that formed in 1954, Pekşen takes an experimental approach, allowing elements like earth, time, and light to blend with happenstance. The Gutai were known for combining painting with performance, installation, conceptual, and participatory artworks, and they often displayed their work outside of conventional galleries in places such as parks or theatrical venues. Pekşen draws on their multi-locational philosophy, focusing on relationships between the mind, body, spirit, and the Earth, and embracing the beauty of imperfection. “As much as possible, I silence the calculations of my mind and play the role of conductor between the abstract, metaphysical, and the physical,” he says.
Following the devastation of his home and life as he knew it, the artist sees hope and potential, although it will take a lot of time, resources, strength, and stamina to rebuild and to see his community return. He says:
It was a life-changing event. I can say that my artistic consciousness and my belief in art deepened and strengthened. We experienced the healing effect of art as a family during this traumatic process. The day before the earthquake, I had other name alternatives for the series. After the earthquake, there was only one alternative left, Reconstruction.
Find more on Pekşen’s Instagram.
All images © Bahadırhan Pekşen