He is spot-on for this one: these are the last days before Turkey completes the process of presenting its proposals for a new constitution to Parliament. One of the more spectacular gatherings will take place in İstanbul on Saturday, bringing together approximately 1,500 randomly selected people, forming a microcosm of the country to discuss and express suggestions on the basic issues of freedom, rights and justice.
Ataman is determined to portray the entire diversity of Turkey as a collective and fluid art form in his new project, beginning in early May. He aims to draw a parallel to the process of drafting a new constitution.
His idea, which he calls “Silsel,” makes his project the most interesting part of the International Theatre Festival of İstanbul, whose overall theme this year is “Freedom-Questionings.” Where did it come from? It all began with an incomplete journey to Syria. Last year Ataman wanted to travel there to shoot a video, but it coincided with the start of Syrian unrest. Ataman found himself stuck in Mardin, close to the border. While walking around the ancient city, once the home of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate, he was led by a local friend to the home of an elderly lady, Nasra Hanım.
Inside, Ataman was stunned by the ceiling. It was painted in zigzagging turquoise patterns. “What is this?” he asked. Nasra Hanım told him, “Silsel.” In the old, troubled times (probably meaning ethnic upheaval) the Christian Syriacs, fearing to go outside, painted their dreams of a real sky on the ceilings, she said.
Ataman found out the word was from Aramaic, the language of the Bible. It meant both “sky” and “fluttering of wings.” This was “the moment” for Ataman to envision this as a grand metaphor for the inner dynamics of his native land and its surroundings down South in the Arab awakening. He was overwhelmed with the notion of leading a collective art project in the festival, using the people of Turkey, without any consideration of age, gender, ethnicity or creed, as “actors.”
“I did not care whether or not what Nasra Hanım told me was true. I have heard a lot of myths like that. I am an artist, not an historian. The only thing that matters is that what she tells is real,” Ataman told us, when we gathered for a chat on the project. He became most interested with the “dreaming of reality.”
“What is our dream about Turkey?” he asked, and found himself in the middle of a society negotiating for more freedom and justice, trying to unchain itself from decades of horrific nightmares. He now asks everybody -- anybody -- who dreams and desires, to come to the workshop (or “performance space”) he will set up in an old Greek school in the Karaköy district. What he expects is that people will write “a letter to Turkey, or on Turkey” on a strip of fabric, to be sewn together with others’ similar work, into a massive “Silsel.” It can be written in any language or an invented language. Or it could simply be a painting, motif, or color. There are only very few limitations: the strips’ width must not be over 45 centimeters and the “texts” will not be allowed to contain hate speech, racism, or glorification of violence.
The project will be open from May 8 through the end of the Theatre Festival. People will be asked to stitch one after another to create, as it were, a statue of cloth that will rise, open-ended, as a collection of dreams. It could turn into a huge roll. But no worries -- Ataman thinks it will be like the Olympic Flame. He intends to take some pieces to other places, cities and countries, to “plant them” there, to develop into other “Silsels”; a gigantic sky, dreamed by millions.
He told us he had already received some strips of fabric from participants. The first one came from Mardin, in a blend of Turkish and Kurdish. His hope is that the giant fabric message will truly prove that the folks on this land are ready and willing to accept their differences, both in dreams and reality. Who knows? Perhaps a naive depiction on a Mardin ceiling can have the power to make this a (slightly) better world.