Crossing the Line: Ipek Duben’s Armenian Problem

After the assasination of Hrant Dink, I’ve been seeking signs that saner heads have prevailed in Turkish society and the emerging generation has no time for nationalist fictions that deny the Armenian Genocide and only strain to see Turkey as a bastion of all things good.

Elif Shafak (check out her spiffy new website), who I’ve known for years, was my first tangible sign that the cold war between Turkey and truth was thawing. Her latest novel Bastard of Istanbul, which almost landed her in jail, was a major attempt at reconciling (or examining) the fictions and realities of Turkey’s past and present. Detail of Ipek Duben’s “Crossings,” 2007

Art101‘s “Crossings” (January 2007) by Turkish artist Ipek Duben seemed to promise similar hope in what seemed to be an examination of refugees over the past century, one screen printed image poetically had the words “Farewell My Homeland” embroidered on it. But what I actually saw was a compact show (smaller than a Manhattan studio apartment) rife with a nationalist Turkish narrative that undermines her message of compassion and haunts the ghostly images.

In her artist statement, Duben explains, “Crossing begins with the flow of refugees into Turkey from the Balkan Wars of 1912, and covers events across the borders of India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Mexico, Gaza, Kosovo, Rwanda, Russia, Germany, Azerbaijan, Albania, and displacements in Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, China and more.”

Why begin in 1912–what is significant about that date? Why does Duben omit Turkey’s own human rights catastrophes during the 20th C. that created massive waves of refugees, like the Armenian Genocide, the Assyrian Genocide, the oppression of Kurds.

Why bring this up? Well, as Time Magazine insisted in a January 23, 2007 article “Editor’s [read Hrant Dink’s] Death Spotlights Turkish Nationalism.” Today, Turkish nationalist distortions are becoming mainstays in Turkey–and in my opinion, need to be challenged and not ignored.

Last year, I interviewed the Turkish American Professor, Muge Fatma Gocek, who explained to me that there seems to be two camps in Turkey regarding the Armenian Genocide. One faction tends to be native to Anatolia, has no objection to questioning the official story that no genocide occurred, and is eager to learn the truth. The second group is dominated by the descendants of displaced Muslims that entered Turkey in the early 20th C., is less likely to question official Turkish narratives, and prefers to harp on their own displacement as an unhealed wound. I couldn’t help but wonder if Duben fell into the second category and, as a result, was unable to shed her provincialism and connect to any universal truth–it is a shame since she obviously has an interesting aesthetic and an interest in speaking up for injustice.

Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan arriving at a border post  after fleeing fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forcesIn another glaring omission, Duben includes Azeris (which are cultural and linguistically related to Turks) refugees from the Azeri-Karabakh conflict (1991-1994) but then omits any mention of the hundreds of thousands of Armenians that faced pogroms and deportation in Azerbaijan.

Perhaps one day, Hrant Dink’s dream of a multicultural Turkey that includes a frank examination of its past will happen, but until then, I hope Duben (who obviously has an artistic ability to empathize) will reexamine the cultural bias that she grew up with and learn that art is successful when it illuminates truth and doesn’t obscure it.

Bottom image caption: Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan arriving at a border post after fleeing fighting between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces (

4 responses to “Crossing the Line: Ipek Duben’s Armenian Problem”

  1. Amy Avatar

    Nice review, Hrag! I like the line about the cold war between Turkey and truth. You’re always so keen at finding subtexts. Thanks for writing art reviews!

  2. ellen rand Avatar

    I wonder if art, art that questions and provokes, is required to be historically exact and inclusive? It seems to me that Ipek Duben is exploring the issue of refugees; that of being forced to forsake one’s home or homeland; the displacement, isolation, the material and emotional loss — to mention just the beginning of the horrors. If she can call some of this tragic situation to the attention of her audience, is she not making a contribution and achieving her goal? Should every horrific event be included, whether or not it is part of her national heritage? Must her heritage be part of the installation? Do we have to know her exact place in the social structure, or that of her forbears? She does not demand adherence to a particular doctrine. She is making a piece of art.

  3. Ipek Duben Avatar
    Ipek Duben

    It is unfortunate that you have seriously misunderstood my artistic intentions. I have no interest in diminishing the suffering of any ethnic group or nationality including the Armenians. My purpose was to focus on forced migration and displacement in a generic sense, not in any historical detail. The universal drama of forced migration was certainly evident in the photographs including some of those depicting ethnic groups you indicated I omitted in my statement such as the Kurds. As I would have hoped is clear from my poem which is an integral part of this work, my fundamental concern is with human suffering as a universal condition whether those suffering be Turks, Armenians, Vietnamese or Rwandans. It is important to remember that I am an artist, not an historian or a politician.

    If you had been able to see my work in this perspective you might not have felt the need to engage in character assassination.

  4. Hrag Avatar

    Thanks for all your comments, healthy debate is crucial to the arts and I welcome all commentary.

    “Crossings” chose as its starting point a very political subject (refugees) and then a specific starting point for its 20th century history (I venture to guess that no one other than a citizen of Turkey would choose the 1906 migration of Balkan Turks to Turkey as a point of departure). The images were also chosen and identified with labels that highlight their subject matter. All these point to a specific narration of refugees, which calls into question what is omitted. The artist is not a historian, but when an artist utilizes politics and history there is an active “choosing” and “curating” of the representation. Perhaps it is a truism to say all art is political, but it is particularly true when an artist functions in a society that has strict political taboos and makes work political in nature.

    I see obvious aesthetic value in “Crossings,” the script of the introductory text was quite lovely, but the framework was problematic.

    I believe that as artists, writers and other creative professionals, we have a duty to engage in a forum of ideas and sometimes our experiments are not successful.

    I am happy to hear that your intention was not consciously omitting history but an artist’s intention to the viewer can only be communicated through the work and its success or failure depends on the clarity of that expression.

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