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Yakup CEM: The arts of Western, Eastern and the
Ottoman can stand together...

An Interview by Bircan ÜNVER


The miniature master, artist and academic Yakup Cem opened an exhbition at the art gallery of New York Tourism office (46st street and 1st avenue) between May 15- June 15. Azerbaijani decendant Yakup Cem was born in Iran and he is a Turkish citizen, who exhibited “Ottoman Period” padishah portraits (18 pieces) painted with oil on canvas, still-life, figurative and book compositions along with two water color paintings and two miniatures. The exhibition took place with the sponsorship of the New York, Turkish general counsulate Omer Orhon.

Yakup Cem represents and reflects in his paintings motives and element with softness, great patient and in details of “Ottoman” and "Islamic Arts" as master as well as basic techniques of classic western painting’s (usage of light, expression of the portraits, including third dimension etc.) and its capacities. Based on the exhibition, composing within a combination of “traditional arts”  and “western painting”, brought in a different dimension, expression and a different point of view and approach which consisting such definitions.

Below, we would like to share an interview with the artist himself on the exhibition. The interview realized during the exhibition at the art gallery of Tourism Office… 

- Although your exhibition has been defined as a "Miniature" exhibiton, it represents the tecniques and esthetics of western art and oil-color. How would you define this exhibition?

- As you have mentioned this exhibition should not be pronounced as Miniature exhibiton. The reason the word miniature is pronounced in defining the exhibition is because I am an academic in the department of Miniature in Mimar Sinan University and it is also because I am known as a master of miniatures both in Iran and Turkey. I also have works of art about miniature arts, but this exhibition mostly conveys oil-color on canvas rather more than Ottoman or Iran Miniatures. Usually oil-color painting does not consist of details and the miniature art on the contrary has details applied in small portions. Because I educated myself and became a master of miniature arts, the oil paintings I also represent some elements of Miniature art with neat details on my oil-color paintings.  This reason, the pronunciation of Miniature exhibition is not far away from the essence and the content of the exhibition.

- The Ottoman Padishas series with tecniquely-material and esthetically have the traces of Renaisance painting but it is still called Miniature arts, what is your comment  on that?

- Besides the exbition is called "Ottoman Miniatures - A Painting Exhibition", it does not state that only miniatures are at this exhibition. The Ottoman Padishah portraits I painted with oil and used valuable stones have nothing to do with the art of Miniatures. They can be defined as portraits.

1) Mehmet Resat
2) Detail of Mehmet Resat's Portrait

- Can we evaluate your over all exhibition approach as a synthesis of the definition of Renaissance painting and the content of Ottoman and Eastern Culture?

- Yes.

- What did you motivate you bringing together the basic factors and the elements and techniques of East, Ottoman Culture and the western art?

- We live in such a century that all the boundaries have been removed and all the cultures are mixed with each other. So I had the urge to work with a more global composition instead of working only with Ottoman culture. I prefer to stay within western art as far as my techique goes because it is more impressive and challenges the art within. I also prefer to work with objects from our culture which impress me more and I am delighted to work with them. Also, still-life does not only come from the Western art. All still-life paintings are packed in a single room (The Fruit Room) at the Topkapi Palace. These paintings in the Fruit Room are examples of still-life made with miniature techniques as well as samples of still-life paintings in the Ottoman arts. Especially in Memluk Miniatures you can easily notice the sign of miniature art.

- How do you define the presence of Miniature and Tezhip art which are the traditional and religious works of art in Turkey and in many Islamic countries which they were born in or performed since centuries?

- Miniature and Tezhip are about to disappear. Art is has a fast pace of change just like technology. You know how our life gets much easier, artists go well along with this simplicity the change brings. This way works of art with little effort and patience showed up. The hardship of handcrafting and focus of the eye has left its place to thought. In the olden days and the arts performed in those times did not have high values of philosophy showing up front. We seldom notice issues like this in Miniature and Tezhip. I could even say that Tezhip has nothing to do with thought at all. As per the art of today is getting richer and based on power of thought replacing the handscraft which directs the art of world today.

- As an artist that knows Iran, Turkey and the U.S.A. what do you think about your contributions both to Miniature and the world art with your paintings and miniatures?

- I believe I brought new dimensions to art of painting; working on a shell is something only I work with. There maybe small statues and icons made out of shell but painting on them is my speciality. I chose to work with real valuable stones on The Padishah portraits in this exhibiton, in stead of painting them. The painting titled, Leyla•s Camel is unique in the world which can be considered as a miniature. In this painting I worked with valuable stones like diamonds, gold, some leather, bones, horns and ivory. I have taken the traditional miniature art to a different dimension. You can also find the self-species of the objects I use. Especially the piece of carpet in the painting has the real touch of carpet not only visual but can be felt with the tip of our fingers. 

1) Vanitas - Still-Life (left)
2) Vanitas - detail (above)

- Your painting Vanitas Still-life is composed on a table with diagonal composition with objects such as a silk carpet, books, a skull, clock and etc. At the same time these objects composed around with triple statue which is large and dominant in dimension comparing with its surroundings. In other words with this painting you accomplished a very impressive composition which we can define it as a synthesis and uniqe sample of the Ottoman-Renaissance arts. What is the message you would like to give?

- I made this painting during the time I was in New York. It is called Vanitas Still-life and its painting has not dried yet. I took the picture of the statue from a book. I created the position and the combination of the statue.  My intention is not to repeat what the western artists are doing, it is presenting our objects in their style. We do not have statues because of this I wanted to present the western art along with ours. At the same time, we can say that it may be a good example to where the thought that western, eastern and the Ottoman arts can stand well together. I make my paintings by listening to my instincts and as it flows from the inside. My researches and the elements may be considered the same wasy. All my paintings are results of following my inner voice.


I got great support from my son Sehriyar while I was painting this. My wife Sima's comments are also always positive for me. For example in this painting there is a shadow on the wall (background), which reflects a window frame from across the room. This idea was a great contribution of Sehriyar. My son's point of view is an important advantage for me. At my paintings, with the first comments of Sehriyar minimized my mistakes as well as he contributes for the content of my works...

Going back to Vanitas, there nothing similar to it in the western art of the world, I can make sure that it may only be close to it by style. This is a result of my thought. My son can explain you my thoughts about this painting better.

Sehriyar: Bu resim Osmanli yazisi gibi sagdan baslayip yükselen bir resim. Sagda, masanin en ucunda yer alan kafa tasindan baslayip, yukariya dogru bir akis var. Esasinda insandan, doguya ve dogudan sonra batiya bir akis var. O arkaya atilan golgede o akisi kesmek icin zaten. Üçüncü bir boyut katiyor, ve arkaplani zenginlestiriyor. O olmadigi zaman resimde estetik ve kadraj acisindan bu akis çok goze batiyor. Oysa golge onu kesiyor. Golgenin resme dahil edilmesinin teknik nedeni budur.

Sehriyar: This painting is like an Ottoman script rising from the right hand side. There is a flow starting from the skull at the right hand side of the painting to the top. In fact there is flow to east, then from east to the west. The shadow behind it is to stop the flow. It adds a third dimension and makes the background richer. The flow is too obvious but the background shadow stops the flow. This is the only reason it is included in this painting.

The name of the painting is the root of the word "Vanity" in Latin. The theme of "Vanitas" means that our earthly belongings and richness are all in vain and that life is too short. Vanitas Still-life; is the name of many paintings done in Renaissance. The skull represents the mortal life, the other elements represent the passing life, that is why my father chose "Vanitas".

- Now can we talk about the painting Harem's Captive and its bars? 

- This painting symbolizes a woman prisoned into the Harem and is presented behind bars symbolizing prisoning. The husbands of the women in those times because their husband had more than one wife were left alone most of times, although they live in wonderful palaces or houses, the world for them is not heavenly. This a scene from that point of view. The frame of the painting and the bars over the painting, I made them myself from the pieces of wood that came out of  the old Turkish Palaces.

- Sehriyar: I would like to note something about that. My father did not craft this frame himself. This frame was created bringing together hundred years old wooden elements that were collected from old doors and palaces.

I have to mention that this frame is as important as this painting because the reflections of the painting as you noticed are a result of painting the bars one by one. This frame is the part of the painting, you can neither chage it nor replace it. 

- Rather than painting  the thought of  "bars" or "barrier" on the painting,  making it real with wood,  where did this idea  rise from?

- Instead of drawing I wanted give the painting a third dimension by using the originals. Just like the jewelry I used making the portraits, I wanted include the original elements in the painting. In this means I wanted to use Mixed media instead of limiting myself only oil on Canvas. 

The iron bars and the frame brings out the beauty and the theme that the woman in the picture ready to burst into tears, her innocence along with her lonliness.

When did you paint Leyla's Camel?

Thought arose in Iran as first, I started to design it in Iran then I came to Turkey where Turkish Miniature inspired me in terms of developing the painting and I finished it after 7 years. Of course I did not work day and night for seven years. Sometimes I did not touch it for 6 months and sometimes I worked day and night for another six months. I worked on the four legs after washing and re-drawing for 4 times. It can be washed because it is made out of leather. The seddle on the camel is made out of mammoth ivory. It is about a million years old. The motives I made that are on the Leyla's harp are inspired from the motives on the sword of Sultan Suleyman. This part was made in Turkey completely. All of the 32 strings on the harp are 24 karat gold, if they were not gold they would not be as neat as it is now. All of the strings have screws behind it and we accorded them with Sehriyar. The crown is made of diamonds over the gold. 

There are about 700 creatures touching each other on "Leyla's Camel". The muscles of the human in front of the camel is made out of Samur.

Sehriyar: Each figure is the continuation of one another, e.g. the casket on the soldier•s head is at the same time the chin of the horse. You can notice the horse even though you delete or remove the soldier. This is similar to Escher's style.

Y.Cem: "Leyla'nin Devesi'nin temasi ise adindan da anlasilacagi üzere, "Leyla ile Mecnun'un bir yorumudur ve deve de, Leyla'nin devesidir. Mecnun'un çektigi azaplar, çolde ki yanlizliklarini simgeleyen bir resim. Devenin bezendigi yaratiklar ise, Mecnun'un yasadigi savaslari ve acilarini yansitir. Ve burada çok muhtesem bir siir var. Devenin ayaklari bastigi çamurlarda, insan yüzleri var, gorüyorsunuz. Bu ayni zamanda"Hayyam"in felsefesidir. Der ki, "Bir odada çok saygili bir sekilde oturmalisin, belki duvardan bir padisah bakiyor sana." Veya, "Meneksenin üzerine ayagin ile basma, belki bir güzelin yattigi topraktan cikmistir o menekse." Ve bir yerde diyor ki, "Ben olüp gidince benim topragimdan bir testi yapilsin ve sen o testiden sarap ic bir gün, dudagin dudagima degsin."

Y. Cem: The theme of Leyla's Camel as you may notice from the title is a composition of Leyla and Mecnun and the camel is Leyla's. It represents the suffering of Mecnun and their loneliness in the desert. The creaturs covering the camel represent the war Mecnun went through and his pain. Here, there is a magnificiant poem underlying underneath of the painting. At the mud the camel is stepping on you may see the faces of humanbeings. This is at the same time one of Hayyam phylosphy. It says "you should sit there with all your respect, The padishah may be watching you over the wall", or "do not step on the flower with your foot, that flower might be coming out of a beauty. In another place he says, "Make a pot from the soil when I die and pass away and drink from that pot so that my lips may touch your lips". 

- The four legs of the camel consists of new figures. We do not see much similar examples neither in Ottoman nor in Eastern art. How do you comment on that?

- Bu sadece çizgiler ile oynamak. Estetik degerler çok on planda. Fakat, daha da doguya giderseniz, uzak dogu minyatürlerinde cokca nü figürlere de rastlarsiniz. This playing with drawing and lines. The esthetic values are important. If you go deeper in the east you may notice a lot of new figures in the far eastern miniatures.

- Your painting titled, " Bookcase with Marilyn" is made on wood and you have created a real bookcase dimension...

- Because the lids would not be opened otherwise. I gave place to Photos of Marilyn Monroe and Abraham Lincoln because I admire them as humanbeings for the exhibition reasons I prepared in U.S.A.

- What about books of Michelangelo, Goya, Islamic Art you gave place in the bookcase in the painting?

- These are books in my bookcase, I painted them and they look good.

- How did the idea if painting a bookcase come up?

- I made this case out of wood before. First I built the case and then painted on it. I did what my inner voice wanted me to do. This how the "Mix Media" studies began to show upfront. The most special part of this painting is that the books have pages one by one. I worked on this painting for 7 months every day and night.

- How did you start bookcase paintings period? Is there demand or is it just because of your inner self?

- No I made it because I like the book. Books as elements is motionless, immortal, and does not disappear among the painting. If you think about an apple or a flower they do not look the same after three days. I learned a lot from these books and they are valuable to me. I like books the most after my sons. Because I have got a lot of information from the books, all I have learned is from the books, I like them because they are my master. I learned everything from them. I read a lot about literature and philosophy. I do not have an university career in that field but I read by myself and educated myself, I think I have a considered level in literature field especially Iranian Literature.

1) 4 Elements
2) Detail of the 4 Elements

-On your "bookcase" paintings, I interpreted that you have books from the Ottoman period with their cultural references as well as western books plus Marylin Monroe photograph in one of the bookcase paintings, does this say that it is a synthesis of popular culture with 19th century paintings? After all many details in Leyla's Camel and bookcase paintings the details such as thinness of the pages of the books with library records, what is the inspiration source for your in a way abstract and as well as lanscape painting titled, "4 Elements" ?

- I am connected to my heart. I do what it tells me to do. I have modern paintings done during my educational years. I have a painting about "space" in Istanbul. It is a surrealist work. Evevryone has a different way to look at the four elements on earth. This is my way of looking at it. For this painting I chose a skull to represent earthand added water and a lightning. As you know the water, earth, wind and fire. I wanted to gather the four elements together.

- The purity of the four elements creates an impressive effect comparing to padishah portraits, Vanitas, Leyla's camel and the bookcase!

- It is different but I have poetic moods. I go into different transformations when I am painting, also into poetries and different subjects. In my work titled "4 Elements" the human being comes out from the earth and goes back into earth. The skull represents the human inside earth. People has come and has gone. Everyone leaves a legend behind them on their own but all of them are destined to die and leave this deadly earth. This painting suddenly came out, I reply to questions as "I do not care whether it is a miniature or not". I am very happy with this picture, as a result I do what my heart wants me to do.

- How did the idea of this painting arise?

- I was in a time of hardship, my kids were not feeling well in America. They suffered a lot. That's how it suddenly hit me. I could say it is a continuation of "Vanitas".

- If we dive into more general subjects, do you ever worry if the art of miniature or the art of east is disappearing? Or do you think that todays schools and ateliers are good enough for these arts to continue in the future in this means?

- I worry that traditional arts may not existing in the future. As you know the old art could not succeed to exist today and it disappeared. There were only 18 students in the classroom while I was teaching in Mimar Sinan University, Traditional Turkish Arts divison. This year it has come down to only one. At the same time there was a bid fall in the number of students applying for Traditional arts comparing to previous years.

- What do you think about the interest of the new students that registar for Traditional Turkish Arts and how do you evaluate them besides the fall in the number of registration?For example: do you see the potential in these students whether thay can perform these arts world-wide? Or do you see them in search for this goal?

- First of all the art of miniature should not be evaluated as Turkish. As I mention earlier, we are experiencing a big number of fall in the number of students. It is hard to find that joy and willing in these students that continue educating in this area. I could say that there is a great deal of interest in "miniature" and "tezhip" in the classes I teach other than the university. If somebody ever gets famous it will be from these sessions of classes.

- What is your ultimate edge you want to take your art to? Or where would you like to be in the world of art and do you picture your art there? 

- I have covered a long way in my paintings, this feedback is from the people who watch my art in different periods and different countries, and I see the result is positive and in front of everybody's eyes. We have much or less talked about my contribution to the world of arts earlier, thus I prefer not to evaluate myself. My friends, the art lovers, and the collectioners have got more to say about this matter. I perform the way I want to and I will continue. In fact there is nothing I wanted to do but I could not. Especially about painting I have pictured all my imaginations so far and more to come will interest my audience. I would be happy to perform in the new museums that will open up all over the world and Turkey.

- Would you like to add anything?

- I owe my success to my family. Their comments and critics are very creative for me.

_ . _

Translated by Babur ALBAYRAK

Special thanks to Asli & Zeynep VELIDEDEOGLU

E-mail: contact@lightmillennium.org

© Bircan Ünver, Light Millennium, Haziran 2003, New York

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