The Light Rises From the East:
The Work & Life of Erol Akyavas

by Mehmet DEDE

The following paper was prepared for "Modern Art and Contemporary Culture," a course taught at NYU by RoseLee Goldberg, and was presented on Feb 23. 2001. I am grateful to Bircan Unver who has provided me with reference material and other information on the artist.

"When I came to the US, I considered myself European, and then realized in fact that I never had been and never could be European; I was Eastern."

- Erol Akyavas

The central philosophy of Erol Akyavas' works is to disclose the spiritual stillness of the East as it collides with the visual din of the West. The repercussion is not a nemesis in this case, but sublime paintings, beautiful calligraphies, and complex iconographies that are testimonies of his journey toward the light.

Akyavas is a visual laureate, who instead of
documenting his environment turned inwards. That is why his journey is rhetorical: It is to the light that is inside, which is himself. The more he eschewed artificiality and synthetic pleasures of the outer world, the more purified he became. The resulting paintings are journal entries of his spiritual search that borrow from the Ottoman culture, Islamic architecture, and Turkish art.
The Dawn Of Light
Erol Akyavas was born in 1932 in Istanbul, Turkey. He began studying painting under well-respected painter Bedri Rahmi Eyuboglu in 1950. He attended summer school in Florence and worked with the Circle et Caree (Circle and Square) group in Paris, before landing in the US in 1954 to earn his degree in architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. In 1967, he moved to New York and until his death in 1999 spent most of his time here. MoMA acquired one of his paintings, The Victory of the Patishahs, in 1959 and added to its contemporary paintings collection. Akyavas also received the 1986 Jackson Pollock prize. A major retrospective exhibition on his life and works was realized in Istanbul in 2000.

Erol Akyavas studied architecture and design, worked in the field of photography; yet his major strength was in painting. Beautiful calligraphies, abstract iconographies, and esoteric lithographs became his signature style. He employed theories and methods of Surrealism, and Abstractionism to the process of painting that, in his paintings, became part of an organic process linked to tradition, culture and religion. He was enlightened by an inner light whose source was the East. Some call this form of art Islamic Art, referring to the spiritual aspect and the heavy use of motifs, symbols, icons and shapes.

Throughout the 60's and 70's he dealt heavily with gender, subverted the female body and distracted the audience with violence that consequently produced grotesque and emotive paintings. Critics believe that his cold-blooded depictions of male / female bodies and organs is more disturbing than the works of Jeff Koons. Because he was living in New York he could approach marginal topics in an independent manner, far from home where sex and religion were taboos, residing silently at a mystical level.

Erol Akyavas was trained as a highly logical and geometrical abstractionist, and towards the late 70's he began incorporating geometric shapes, and designs in his paintings that rendered three-dimensional, and psychedelic paintings (His works of the late 70's can be compared to works of Sol LeWitt and Frank Stella). In his Pyramid Landscapes (1979 - 80) he placed pyramids, cubes and cylinders in 3-D, subdued on black & white square floors. His Interior (1977 - 80) series featured chairs and tables floating and hanging in the air. In Corners (1979 - 80), he envisioned a red brick surrounded world in a dreamlike ambience. He spent most of 1981 doing dark, dormant and gloomy designs, including the Cologne Cathedral Variations (1981) that conjured up a utopian world.

For me his most intriguing and influential period has been the 80’s when his paintings were most spiritual. In that period we find symbols of Mecca, Sufism, pilgrimage, voyaging, the inner world, metaphysics, and an increasingly abstract iconography. Perhaps his violence mutated into a distilled spirit that began a lifelong journey at the last twenty years of his life. I think it would have not been possible to produce such works before anyway, because just like an architect who produces his masterpieces in the latter part of his life, Akyavas had to inhale and study life’s density and more specifically the proximity of the East in his life, before, through his experiences and what he learned from life, he could present the works we see today.

Traces of Light: Islamic Art

In Akyavas' paintings one can talk about two types of design: The inner design of the mind and the spirit, and the outer design of the nature and architecture. His arabesque and scattered images make us think of Islamic architecture: Wander through the Covered Bazaar in Istanbul, or sit inside the Blue Mosque and you will be surrounded with a sky full of calligraphies. Akyavas is an architect, but metaphorically architecture in Akyavas's life does not mean buildings, but a passion that emerges in his art by all means of ratio and proportion for the search of the divine order. That's why he is not concerned with composition in his paintings.

The goal of the Islamic artist is to discover beauty, and gratify the soul. He is not the one who creates it, because only God can create (Akyavas: Far be it from me to create). Akyavas is a firm believer in the existence of fundamental values, beauty, and truth. He takes Islamic history for subject matter, looking for universal questions and answers. In Islam, the spirit is mystical and is celebrated through poetry; in Akyavas' work it wanders on the canvas.

One of Islam's aesthetic is the ban of image making ("To raise an idol is to offer a rival to God" a verse from the Koran). The idea of God as absolute and abstract, not limited by any description or definition led Muslim artists directly to abstract forms. This aesthetic is 'visible' in his Icons for Iconoclasts (1990).

In this 19 piece series, he uses money as a metaphor for all things we 'iconize.' Iconoclasm was a movement that began as a powerful reaction to the worship of icons and fetishism in the Eastern Roman Empire in 745, after which all images / icons in the churches were destroyed. Those who were involved in this movement were called iconoclasts.

In Akyavas's paintings Kaaba (in Mecca) is depicted as the only and sole place that human beings make their trips to Allah. Kaaba is a symbol whose inside cannot be seen from the outside, but that represents unity, uniqueness and eternity with its plain architecture. In her study of the artist, Bircan Unver compares Akyavas'Kaaba (1989) series to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unver points to the fact that Kaaba and the monolith that appears at the end of the movie have distinct similarities. Kaaba is a small cubical building in the Great Mosque of Mecca that encloses the most worshipped Muslim object whose origins are speculated even today. Similarly, the monolith was depicted as a monument that triggered people's curiosity and lured them to itself. How the stone ended up on the planet is a mystery on its own.

Says Unver, "Kubrick chose the rectangular form of the Monolith because of its simplicity and its perfection. Erol Akyavas too, emphasized Kaaba's simple and perfect architecture, its power and [the] impression [it had] over people. Kaaba was one of the best-known [objects with] "meteoric origins" on Earth. And with no doubt, Akyavas was aware of the film, and made a remarkable connection by transforming and recreating his background in general religion philosophy."

Façade of Light: Form & Symbols

The basic characteristics of form, design, color and representation in Turkish art developed initially in miniatures. Turkish Miniature Painting progressed slowly through the Seljuk and Ottoman Empire periods to the conquest of Istanbul and the "Tulip Era." Akyavas emerges as a colorist, blending pure color with spirituality. One can find similar miniatures in Japanese prints.

Prior to Islam, painting among the Turkish tribes developed along the lines of woven clothes, carpets and rugs, inlaid designs in metal, leatherwork and wooden and iron decorations on arrows and swords. In the 70s Akyavas began treating symbols, power and existence on the physical and spiritual places, establishing a relationship between signs and the signified. His miniature-esque lithographs and calligraphies are graced with shapes and illegible writings. Akyavas believed that the words should not be deciphered, because the meanings must not be invested in words.

Architecture, music, poetry, decorative arts, calligraphy, arabesque, and metaphysics lie behind Islamic art. Forms are ephemeral: the two-dimensional surface is an expression of brevity and comes from the fundamental mystical belief that the external world itself is no more than an illusion.

In Fihi Ma Fih (1989) Akyavas uses laminated transparent blocks that bear slides of ancient coins, shapes, and letters of strange alphabets, all superimposed one upon the other. This unique montage was commissioned for the 1989 Istanbul Biennial and later traveled to St. Petersburg. Upon taking the theme of money, he brings under scrutiny the materialism associated with the myth of money and the Western civilization as a whole. The name Fihi Ma Fih translates as 'what is in it, in it" and is taken from book of the great 14. century Persian poet and mystic Jellaleddin Rumi.

In order to capture a whole new vibe, Akyavas used quotations from writers, philosophers and mystics from the East and the West. He took them as cultural symbols, set their relationships with life, and gave historical references to make them expressive.

The Inner Light: Spirituality

Throughout his life Akyavas drew roads, passageways, holes, walls, borders, and left marks of traveling and incarceration. In fact he took one of them, the spiritual path, and began his journey to the light with The Labyrinth Project (1985).

The Labyrinth Project
is a spiritually and formally labyrinth with four glass walls, each embodied with Allah's name. The labyrinth has four metaphoric entrances, and the traveler's goal is to find the path that leads to Allah. At the center of the maze, a ray of light emerges from a cube and heads towards the southeast (pointing to Mecca). As one gets closer to the center of the labyrinth, the outer world gets blurry, yet doesn't completely disappear. Likewise, the noises go back and forth between audible and imperceptible. There appears to be a rhythm between the existent and the non-existent accompanied by a ney (a mystic musical instrument). The labyrinth is the place where the spirits go and salute Allah.

Says Akyavas, "The labyrinth is the best form that reflects a world perspective from a mystic point. Why are there paths? To go somewhere. The end of the road is a place. The paths we take to get to that place are different, yet the destination is the same. Muslims, Christians all want to reach that destination."

Earlier in his works we came across writings, calligraphies, and letters that are symbols of the spirit. For example The Alchemy of Bliss (83-85) featured symbols of Mecca, pilgrimage, and voyages. In fact these vignettes provide hidden links to purification, to a level beyond human understanding.

Another series, the Hallaj Mansour (1987-89) series is also noteworthy in this context. It tells the tale of Hallaj Mansour, one of the key personalities of Islamic mysticism. Mansour's way of lifting the bridge between Allah and being have earned him a group of believers, but more so he was despised by the majority in 10th century Baghdad. It is a legendary tale that that his execution began from his legs and arms. As far as Turks are concerned, he is known as the person who led Turks to accept the Islamic religion.

The three words Fihi Ma Fih (What is in it, in it) (1989) are connected with the history, architecture, function and historical character of the edifice called St. Irene. St. Irene, one of the most important and grandiose of all Byzantine churches, is also one of the few religious buildings that was not converted into a mosque after the Ottoman Conquest of Istanbul in 1453. Akyavas symbolized three interrelated monotheist religions; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in these "collage" works.

Through these works Akyavas asks the current icon industry "who is the original owner?" I think Erol Akyavas' and more so Islamic Art's call from centuries ago is more relevant today than in any period in history.

Turning and turning, from the moment of its inception, the swirling creation takes a thousand forms, a thousand manifestations; and every point is a beginning and an end. That is the center, that is what turns and returns. Dislodge the tiniest mote from its place, and the universe will come down. All things are dizzy, inebriate, and awestruck. No tiniest mote can venture one step outside the bounds of its potential.

- Sebüsteri,

from Gülsen-i Raz


Dogu Batiya Karsi – Erol Akyavasin Anisina” Wieland Schmied Erol Akyavas: Yasami ve Yapitlari. Istanbul, Turkey: Istanbul Bilgi Universitesi Yayinlari, 2000

Erol’un Sanati” Edward B. Henning. Erol Akyavas: Yasami ve Yapitlari. Istanbul, Turkey: Istanbul Bilgi Universitesi Yayinlari, 2000
Dogu’nun Izleri (Marks of the East). Dir: Bircan Unver. New York, 1998
Erzen, Jale Nejdet. Erol Akyavas. Ankara, Turkey: Enlem 80, 1995
Henning, Edward B. Erol: Walls, Aperture, And the Dilemma of the Real. The Cleveland Museum of Art http://www.bilgi-atolye.com/erolakyavas/labirent.htm viewed on 2/19/2001
http://www.lightmillennium.org/erolakyavas viewed on 2/27/2001
Iconoclast. Besir Ayvazoglu, 1992
Icons for Iconoclasts. Ankara, Turkey: Galeri Nev

A Profile of Mehmet DEDE

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@The Light Millennium magazine was created and designed
by Bircan ÜNVER. 6th issue. Summer 2001, New York.
URL: http://www.lightmillennium.org