By the age of 26 French-Turkish artist Sarp Kerem Yavuz has managed to produce a prolific body of work transcending mediums as well as societal boundaries. To date, Sarp’s work has been featured in museums across the globe, from Chicago to Shanghai, garnering widespread attention for its focus on political strife and notions of sexuality. As conflict stands as such an integral part of Sarp’s work, it seems only fitting that his story begins with it, as well.
“My dad had fled the 1980s military coup in Turkey, because he was a socialist actor and director working at the City Theatres at the time. He and his entire theater troupe had fled to Sweden. They were touring, performing at a gala in Paris, where my mom was working for France 2. That’s how they met. In a way it’s quite a romantic story.”
Shortly after Sarp’s birth in 1991, the Turkish government extended a pardon to all those who had gone into exile during the coup. The opportunity to return to Turkey divided Sarp’s parents; his father wanted to return home, while his mother felt that she had an already established life in Paris. After some debate, the family ended up moving to Istanbul.
“They divorced when I was 5 years old, and my dad hasn’t really been in the picture since. I think my father’s absence has really shaped me a lot. Both in terms of my artistic practice but also in terms of me as an individual.”
Even prior to his father’s departure, Sarp had already begun to show a keen sense of his own emerging identity.
“I knew that I was gay pretty much my whole life, but it wasn’t until I was 12 years old that I came out, which probably wasn’t the wisest thing to do considering I was living in Istanbul at the time.”
Sarp explained that his difficulties were somewhat lessened by his upbringing. His mother maintained that she would always love him and support him no matter what, and as he attended a private school he was surrounded by more affluent and liberal Turkish peers who had likely received some exposure to gay culture. Nevertheless, Sarp recalls a certain loneliness and isolation that plagued him at the time.
“It was frustrating and there were times when I definitely hated being the only person in my friend group who was gay, but I always found solace in knowing that it was better than living a lie. I couldn’t imagine pretending to be someone I wasn’t.”
For Sarp, refuge came in the form of American television programs that were broadcast in Turkey. He names shows like Dawson’s Creek, Friends, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as being influential during his youth, and said that he developed a fondness for American culture through them. As these shows began featuring queer characters, Sarp ended up being able to connect in new ways to the stories. Thus, a seed of desire for a life abroad in the United States was planted.
Sarp applied to a number of small liberal arts colleges in both the U.S. and Canada, ultimately settling on Oberlin in Ohio due to the highly personalized acceptance letter he received from them. Before he set out, however, he had one last thing to settle.
“I came out to my dad when I was 17. My god, it was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. He’s a theater director, so I thought there’s no way he wouldn’t be okay with this. How could he not be? He’s surrounded by gay people.“
Sarp had mentally prepared himself for a million different reactions that his father could have, but in the end was surprised with an answer he had never imagined.
“He looked at me for a second and just said, ‘I really don’t think so.’ He said something that I’ll never forget, 'Son, I am surrounded by people who at the age of 40, 50, maybe even 60, still don’t have crystal clear ideas about what their sexuality is. You’re so young. You have time to figure all this out. But I’m your father, and I hope you feel like you can tell me anything.’”
With a certain sense of ease and accomplishment, Sarp then set out for his new life in the United States, eager to finally live in the place he had fantasized about since his youth. It did not take long for Sarp to realize, though, that after living in the metropolitan Istanbul, life in a small town in Ohio would be a bit of an adjustment.
“I remember getting there and a tour guide taking us downtown. He took us to the end of this street and then said we were going to the science building next. I raised my hand and asked about the rest of downtown and he just said, ‘This is downtown. This is it.’”
Sarp’s first year was one of transition. He missed the vibrant bustle and culture of Istanbul, and now had to deal with the fact that walking too far in any one direction would land him in a cornfield. Just as he had sought solace in American television and culture while growing up in Turkey, now Sarp was reveling in his ties to his Turkish heritage.
“There were times when I’d listen to cheesy Turkish music I never even listened to back home because I was just so homesick. There’d be times I’d call my mom and try to negotiate coming back, discussing how I’d send my suitcases. By the time October rolled around I didn’t even care about the suitcases, I was ready to go home.”
Sarp managed to endure his first year in Ohio, but upon his return to Istanbul for the summer he eagerly tried to absorb as much of his homeland as possible, meeting up with his family and friends. Having just completed his first year in college, Sarp felt the time was right to meet his father again, whom he had not seen at all over the last year. The two agreed to catch up over dinner, but what Sarp did not know was that this meeting would be the catalyst that furthered the rift between them.
“I went to the restaurant to meet him, and we started talking. Eventually he pointed at two women at the bar and said ‘Come on son, let’s talk to these ladies.’ At first I thought he wanted me to be his wingman, but all I was said, ‘No dad I haven’t seen you in almost a year, I want to just hang out and have dinner.'"
Despite his protest, Sarp recalls that his father practically dragged him to the bar, expecting him to flirt with the women. Distraught over what he felt was a blatant attempt at willfully ignoring his sexual identity, Sarp excused himself and left the restaurant feeling exasperated..
“I didn’t call him after that. Towards the end of the summer he called me. I said I didn’t want to see him again, and I left again for college.”
After returning to college, the distance between Sarp and his father continued to expand. Fortunately, it was at this same time that Sarp finally felt as if he was developing a support network of his own at university. One of the most notable additions to his social circle was a group of players from the men’s varsity soccer team, a bond formed through an appreciation of the sport.
“It was the first time I made peace with my own masculinity. When I mentioned being gay, they didn’t need an explanation. It was nice being that embraced by a group of guys because I had never been in a social environment where I could be one of the boys.”
At the same time, Sarp was coming to a deeper realization of what brought him fulfillment in life. Though he had always had a deep-seated appreciation of the arts, it was at this time that he began to pursue them with a more fervent dedication.
“I started making very large scale drawings—like several meters wide—with ballpoint pens. I had realized I was happiest when I was taking drawing classes.”
By the midpoint of his sophomore year, Sarp was sidelined by an unexpected diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. When his doctors gave him an ultimatum to either stop drawing or eventually lose the use of his right hand, Sarp elected to pursue photography. He had decided that, no matter what, producing art was going to be an essential part of his life.
Under the direction of Oberlin’s renowned photography professor Pipo Nguyen-duy, Sarp began to establish a powerful style that captured the many facets of his personality. His landmark series was one entitled “In the Closet,” in which Sarp had his close friends from the soccer team pose in homoerotic frames that echoed the Greek heroes of Renaissance paintings.
After he won his first two awards for the series, Sarp knew he had unearthed a hidden talent. In the years to come, he began experimenting more with the medium, which led him to partake in the Impossible Project, an a nonprofit endeavor to recreate the original formula for Polaroids.
Sarp regularly received trialfilm from the project’s developers in Vienna in exchange for reporting on his findings. With the new experimental films, Sarp began to do a series in which he interviewed men about their relationships with their fathers, taking portraits throughout. As the developers began perfecting the old formula, Sarp had an epiphany.
“I realized that I actually liked the imperfect film better because it was so unpredictable. I thought its unpredictability mirrored the stories. The film has to be as mutable as the stories.”
The series of Sarp’s polaroids were eventually picked up by Sitki Kosemen, one of Turkey’s most famed photographers and board member of the Istanbul Modern Museum. Sarp was invited to present the polaroids in an upcoming exhibition, making him the youngest artist ever featured in the museum. In early 2013, Sarp headed to Istanbul for his piece’s debut, unaware that he’d wind up in the midst of the Gezi Park Protests.
“All of a sudden, I found myself getting teargassed and watching my friends get arrested and assaulted. I found out my dad had been assaulted, actually. I felt for the first time that I had to use art to talk about something that was broader than my immediate, interior reality.”
Once back in the United States, thoughts of how to expand the scope of his work to address the strife he was witnessing in the world wracked Sarp’s brain. He experimented with a few ideas, using Turkish newspaper clippings and making sculptures out of teargas canisters, but it was until a year later when inspiration truly hit.
“I was walking in the Art Institute of Chicago. They have a desk where they show all the different books on sale. That particular week, it was a book on traditional Turkish patterns. There was actually a spotlight on this book—if that wasn’t a sign, I don’t know what is.”
Sarp felt a new sense of fascination with these patterns, which he says was the result of his decision to move to the United States. By separating himself from his culture, he was able to see it through new eyes. He decided to take these patterns, vestiges of the Ottoman Empire he had grown up seeing, and use them in a piece to criticize the actions of the Turkish government. The end result was Masallah.
“My initial thought was to use a projector to create a large scale oriental backdrop with models in front. As I was setting up the shot, one of my models walked in front of the projector and it hit him on the side of his body. The way the light stopped was almost violent. If you placed it above the collarbone, it would look like the guy’s head had been cut off, but it was still beautiful to look at.”
The final piece was one that juxtaposed ideas of violence, masculinity, and sexuality. The three concepts intertwined to form a critical lens with Sarp hoped would be placed on the Turkish government. Masallah went on to be displayed in galleries throughout the world, from Istanbul to Singapore to Copenhagen. Sarp even received an offer of sponsorship from the Turkish government, though the offer was reneged upon discovery of the work’s intent.
“Masallah changed my life.”
It’s been 3 years since Masallah’s debut, but Sarp has shown no sign of slowing down, and it appears he has found a new niche in a blend of art and social criticism. Currently, he is working on an installation piece for Elgiz Museum, to be unveiled during the 15th Istanbul Biennial, entitled “Lunar,” which uses the same projection techniques as Masallah, this time using images of the moon to invoke notions of Islam, Western conquest, and femininity.
We asked whether Sarp has ever felt a concern for his own well-being, given the controversial nature of the topics he tends to incorporate in his work. By outwardly discussing issues of politics, sexuality, and violence, were there any potential repercussions that gave him pause? He revealed that he has been asked the question a lot during his life, and already had an answer well-prepared.
“I feel like it’s my job to use my visibility to the fullest extent; to find ways to criticize but also find ways to inspire and provide hope to the people who have nothing to hold on to. I try to use that to inspire other people who are maybe 12 or 13 years old in Turkey and are terrified of themselves and don’t have anyone to talk to. The entire reason I make art is because I don’t want any 12 year-old kid to feel as terrified as I once did.”