Often engaging with found objects and sculpture in his research-based practice, artist Michael Rakowitz creates installations and participatory events to instantiate counternarratives to received histories in site-specific contexts. Here he discusses The Flesh Is Yours, The Bones Are Ours, 2015, his commissioned work for the Fourteenth Istanbul Biennial, which is curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. Rakowitz’s project laterally approaches the subject of the 1915 Armenian genocide through the traditions of craft and architecture. The exhibition opens at the Galata Greek School on September 5 and is on view through November 1, 2015.
The title of this work comes from the parents of a young child who was given over to a master craftsman to become an apprentice. Kemal Cimbiz, a Turkish man now in his seventies, was the youth, and the craftsman was the Armenian plaster caster Garabet Cezayirliyan, who is responsible for many of the molds, friezes, and architectural flourishes one finds throughout Istanbul. It was very rare for a Turk to be given over to an Armenian master. The Armenians were the artistic and artisanal class. As in many places, they were looked down upon. Manual labor—which included being an architect or a builder—was seen as something for the minorities. The poetic thing about these friezes, however, is that they show traces of Armenian hands and fingers, which bear silent witness to what happened during the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 and after. They are still there. So the work is not just about an Armenian master—it’s about the transmission of that craft from that master to this person from the other side of the divide that gets created when we talk about Armenian history in Turkey. My project also dwells in the intersection between Kemal Cimbiz’s craft and an old Greek school in the Galata neighborhood of Istanbul. Greeks were also part of the population exchanges, deportations, and discriminations—as other minorities were—in the Ottoman Empire after the creation of the Turkish state.