For Can and Sevda Elgiz, collecting art has never been about possessing art. It has been about having art to share.
The Istanbul-based couple opened Turkey’s first contemporary art museum in 2001, with the idea of sharing their collection with the Turkish public and allowing young artists an opportunity to present their work beyond a gallery setting. Special project spaces also made innovative, non-commercial works possible for local artists, and allowed international artists to create projects on-site — an extraordinary advance for a country that, until then, offered very little exposure to artists from abroad.
Now, the couple is opening an exhibition of works from their collection on the island of Lesbos. Few places could be said to be more in need of the solace that art can bring: with 600,000 Syrian and other refugees arriving on the island last year, the island has become a place many associate with despair. In turn, that association has driven tourists away, creating troubles for the native population, which relies strongly on a tourism economy. It has been a hard blow for a people who extended their lives and their hearts to saving families on the sea; as the New York Times reported in August:
After Chancellor Angela Merkel said last year that Germany would welcome refugees, boats started swarming in by the thousands. The Greek government, in the midst of an economic and political crisis, was woefully unprepared. So the village fishermen sprang into action, racing toward waterlogged dinghies as screams echoed over the water.
“Our people were in shock — there were so many babies,” Mr. Valamios recalled. “We took the babies first, then returned for the adults. Often you didn’t know if the children would wind up orphans.”
He paused, then clenched his jaw. “We saw many people die.”
The village soon set up a rescue system. If someone saw a migrant boat in trouble, he or she would alert the fishermen to head out. Residents gathered on shore to meet incoming boats and help survivors, who at one point numbered around 5,000 a day. Women, led by village grandmothers, took the newcomers to a small house, where they dressed them in donated clothes and administered milk to babies.
But for Can Elgiz, the exhibition is also deeply personal: his forebears were from Lesbos, and the exhibition takes place in what was once his great-grandfather’s home. By e-mail, I chatted with Sevda Elgiz about this remarkable event.
Abigail R. Esman: Can’s family has a history with the island. I recall that you were retracing that history not long ago, and hoping to reconnect with that past, if possible through something art-related. What is the connection between Can Elgiz and Lesbos, and how did that lead to this exhibition?
Sevda Elgiz: For centuries, Can’s family, The Kulassizade family, was a dominant presence on the island who held a line of governorships during the Ottoman Empire. Can’s great grandfather Halim Bey was the last governor on the island when the Ottoman Empire fell.
Halim Bey and his ancestors were born on the island. Can’s mother was born and raised in the building, which was restored and now houses the Mytilene Municipal Art Gallery.
After the Treaty of Lausanne, and the population exchange, the remaining members of the Kulassizade family, Can’s grandfather and his family moved to Ayvalık, which is on the Aegean coast of Turkey. Halim Bey was an art collector and patron, making Can a fourth generation collector. Can’s own latent instinct for art collecting eventually awoke in the late 1980’s, when we began to collect art. It was only later that we learned Can’s great grandfather had also been an art collector during his lifetime. Now Can is retracing the footsteps of his ancestors and paying homage to his roots in bringing the Elgiz collection to Lesbos.
ARE: I noticed you’ve been involved in other projects relating to Lesbos and art, but what made you decide to do this, which is a huge project?
SE: A short while ago our family visited Mytilene and found that the Municipality of Mytilene had converted Can’s great-grand- father’s ancestral home (also known as the Halim Bey Mansion) into a public art gallery. That became the impetus for the show. Halim Bey is one of the island’s much loved, well respected historical figures and being an art lover, the municipality wanted to breathe life back into Halim Bey’s house. The municipality proposed that we organize an exhibition at the gallery. Can felt it was a great honor both for himself and for the memory of his family, and accepted the invitation to bring the Elgiz Collection to the place where his grandfather supported and nurtured art so
ARE: How many works are in the exhibition?
SE: There are 28 works from Turkish and international artists in the exhibition, 26 from our collection and two commissoned site specific installations.
ARE: Will you also travel the show or reproduce it at the museum?
SE: We have plans to both travel and reproduce the show in the museum at some point.
ARE: Who curated the show?
SE: Internationally known Turkish curator Başak Senova has curated the show for us.
ARE: And what was her basis for choosing the works?
SE: The artworks were selected based on the curatorial theme “Lines of Passage (in medias res).” In short, the exhibition endeavors to demonstrate a variety of connections among narratives of memory, expressions and (stylistic) approaches through artworks selected from the permanent collection of the Elgiz Museum.
ARE: How has the refugee crisis affected your involvement with the island?
SE: We are saddened by the refugee crisis which has had a huge impact on the world, but but also locally on both Turkey and Lesbos island. Our countries are very close; Mytilene is only a 30 minute ferry-ride from Ayvalık on the Western coast of Turkey.
We have seen the huge outpouring of support and generosity from the residents of Lesbos, and it’s a very honorable gesture.
ARE: Did it have any influence on the curating of this exhibition?
SE: We don’t strive to be political but rather endeavor to bring perhaps a small reprieve to the community from all the sadness and heartbreak.
ARE: Do you have other plans for future art events/projects in Lesbos?
SE: We have invited and are being accompanied by many art lovers and supporters to the island for the exhibition. We hope
many of them will fall in love with the island and re-visit it in the future. We hope to facilitate the development of tourism between the two countries
Also we hope the exhibition is well-received not only by the residents and visitors but also by the students of the Aegean University. If so we will organize other exhibitions in the future and perhaps panels and public discussions about art.
Our real hope is that the exhibition will have a positive effect on the Lesbos community, exposing museum visitors and students to important international and Turkish works of art. Other collectors have mounted exhibitions in more remote locations reflecting a trend among collectors who are bringing their collections outside of their own borders. Can, being a committed collector and philanthropist, is taking part in this trend, in order to facilitate the globalization of Turkish art to the international community.
This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
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