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Esra Plümer Bardak**, Geomorphologies: Collecting specimens and creating space İsmet Tatar’s ‘And Earth’ and ‘Still Moments’ series (2006-2013), 2015.



In over four and a half billion years of its existence, the Earth’s planetary surface remains in a state of continual change. Within the first billion years, the earliest signs of life appeared on Earth; and life would have an everlasting affect on its atmosphere and surface. Geomorphology, a relatively new branch of scientific inquiry, deals with landforms and physical landscapes of Earth on varying spatial scales. From global range pedology to micro-scale sedimentology, geomorphologists seek to understand why landscapes look the way they do by observing landforms and the processes that shape them. Similar concerns can be found in İsmet Tatar’s artistic investigation into notions of the Earth, soil and the relationship between humans and the land they inhabit. Her serial projects ‘And Earth’ and ‘Still moments’ from 2006 to 2013, combine socio-political enquiry with a scientific approach to using natural materials in producing objects that are shaped by her observations and experimental research. During the last 10,000 years of the Quaternary period, in the latter half of the Holocene, human beings have had an increasing impact on surficial processes. For the majority of this time span the natural landscape has been progressively modified by human settlement and the development of agriculture.[i] The study of landforms in relation to the geomorphic footprints of humans and their “habitus” are observed by Tatar as both a process of time and as a product of history.[ii]


The exhibition ‘Geomorphologies: Collecting specimens and creating space’ presents a selection of works from İsmet Tatar’s ‘And Earth’ and ‘Still Moments’ series in order to bring the artist’s thought cycle and process of production to the fore; holding light to how Tatar observes, records and reflects on notions of change and the complex bond between humans and land. Taking up ‘human settlement’ as one of the main affects on Earth’s planetary surface, Tatar’s work draws strong parallels to geomorphologic approaches; in collecting specimens and creating representations of space, she combines organic materials with socio-political implications, in turn, raising issues with ownership, notions of the aesthetic and our effects on the environment we live in.


Origins of interest: The discovery of ‘soil’ as medium

İsmet Tatar is a renowned painter, particularly for her use of watercolour. Tatar’s choice of medium is constrained by her allergy to oil paint, which has led her to use water based paints such as watercolour and acrylic for most of her career, and more recently alternative materials like paper, household objects, organic plants and newspaper cut-outs. As one of the most recognised Turkish Cypriot artists of our generation, her work has been widely exposed to the public eye and has received attention in various publications.[iii] Yet the subject-matter of her works from the past decade expands her artistic practice into a wider interdisciplinary field of interpretation, pushing the limits of used materials into a new form of creativity.


Born in 1947, Tatar grew up in the country-side village of İnönü where she was surrounded by nature, observing her elders tending soil and trees; learning rural techniques at a young age. Harvesting olives as a young child and into her adolescence, Tatar built a strong bond with trees, which later became a metaphor for womanhood, life and fertility, as expressed in her books Ağaç ve Kadın [Tree and Woman] (2000), Kıbrıs Çeyiz Sandıkları [Dowry Chests of Cyprus] (2001), and Mucize Zeytin [Miracle Olive] (2008). Many of Tatar’s early paintings depict her childhood in İnönü: “I started painting very early they tell me. Oh, it was such a happy time. In many of my pictures, I have portrayed the village life and the ladies of İnönü.”[iv] In her career spanning over three decades, Tatar’s work has evolved and has taken several different forms, taking up subject-matter as diverse as her practice, continuously introducing new materials and techniques.


In 1990, Tatar decided to work on her artistic projects full-time, retiring from her sixteen year teaching career which began abruptly in 1974 after losing her first husband to the war and moving to Kyrenia as a widow with two young children. She married Rüstem Tatar in 1977, and continued to teach whilst caring after her growing family.[v] Throughout the 1990s, Tatar’s interest in trees took precedence and became the focal subject-matter of her Before and After the Fire series depicting her first hand experience of the forest fire that was dubbed one of the largest ecological catastrophes in the history of the island. On July 27, 1995, the fire in the Beşparmak Kyrenia Mountains lasted for more than seventy-two hours, reducing 160 km² of forest land to ashes, with an estimated damage of over £43.5 million.[vi] The fire injured ten people, a number of animals, destroyed countless olive groves, and damaged fifty homes as well as the Tenth Century Saint Hilarion Castle, severely affecting the natural balance of the mountain range. In its aftermath, woodcutters were brought to clean-cut the burnt zone and the logs were shipped daily to paper mills in Turkey. Eventually the zone was terraced, reseeded and replanted with new young trees. The dry winters, however, prevented the natural re-sprouting, elongating the growth of the trees which take approximately fifty years to mature and the olive groves that take several decades to bear fruit.[vii]


Landscapes views of Nicosia, and the Beşparmak Mountain range are still some of the most recognised of Tatar’s works, which can be seen as a gateway to her later work that closely engage with the natural environment and its conservation. In the early 2000s, Tatar began examining trees on a more intimate scale, observing and recording their various textures and recording these impressions in a series of paintings titled the ‘Mysterious texture of soil’. Tatar’s curiosity towards nature can be traced back to her early childhood memories in İnönü. Ignited by the fire of 1995 and its effect on the surrounding environment, Tatar had a revived connection with the geographical makeup of Cyprus. Ten years after the fire, in reference to the ‘Mysterious texture of soil’ series, Tatar described her experience of discovering her interest in surfaces: “I was trying to combine small and larger pieces together to form a whole. As if doing a puzzle… I sought to create an opportunity to convey the feeling of the changeability of the Earth’s surface.”[viii]


Thus began a Tatar’s long-term “excavation” into Earth’s geomorphology; her primary interest in the surface of tree trunks quickly expanded into a wider terrain upon Tatar’s discovery of the surface of the Earth, in soil. Tatar examined new topologies and landforms within the sedimentary microcosms of Cyprus. 9,251 km2 of the Earth’s surface makes up the island, with the earliest known human activity dating back to the Tenth millennium BC in the Neolithic village of Khirokitia. Since the Neolithic revolution and the widespread development of agriculture, human societies have modified the natural environment over the last five-hundred years, becoming one of the factors in geomorphological processes.[ix] The scale of Tatar’s research initially started small, gathering specimens from her back garden, slowly expanding the parameters of her research into her neighbourhood and the wider community. Eventually, Tatar’s work encompassed the surrounding geography, reaching larger grounds, and consequently facing a set of societal and political issues.


‘And Earth’ 

Over four dozen teabags, individually filled with soil are neatly lined in rows and arranged on a canvas. In this series of works titled ‘And Earth’ (2006), Tatar creates a range of disorienting representations of aerial landscapes by pulling the ground from underneath our feet and laying it out in front of our eyes. These landscapes allude to parcelled lands and furrows, interrupted by other marks of settlement such as roads, land deeds, planning permits and cultivation. With direct reference to property issues caused by the displacement of both Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities in 1974, Tatar questions the effects of socio-political problems human-beings project on natural landforms. Largely made of found materials, the works comprise a collection of used teabags from local cafes and household consumption, filled with soil from the surrounding area. Whilst retaining their status as cultural objects, the mix-media collages both literally and figuratively represent a narrative of time and history. Tatar deliberately leaves clues from her excavations for the viewer to unfold: “In my collages I leave extracts of the studies to tell the story.”[x]


The ‘And Earth’ series, a number of which are re-presented in the exhibition under titles like ‘Documents’ or ‘Topographies’, carries a double significance as documents and specimens that not only depict or imitate landscapes, but are in themselves what is represented on a smaller scale. Tatar’s process of collecting and creating space connects the past, present and future by means of using natural and durable materials such as soil from the land that carries a likewise long-lasting history of conflict. Whilst these spaces are fabricated they are reattributed by authentic documents and point to unresolved property disputes. However, change is an inherent quality of her work; the series of landscapes are modified with the appearance of roads, blank spaces that indicate unused land or carry the potential of ownership.


The geographic location of Cyprus has accumulated a long and diverse history of inhibitors.[xi] Examining the history of the island and the human interaction with its land; Tatar formulated a set of questions posed at both herself and the viewer to reflect on the series:

Why is ‘soil’ or ‘land’ important to people?

What is the relationship between land and humans?

What kind of emotion is ownership?

What is the attachment a human feels towards land or soil?


These questions are deeply rooted in the history of the island that has built an intrinsic bond between the geography, its inhabitants and their treatment of land. On a global scale, extensive agriculture has led to widespread soil erosion throughout the world, but perhaps the biggest human impact has occurred in the last two-hundred years with the development of mining, industry, and urbanisation. Tatar digs deep and explores the psychology behind notions of ‘ownership’ and the unnatural bond humans have with land as property: “İsmet Tatar wanted to show what makes homeland so special to people; what makes them pick up soil and take it with them when they live as refugees in another place or country; what makes them cry over a torn piece of ownership.”[xii] The geopolitical segmentation of Cyprus that adapts a nationalistic mentality of ownership (“Nothing can happen to us as long as we own our land”[xiii]) has been a subject of interest for many local and international artists, with different approaches to the sociological and political issues as well as its’ effects on the population.[xiv] While exhibitions such as Alashia (2008-2010) have showcased works by artists that engage with the fragmentation of the island and its effects on the local public, academic research have interpreted works by artists, such as Tatar, as tools for conflict resolution. In her 2008 paper titled ‘Art As Conflict Resolution Tool: İsmet Tatar and "The Cyprus Problem"’, Dr. Nancy Strow Sheley placed Tatar’s artistic oeuvre in a global context: “Art becomes a messenger for conflict resolution on the divided island of Cyprus as contemporary Cypriot artist İsmet Tatar creates abstract landscape collages - incorporating land deeds, architects' drawings, and property titles - to illustrate the political and social conflict of land ownership issues between North and South... Using paints coloured from rock, sand, bark, plants, shells, and earth of Cyprus, Tatar uses the land itself to tell the story of conflicted lands.”[xv] Sheley’s observations rightly connect Tatar’s use of materials to its subject-matter while overlooking the premeditative process in favour of reflecting on the potential function of the finished object as an arbitrary tool for resolution.


The first display of the ‘And Earth’ series in 2006 was presented in a similar light, albeit with an aesthetic agenda. As part of the EMAA May Exhibitions, the catalogue review of the series drew attention to its socio-political context: “The artist, who has been creating her works centred on the theme of human beings and nature, has brought new openings to her past experiences and focused on a more political perspective... The debate, which stems from the question ‘can people subsist with no land/property?’ is elaborated with the ongoing socio-political processes in Cyprus through the tracheotomy of Land-deed-individual.”[xvi] The text continues by considering Tatar’s questions that initiated the project as ‘aesthetical problems’: ”In this process of questioning, undertaken by concepts and materials, it is sensed at the point of the indispensability of earth/territory in individuals’ lives that it structures itself as an aesthetical problem. In this process of structuring, each slides into a wider, multilayered intellectual platform by foregrounding its inner richness materially and conceptually. Finally, it goes beyond the meaning it embodies, and reflects itself as a structure which recreates our day.”[xvii] This interpretation, reproduced across all national newspapers, restricted the understanding of ‘And Earth’ by obscuring the significance of the process of collecting and creating materials as part of a long-term interest in Tatar’s artistic practice: “İsmet collected many samples of soil and sand in all their rich spectres of colour... transparent containers with ground soil and rock materials naming their places of their provenance”[xviii]. The aesthetic quality of Tatar’s work is taken up as a determining attribute, and therefore becomes the focus in carrying the discussion into an ‘intellectual’ dimension. The beauty of Earth, ‘mother nature’, symmetry and the material quality is given primary importance leaving the process of making as a secondary quality. Such views are aligned with an outmoded tradition of aesthetics, as Pierre Bourdieu rightly stated: “The tradition of aesthetics is interested in the work of art as such, as opus operatum, work already done, finished, that it comments to great lengths. It does not analyse as such ‘the work in progress’, as James Joyce said, and the mode of production of that work, that is the modus operandi, the manner of acting, the art in the etymological sense, that the artist brings into play.”[xix] Thus, interpretations that solely focus on the opus operatum are inadequate; our perception of art must travel outside the finished aesthetic object. In the twenty-first century, cross-disciplinary perspectives prompt viewers to look beyond, the often simplistic, aesthetic qualities a work of art may offer; and observe the multi-faceted dimensions of the artist’s creative process, the modus operandi, that implores further reflection. Contemporary works such as Tatar’s series where materials are carefully collected, structured and examined, must be considered as indicators or specimens of a larger inquiry that follows an experimental approach to research and creation.  

For the past year I have been working on a project where I have been producing paper from plants I am growing in my garden. My first experimentation with paper production was with the green shells of walnuts and henna. My latest experiments have been with yellow squash plant, mulberry, fig leaves, rose plant, broad bean plant, carob tree, corn plant, acacia plant and seaweed. Research and experimentation in this field gives me great pleasure and excitement.[xx] 


The “experimental” nature of Tatar’s work invites us to think about her process in stages. The seriality of her practice does not allow us to consider any fragment as an object that is a finished product, but rather as a network of documents that record related trials or results. Consequently, the viewer is asked to look into the materials used to make the objects in conjunction with the subject matter they seek to question. Here, we move away from “the quasi-mystical and mystifying exaltation of ‘creation’ which obscures the logic of the artists practice,”[xxi] and towards recognising a process that forms a hypothesis, followed by observation, experimentation and documentation; an almost scientific course of study.


‘Still moments’

In a statement written in 2008, Tatar declared that she was moving away from the political associations of her works, literally rolling up scrolls of issues and filing them away. As part of the exhibition ‘Art in Nicosia’ of that year, the series ‘Still Moments’ was first exhibited at the Eaved House, Nicosia. These works have been described by Tatar as a release from the subject of land in terms of ‘ownership’ as previously questioned in the ‘And Earth’ series: “The moment of stillness in which we fill our lungs with a deep breath.”[xxii] Whilst the socio-political indications are removed from ‘Still Moments’, the medium of soil and the subject-matter of Earth’s landforms are not entirely abandoned. The used teabags are now compiled without the use of soil, the absence of which exudes a state of total urbanisation – the Earth’s once natural landforms, packed, parcelled and transformed into allotted spaces for human settlement. In more recent works dated 2013, Tatar continues her experimental approach to collecting specimens and develops her practice further by means of the technique of paper-making:

Last year for the first time, I experimented with making paper from walnut peels. When the results were successful, I collected more walnut peels from other household friends and froze them in my freezer to be used later. Whenever I want to make paper, I take them out of the freezer and using ash water, I boil and simmer them for 20 minutes, then strain the result through a sieve. I mix 5 measures of this with 1 measure of abaca, prepare the paper pulp by adding prickly - pear glue. The following day, I strain the mixture using paper moulds and place it on cloth to dry in open air. The colour of this paper is black.[xxiii]


Tatar has prepared a number of worksheets carefully recording the preparation of materials such as hand-made paper and collating found objects with detailed instructions to specific compounds and techniques. These sheets are used for teaching purposes as well as future research, to produce paper from locally sourced plants such as the Mulberry plant.[xxiv] The detailed notes are used to prepare worksheets that describe detailed qualities of the fibre such as level of opacity and the history of the material in paper making. These introductory guides give step-by-step instructions as how to harvest organic materials from their natural environment including specific qualities to look for and or avoid; what to do with the material once it is collected, namely processing through solutions that the fibres need to be soaked overnight and later boiled; and the final procedure of rinsing. This mechanical yet delicate process requires skill in reading the PH level of fibres to avoid traces of acid or alkali, which can be detrimental to the coloration and quality of the mould. Tatar’s instructions and ingredients for successful experiments in moulding are recorded with samples and are kept for future reference.


Tatar’s open approach to media amalgamates organic materials in creating artificial spaces and objects that play with molecular principles and scientific accuracy. As part of her paper series (2013), Tatar produces images that resemble sedimentary X-Rays of surficial layers. These are actually made out of hand-made paper, which in turn is made from soil and soil based plants; pushing the boundaries of nature and artifice. In another series, paper moulds are sculpted into rocks, hundreds laid out as geologic samples, playing with the ideas of collection and creation, nature and artifice. The allure of the material of paper for Tatar is namely in its organic and biodegradable form. Tatar’s work becomes purely experimental and exploratory, engaging closely with environmental conservation and geomorphologic research into understanding and preserving landforms:

The reasons for my use of these materials, is the result of my concerns towards these materials. Unfortunately, we the people, use these materials inappropriately I think and this will cause the greatest environmental problems in the future. At present, there is no other world that we can live in. Therefore it is essential that we look after the world that we live in. I am in the belief that we must develop our art without using chemicals so that our environment is not harmed.[xxv]


Understanding the geomorphology of our inhabitancy is important not only for effective conservation of the natural environment but is also relevant to the effective management of the environment and its resources. Geomorphologic research, consisting of environmental monitoring and observations based on field-based research, has had a growing role in understanding our natural environment. Tatar expresses parallel concerns and utilises certain observations and quantitative techniques in her artistic process.


Tatar’s integration of scientific curiosity into artistic expression arouses a new set of questions that reflect a global concern towards changes in landform, the effect of humans on this change as well as understanding and managing human action. Tatar’s use of materials and their “endless options and recyclability” intertwines the makeup of ‘And Earth’ with the problems raised; testing the temporality of settlement against the constancy of change in geological time, asking us to see and rethink the value of the land we inhabit. Contrary to its title, ‘Still Moments’ document a sense of stagnation that is in fact in full motion. Just as the Earth’s rotation, the stillness of the sea, the quietness of a forest, the land is in a constant state of change and is a dynamic system that has a generative capacity, which can be productive as much as it can be destructive.



**Esra Plümer Bardak is an art historian, researcher and active member of non-profit art associations. Alongside teaching and writing, she engages with collaborative projects that have a social focus as mediator, consultant and/or mentor. Esra received her PhD in Art History at the University of Nottingham in 2012 and has also completed a PG-Dip in Arts Management and Cultural Policy from Queen's University, Belfast. Since 2017 she has been a faculty member as Assistant Professor at the Arkin University of Creative Arts and Design, Cyprus.

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[1] The following text was written and published on the occasion the exhibition ‘İsmet Tatar – Geomorphologies: Collecting Specimens and Creating Space’ curated by the author that took place in Famagusta and Nicosia respectively, in 2015. For full catalogue including other texts please see “Geomorphologies: Collecting Specimens and Creating Space”, DAÜ-KAM and EMAA shared publication, 2015. Link adres: DAÜ-KAM Web Page.  


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