Still from Ansisters [NDSM]
‘What does that image do, what is its power?’ — belit sağ on their artistic research and ‘ansisters’
In their artistic research on the history of queer and women migrants from Turkey, belit sağ focuses on stories that are not often spoken about. She specifically researched the labour disputes initiated by these migrant workers or ‘Ansisters’. ‘These women were quite strong in their political stance and in the clarity of their demands.’
Could you introduce us to the project Ansisters, which you’re working on now?
‘For part of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, I was working on a project commissioned by Stichting NDSM Werf. It was for a piece about the history of NDSM, and they paired me with the Beeld & Geluid archive for collaboration. By that time, I had become more and more interested in the migration of specifically women and queer migrants from Turkey to The Netherlands. I did my previous piece, Şifa, on female migrant experiences of loss and grief during corona lockdowns. I started searching migrant queers and women from the history of NDSM in several archives. It was difficult to find women and queers in the institutional archives, because NDSM used to house a shipbuilding factory and that workplace was inaccessible, even perceived as unfitting, for female labour. In the end, the project was finalized last month, in Nov-Dec 2022, with an installation on the NDSM wharf. It was an audio-visual installation about stories of three women, a textile factory worker, her daughter and a textile factory owner from Turkey who were all connected to the textile factories on NDSM in the 1980s and 1990s.
As I continued my research in the archives, the Ansisters became a much bigger project. It became a research about the first generation of migration of women and queers from Turkey to The Netherlands between 1960 and 1980, especially after the 1964 labour agreement between Turkey and the Netherlands. I started researching the struggles and solidarities among them in that period. I expanded my research in other archives such as Atria, several archives at Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis (‘International Institute for Social History’), like the archive of the Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging (‘Federation of Dutch Trade Unions’), and online newspaper archives like Delpher. I reached out to people like photographer Bertien van Manen, who witnessed this period with her photographs, etcetera. What I came across in institutional archives, which is a common thing. is that, if the specific issues are not researched by people specialized in these subjects who would then contextualize the archived materials, what is archived becomes a collection of partial, decontextualized group of materials. Archived broadcasted materials from this time, especially about a topic such as labour migration, mostly include newsworthy materials about migrants. These stories are populated around two opposites; either stories of successes or of how dangerous these migrants could be.’
They were remembering not the factual information but embodied experiences: they were remembering the jokes and they were gossiping while we were watching the videos together (both about each other and about themselves)
How were you able to find the people you are focussing on in your research, if not through these newsworthy stories of success or danger?
‘In my research, I am focussing on two labour disputes in 1978 by migrant women workers from Turkey: one in an onion peeling company in Veghel (between Eindhoven and Den Bosch), and other in a chicken factory in Almelo. At the moment, Veghel is the focus. Around sixty-five migrant women from Turkey had a labour dispute in Veghel between 1977 and 1979. They demanded better working conditions, regular work hours, better and stable pay, holiday and sick leave. I could not find the names of these women for a really long time, because they were only referred to as “women workers”, as one group, and never with their individual names. I found one name of someone who was not a worker, but who helped the women organize: Leyla Razaki-İleri. She became a key figure in finding the other women. Together, we went to the court building in Utrecht where they had a court case, and to Veghel where we looked for the women who were active during the labour dispute. We found some of the women, but we’re still searching for the others. Both Veghel and Almelo labour disputes are quite central in my research. The Veghel labour dispute was historically extremely important because it was the first time that migrant women got in touch with the FNV (the Dutch worker’s union) and unionized in the Netherlands. These are histories that are not spoken about, while these women were quite strong in their political stance and in the clarity of their demands.’
What are the issues with primacy and immediacy of the gaze, and the immediacy of access to others’ images that we take for granted?
: How did you go about researching histories that have hardly been recorded?
‘When I had the chance to talk to Leyla, I realized how my conversations with her and then with others were really focused on facts, because I couldn’t figure out what was going on and I spent a really long time trying to figure out piecing together different parts of history I found in the archives. I started making different timelines in order to contextualize these labour disputes, including political-social changes in Turkey that were relevant for migration; changing laws and regulations around migration in the Netherlands, and migration from other countries to the Netherlands. Anything politically and socially relevant was in those timelines covering the period from 1960 to 1980. When I brought this more factual and information-based investigation to the women, what struck me was that they were misremembering things, or not remembering them at all. They were remembering not the factual information but embodied experiences: they were remembering the jokes and they were gossiping while we were watching the videos together (both about each other and about themselves). I realized I kept bringing our conversations back to facts, while they were really not necessarily interested in those. Now, the research is changing. It’s looking for its shape so that it can include more of these embodied experiences.’
Did this project change the way you look at archives?
‘Yes. These linear timelines made me question what the archive does to the researcher, and to the research. What is the organising principle, that we as artists, as researchers, could potentially start reproducing, and could bring back to the subjects we are working with? I realized that the women were trying to fulfill my wishes of finding factual information. I realized, through this dynamic, I was potentially reproducing the archival violence that I was criticizing and fighting against throughout my practice. This realization has been a major turning point for this research. As I said, the research is looking for its forms that could hold these embodied and lived experiences. I’m currently developing a workshop on nervous system regulation and somatic practices, where we will do these practices before we engage with the archived images. What does it mean if we start from ourselves, ground and centre in our bodies first, and only then relate to the images of others? How our openness to explore the unsurfaced knowledges of our bodies would support our engagement with the unexplored histories of this land? What does responsibility and accountability mean in that interaction? What are the issues with primacy and immediacy of the gaze, and the immediacy of access to others’ images that we take for granted?’
And what made you focus on the period 1960-1980?
‘In 1964 there was the labour agreement between Turkey and the Netherlands. I wanted to start a little bit before that, because people were already migrating to The Netherlands in the 1960s. And both in 1960 and 1980 there were coup d’etats in Turkey. The one in 1980 really changed the nature of migration from Turkey. The 1980s also globally marked a clear shift in the world.’
How can we talk about these images without perpetuating further violence, and at the same time, by insistently talking about them?
I read that you have a focus on the violence of images and images of violence – what exactly do you see under the term ‘violence’? Is it simply about physical violence, or is the focus broader than that? What should I picture when I think of ‘images of violence’?
‘I don’t limit it to physical violence, that’s for sure. Before focusing on migration from Turkey to Europe, I was focusing on the events in Turkey, and especially how certain images of violence were distributed, and this distribution perpetuated further violence. How literal and physical violence can extend to emotional and non-physical violence through images. A work of mine, Ayhan and me (2016) was censored because it was about one paramilitary figure who claimed to have killed a thousand political Kurdish people in the course of ten years, in the 1990s in the Kurdish geography in Turkey. In the work, I’m combining the physical and non-physical violence by crumbling the printed image of this paramilitary figure while talking about how charged his image has become and what it represents. I ask: what does that image do, and what is its power? His image was not important because of who he was in 2016 (because he was not active anymore), but because what he represented was still a reality. Similar structures and violence were still being perpetuated by other actors, and his image was still dangerous as a symbol of that violence.
Do you have another example of a work that centres around this violence of the image?
‘In grain, another work from 2016, I dived into the archive of a left-wing, underground, armed group from Turkey, whose archive was smuggled to IISG. There were hunger strikes in 1999 and 2000 against the law of the isolation prison system for political prisoners all over the country. I was looking at the images made by this left-wing, sectarian, and hierarchical group. They made a propaganda video with the images of the burned bodies of their militants after a military attack on the imprisoned hunger strikers all over the country in December 2000. grain contemplates the politics, poetics, and ethics of the image: how does one use images of others, and what does one do with them in the case they can not consent to this usage, because they are no longer alive? What are the consequences of the choices taken with these images? How such imagery use creates a culture of what is acceptable. My research and works have been insisting on finding a language to talk about these violences. How can we talk about these images without perpetuating further violence, and at the same time, by insistently talking about them?’
My entire practice is research-based. The question in the intersection of the two could be how one can share the research without a finalized artwork
Do you see yourself as an artist, or as a researcher, or as both, or as neither?
‘As both. I’m a researcher and an artist. I don’t see them as different categories. My entire practice is research-based. The question in the intersection of the two could be how one can share the research without a finalized artwork.’
And do you think you succeed in sharing your research?
‘I think I’m gradually more open to share the research and the unfinishedness than before. Sharing of unfinished work is not finishing each sentence and putting a dot but leaving it as a comma, but then the words before the comma need to make sense and need to communicate so that people can also be involved in speculating about the sentence – so that it is open to becoming a collaboration. I find it so much more collaborative and inclusive to share works-in-progress. Still, it could turn into being very exclusive and inaccessible – the question is: how can we make it accessible, how can we make it an invitation, a conversation more than anything?’
But accessible to whom? To everyone?
‘To the people that I would like to have that conversation with. In Ansisters, it’s really about prioritising the labour migrant community from Turkey living in the Netherlands — that’s the first group of people that I would like to be in conversation with. They were the majority of people who were in the opening of Ansisters at NDSM. The name “Ansisters” comes from the fact that I position myself as part of the lineage of these women and queers. It is a word play on ancestors. I’m interested in that non-genetic, non-biological ancestry. My life, my precarious work situations, a lot of the things I experience in The Netherlands, have been Ied by them, although in different forms and in different ways. Many things that they have done have shaped and opened ways to so many things for the next generations. Many things that I can do here today are possible because of what they did. Looking at them is also like looking at the roots of my life here. Sixty years ago so many things were unclear – the rules, regulations and policies were not there: those women had to fight every step of it.’
Sixty years ago so many things were unclear – the rules, regulations and policies were not there: those women had to fight every step of it
And how do you think of the continuation of this project?
‘I’ll continue working in installation format including moving images, and with workshops and performance. I want to look into more ephemeral ways these histories could meet others. In this research, there are layers and layers of fictions, and I am interested in how I could include the people that have been involved in those pasts and speculate together.’
What do you mean with fictions?
‘In the archive and in the stories that are told, there are so many assumptions and projections, which turn into stories that are fictitious, about these people, about this period of labour migration. Even my timelines are fictions compiled of facts and supposedly objective information with many gaps to fill. I’m interested in how to make use of that, and make that a strength of the project in collaboration with the people that have been part of those histories. I will do that by translating these collaborative fictions into workshops, performances, moving image pieces, and installations.’
A lot of these events are still happening now – like labour strikes and migration. Are you planning to show these works to people more outside of the artistic realm or the people in the videos?
‘I’m connecting it to my own struggle. Though it is the first step, it should not stop at an individual and personal connection. What I think works the best in these cases is that you do your part the best way and through that allow these connections to happen. This project, or any kind of archival work is a continuous work of uncovering new things, and making connections. This project brings a certain period, people, and connections to the surface. That’s the labour that is needed to make it possible for these stories to connect to the stories of now. So my priority is to dive into the history I’m focusing on and do that the best way. The next step would be to connect that history to the rest. It has always been a part of my practice to share the work with the community where it come from first, that has been the same in this project.’