The Pawn

A frank conversation with Artist Emry Demirci about his controversial work.


Emry Demirci is in front of my door at eleven o'clock in the morning. In his hands he carries a large painting, wrapped with bubble plastic, protected from rain and wind. I see red and blue. Two colors that are diametrically opposite each other in the color circle. The plastic goes off in the photo studio. Emry stands next to his work. Determined. Nothing to hide. What follows is a frank conversation about Islam, beauty and self-censorship.


What influence did your family have on your artistry?


I knew from a young age that I wanted to paint. My parents did not encourage it, but they did not stand in the way either. I was allowed to paint and draw what I wanted. There was no question of censorship. That open attitude was exceptional, I soon realized when I looked around me. They are still open to everything I do and what I make. I am very grateful to them for that.


You paint very figuratively. Is there a reason for that?


‘Human beings’ has always fascinated me. As a little boy I made hundreds of portraits. Since I started to research in Islam, my work has become more layered and symbolic. My first work to do with Islam is a painting in which I painted the 99 names of God. You must know, God has 99 names that always return in the same order in Islamic books. Nobody knows exactly why they stand in that order, but everyone accepts it like that. It is even claimed that those who learn all names by heart, go to heaven. In my painting I had changed the order of those 99 names. What I found striking was that no one noticed that. That made me think. How great is the knowledge of the Muslims?


Your last painting can at least be called striking. A naked reading woman on a mat in front of a curtain. How does the Muslim world react?


I have done a little research and have shown the painting to many people: non-Muslims, practicing Muslims, extreme Muslims, modern Muslims, anti-Muslims ... I asked them if they wanted to look at the painting and give their opinion. Almost all of them reacted shocked: "Do you know what you're doing?" "You're not going to put that on the internet anyway?" Especially the people who know me and know that I deal with Islam with respect, were worried. They warned me: "Be careful so they don't do anything bad to you."


Yet you paint it. Do you want to shock?


Absolutely not. I want to release something. I want to encourage thinking. I want to change something.


One of the people I interviewed, an extreme Muslim, said firmly: "That is the Quran, our holy book." To which I: "Do you read the Quran? Do you know Arabic? He nodded. "Then you should see that it is not Arabic but Persian," I said. "It's a fragment from the Avesta." Then it got quiet. Somebody else, a Muslim, said, "A naked woman on a prayer rug, that is not allowed!" I asked her why she thought it was a prayer rug. She couldn’t answer me. Because what makes a rug holy? Ultimately it is a piece of fabric, manufactured by people, something you buy in the store. We decide for ourselves whether something is sacred or not, so it is a personal matter. In the time of Mohammed, there were not even prayer rugs. The people did their prayer on a bed of leaves. Were those leaves sacred too?



They are elements that are open to many interpretations. And with that, just shocking.


That's right. But that proves just how personal our experience is, and how limited the knowledge of many Muslims. I am convinced that the better you know Islam, the more insight you have in the matter, the more moderate and nuanced you can see things. For example, I showed the painting to an Islam teacher, someone who has an enormous knowledge. She immediately said: "Oh, beautiful. You painted me. That's how I feel." I asked her what she liked about it. Very enthusiastically she told about the intense colour of the curtain, the warmth that shone from the naked body of the woman, her attitude, the beautiful tiled floor, the contrast between blue and orange, between warm and cold ... She let herself be carried away by the beauty of the painting.


And the other people who saw the work? Didn’t they like it?


I asked the extreme Muslim if he liked the work, regardless of the theme or what he saw in it. He replied: "I can’t find anything about it. I can’t find a word about it. It is not allowed." And that ended the stocking. Even though he thought the colors or the composition might be beautiful, he did not allow it, but he suppressed that feeling.


You will find that self-censorship everywhere, even in the non-Muslim world, where the subject hinders the viewer from coming to the right experience of the artwork. Now take Francis Bacon, a British expressionist painter. His subjects are gruesome, it is about people who suffer and are being slaughtered. But on the other hand, his paintings are also so beautiful. Bacon wanted to depict the horror, but he did so in such a wonderful pictorial language that you are sucked into it as a human being and can not avoid the confrontation.


Or compare it with African art. If you look at a sculpture, for example, the meaning will lost because you are not a Bantu who lives with that philosophy or fetish. But the beauty can affect you. And so it is with a lot of art from the past in museums. We look at it, and we do not fully understand the iconography, but we experience it as beautiful. Then it becomes something universal, something that can take us all.


Do you mean that Islam stands in the way of experiencing something as beautiful?


It’s a key to a new world, if you look at things through their beauty. You experience something new, you learn something. Think of the Muslim teacher: she entered the painting through beauty, while the others clashed on all those symbols, and concluded: "I can not look at it." Islam may indeed not be a restriction. It must not lead to self-censorship. On the other hand, I also want to encourage more knowledge. Knowledge broadens your view instead of limiting it. Knowledge makes us more tolerant. Some Muslims are fanatical. They are proud of their God, they are proud of the Ottoman Empire, and that is beautiful. But if you dig deeper, you notice that their knowledge is limited. They assume what is learned from higher up. They just follow. They are Muslim but have never read the Koran. They do not do research. They do not look at themselves.

And do you want to achieve that introspection with your work?


I can put a lot into a work. Everything that I do not get to say in words. I am convinced that with art you can bring people to insight. How they deal with their faith, how they can think about it metaphysically, philosophically and fundamentally. With this painting I want to wake people up. And I know that I can get into trouble with it. People will despise, even hate me, maybe want to do something to me. But I feel responsible for my fellow man. I do not want to hide. I do not want to suppress anything. I do not want to do self-censorship. I don’t want to paint just flowers.

The Pawn


Oil on canvas, 100x140 cm

Akrostis magazine, number: Censorship, February 2019

Interview & Photography: Joke Timmermans