I wander between the shelves of Istanbul Bookstore with curiosity. My attention is caught by a thick book with the title of Sûrnâme in red letters. That’s how I meet Levni’s Sûrnâme in which he illustrated the account of the reign of Sultan Ahmed by poet Seyyid Vehbi with miniatures. I open the book and examine the pages which carry the glorious ceremonies and performances of the Ottoman period to the present with superb miniatures. Through a journey in time, I become a part of those times as I keep looking at the clothes of the sultan, the grand vizier, and the common people; the decorative patterns in the margins; and the meticulous details of architectural structures and natural beauties.
I remember the line, “To imprint is to remember” from Orhan Pamuk’s book My Name Is Red. I hit the road to meet masters who, with great patience and effort, reflect the world in lacework-like miniatures and to remember many stories from past to present.
First, I go to the district of Çiftehavuzlar to visit the house of Ülker Erke, who has been living a life intertwined with miniatures for 70 years. Her house looks like a living museum with books, framed miniatures on the walls, and archives. She grabbed the brush for the first time in middle school with the encouragement of her teacher Süheyl Ünver and developed a passion for the art of miniature. “Miniature is a painting that tells a story. It’s like a historical document which portrays a time, a period in all details,” she says with bright eyes.
The topics of her works include dervish lodges, Anatolian myths, ships from the imperial caique of Mehmed the Conqueror to steamboats, and the hospitals in Seljuk and Ottoman periods. Looking through her books, I am curious about Zeytinin Hikâyesi (Story of Olives) which looks like a gift from the present with all its details in miniature. Erke explains her reason for choosing this topic, “My teacher, Mr. Enver, always advised me to work on a place, a topic I feel closest to. Since my family has been harvesting olives since my grandfather, I wanted to depict the legends of the Edremit region and the story of olives.” Emphasizing the importance of the actuality of her art, Erke, in this series, painted detailed miniatures depicting scenes from the cultivation of olives for which Edremit is famous to olive harvesting at sunrise where people drive on tractors and the meci (cooperation) celebrations held at the end of the harvest.
After leaving Erke, I head for the house where miniature artist Gülçin Anmaç lives and works in Erenköy. I find it hard to take my eyes off of the miniatures on the walls and her room full of books. Among the works are miniatures by her late teachers, which she remembers with gratitude, Nusret Çolpan and Cahide Keskiner. While talking about her guiding lights, she emphasizes the importance of passing down knowledge, “When you’re a teacher, you need to be more disciplined and in control of yourself because there’s a certain transmission. You are passing down the whole thing as a role model. You’re choosing the people who can keep that art alive. Can they learn from you and teach it to others? This is very important for me. This is the only way to pass down art to the future generations.” Anmaç says after choosing a specific topic for the miniature, it’s also important to do research and to collect documents about that topic. “Before I start a work, I live that period for a long time. I read documents and focus on that topic with all my faculties. When I am fully immersed in it, I start doing the miniature. For instance, when I was studying the inns area in Bursa, I conducted research for months and studied their locations one by one. Another time, I could only draw one miniature out of a thick book by Mawlana.”
I continue my tour on the Anatolian side and visit the colorful neighborhood of Yeldeğirmeni in Kadıköy to meet tezhip (illumination) and miniature artist Ebru Yalkın. Her miniatures whisper stories reflected on faces, buildings and patterns with the colors of her brush. Examining her works, I feel like walking around the market of Kadıköy Çarşı or the fishermen excitedly waiting to catch something on Galata Bridge.
After graduating from the ceramics department at university, Yalkın learned illumination, marbling and miniature from masters. She says that the miniatures she has made over the course of 14 years are shaped by her imagination and research built on her classical training. “I enjoy portraying current stories and details with an open and simplistic style. For instance, I try to reflect the district I live in along with its current daily life including its market, architecture and what people wear.” She touches upon the freedom of telling more than one thing in miniature by saying, “Miniature painting gives you flexibility. You can include some things in the composition as they are and add your imagination to others.”
She has been teaching illumination and miniature painting to expats in Istanbul for over a decade. The artist believes that in order to understand a culture, you need to understand its traditional arts. “When they come to live here, they learn tile making, illumination, point lace, or Ottoman Turkish. As I teach them miniature painting, I also relay its place in history and our culture in addition to the technique. When they learn those, they grow more attached to art and Turkish culture.”
History lives on through various documents. I am happy to know that these masters, who diligently immortalize these detailed miniature scenes with various influences, will carry today’s stories into the future.