“Boğatepe Charter of Futures”: Learnings from the exhibition and speculations from pastures

by M. Fatih Tatari

Words of a mani alongside plants from the Boğatepe pastures covering one of the walls of the exhibition room in İstanbul Gazhane, as part of the İstanbul Biennial 2022. Photo Credit: M. Fatih Tatari

The above picture shows one of the walls in the room reserved for the exhibition “Boğatepe Charter of Futures” which was assembled in the course of the 17th İstanbul Biennial, September – November 2022. The leading artist of the project, also a shepherd from the pastoralist community of Northern Spain, Fernando Garcia Dory, installed on the wall the plants brought from pastures of Boğatepe, along with lyrics of a local artistic verbal expression, bayatı or mani. Boğatepe Environment and Life Association (BÇYD) have been organizing workshops and training programmes on the traditional uses and scientific methods of identifying, collecting, and protecting edible, aromatic, and medicinal plants. This unique way of combining words and pictorial representations of plants was dedicated to the villagers and depicted their relationship with the plants in their pastures.

I had encountered the bayatı written on the wall in Boğatepe village at around the same time when I heard Yalçın Emmi telling and singing it in the village. As a respected elder of the village and a grocery store owner, he featured in a short video which was made in August 2022 in Boğatepe, and which was shown in the same room of the Biennial exhibition in İstanbul. He was happy to convey these songs that were usually dedicated to love but always carrying delicate expressions about the singer’s surroundings, including animals, pastures, food, seeds, or climatic conditions.

When Fernando reached BÇYD, the association of the villages for which I have been volunteering since 2009, to collaborate for the İstanbul Biennial, we invited him to Kars. Boğatepe Charter of Futures emerged from Fernando’s impressions of the two-decades-long experience of small farmers in Boğatepe village. The title reflected Fernando’s inspiration from the innovative local pathways that farmers have been constructing in the face of global problems such as the loss of biodiversity, climate crisis, increasingly difficult access to the markets, depopulation of the villages, and the waning of cultural and artistic life in the rural. Fernando’s work of installing and designing the exhibition room aimed not only at reflecting the experiences of the farmers in the last decades under three interrelated fields – community/culture, ecology/habitat, and economy/production – but also, and even more importantly, to speculate on the ongoing projects and ideas that shape the present and future of the village, and of rural life in general. Hence the exhibition hosted the products made by the villagers in a series of workshops organised in the summer of 2022. These workshops not only enabled the women and children of the village to be involved in art, but also contributed to their ongoing projects on renovating the old village school for new training programmes, collaborating with the pastoralists who herd flocks of sheep in Boğatepe pastures, and re-learning the wool crafts.

Boğatepe Charter of Futures, İstanbul, 2022. Photo Credit: Kamil Yılmaz

Wool Craft of Boğatepe

In the last 40 years, the number of dairy sheep decreased tremendously in the province. While most family farmers in Kars have only cows, a limited number of them kept sheep – almost all of them exclusively for meat purposes. Dairy sheep farming was limited to the pastoralists who spend the winter in Iğdır, at the northern foothills of Ararat Mountain, and who, from April onwards, start travelling hundreds of kilometres to the pastures they rent in Kars, Ardahan, and Ağrı. Simultaneously, with the decrease in sheep flocks, the famous Kars carpet making, wool crafts, and sheep milk dairy crafts came to an end. The fleece of the sheep has become almost worthless in the last decade. The economic and cultural loss of the wool crafts also triggered ecological harm that the farmers, pastoralists, and shepherds were involuntary accomplices of. Since shepherds were not able to sell the fleece, nor simply give them away for free, burning the shaved fleece in the pastures became a widespread practice.

However, Boğatepe villagers want to revive the wool crafts in the village and their region. And for this, they have started to work on turning the fleece into wool, which involves the laborious processes of washing, fluffing, combing, dyeing, and then forming tangles. This also involves forging new relations between farmers and pastoralists. For instance, last summer, the farmers exchanged Boğatepe cheese for the fleece of sheep and lamb shaved by the Iğdır pastoralists in the pastures, providing a new avenue for collaboration between the two. If the villagers manage to find efficient ways of processing wool for themselves and for the markets, simple exchanges, such as seen the last summer, can give way to new collaborative opportunities that accommodate both farmers and pastoralists.

The interest in wool crafts and this potential collaboration between pastoralists and farmers have become the centre of the Boğatepe’s presence in the İstanbul Biennial; and the presence of the Biennial in Boğatepe village! Women of Boğatepe collaborated with the women in the neighbouring Karatavuk village, where the waterway to the mill provides a suitable space to wash the wool. Old combing and spinning tools of Boğatepe were dusted and cleaned and helped women obtain soft and ready-to-use wool. The principal motivation was learning, although for some, it was about remembering the making of felt.

Fernando and I viewed this as an opportunity not only to make Boğatepe experiences and future projections visible in İstanbul but also to support the women in their attempts to convert fleece into wool crafts and to turn this art space into an occasion for collective speculation on possible futures in and from Boğatepe. Hence, together with the BÇYD women members, we planned a series of workshops in the village, thanks to the support of the Biennial team.

Local art and knowledge: Papier-mâché ram head sculptures and felt pieces

Aysel Alver, a sculptor based in Mardin, came to the village with Mehmet Emin İbrahimoğlu, an anthropology and art student. They organised papier-mâché workshops with the women and children of Boğatepe. They made three large masks in the shape of ram heads, which later also became crucial elements of the exhibition in İstanbul. Based on Aysel and Emin’s conversations with the villagers, Fernando and Aysel worked on a script for a short video by İbrahim Süleymanoğlu. The latter involved re-staging two almost forgotten rituals: one, decorating rams for the celebration of the day they are introduced into the flock (which happens once every year for reproductive purposes); and the other, calling an imaginary character, dodo, for help in times of hardship, like during drought as it is frequently the case in recent years.

Women in a felt workshop, Boğatepe village, Kars. Photo Credit: Esin Bozovalı

Besides the papier-mâché ram head sculptures and a speculative and artistic video, the last part of the workshops involved making felt. Esin Bozovalı documented these processes with two short videos – one, a sculpture-video workshop, and the other, a wool/felt workshop. Aynur Miraz Yüce, a well-known felt artist in Turkey, came to the village with many different pieces of wool and other equipment that were generously provided by the Tohumluk Vakfı. A dozen women gathered in an old dairy building that we transformed into a temporary felt workshop for four consecutive days. Yüce demonstrated techniques of turning wool into felt, preparing, and using moulds to make various items like vests, hats, shoes, scarves, and rugs. Besides making different items from felt, which also incorporated many old textiles that everyone brought from their houses, all the participants of the workshops contributed to the design and making of the large felt carpet that was later hung on the wall in the Biennial exhibition room in İstanbul.

Various felt pieces were made during the workshop in August 2022. Photo Credit : Çağdaş

On 15 September 2022, in the opening week of the Biennial, we organized a panel with the participation of the artists and the members of BÇYD. The panellists narrated their personal experiences of the steps involved in transforming animal fleece into felt, and of the collective production and curation from Boğatepe to İstanbul. The urban and international community of visitors showed a significant interest in the art spaces that made the presence of pastoralism palpable. Hence, the exhibition and the exchanges revealed the power of the innovative collaborations in Boğatepe village, which entail hopeful speculations on the futures of traditional knowledge, arts, and crafts of rural communities.

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