(A)WAKE in conversation with Mayis Rukel on representation in the Netherlands and Turkey and the use of digital culture as a possible tool for cultural understanding
A few weeks ago (A)WAKE – a cultural institute in becoming for and by upcoming creative diaspora with West-Asian and North African (WANA) roots conversed with Rietveld Academy graduate visual artist and filmmaker Mayis Rukel (TR/NL). In her ambition to facilitate to the needs of the community, (A)WAKE aims to imagine a future where forces are joined for collective visibility of the unheard voices that are left underrepresented within mainstream (western) institutions in the Netherlands.
Mayis’ background in English literature, Philosophy and Political Science and his visual practice as an artist, writer and filmmaker formed an inspirational base for a conversation on the notion of diasporic cultural identities, politics of representation and the idea of digital culture as a tool for communication and connection. The conversation highlights the need for spaces and collaborations based on likemindedness and collective hope. And most importantly, on an unspoken and lived through mutual cultural understanding. A place where upcoming makers have the agency to just be, and the freedom to explore their sense of belonging in our current divided, globalised and wired world.
Food for thought prior to the conversation was Mayis Rukel’s latest film, The Pendant (2020) – a captivating and mysterious film, touches on numerous modes of political identity. The Pendant was selected for the Rietveld Academy Award, was to be seen at Ron Mandos and at NFF – where it was in the running for the Studentencompetitie 2020. The 22-minute film The Pendant, carried out in collaboration with cinematographer Mostafa Heravi and gaffer Ray van der Bas, is described by the artist on his website as:
“Breaking of a mirror initiates five different acts in five different places; exposing shades of magic, politics and systemic violence. Dysfunctionalities of social systems and the harm they inflict, the enforced disappearances in Turkey during the 1990s, the border politics of the EU, manipulative storytelling and power struggles are investigated as the round pendant attempts to become whole again with its gemstones scattered throughout the acts.”
Colonial Europe never imagined us as people with agency and power, and the current extension of that history is still perplexed about what to make of us. I’m attracted to the idea of making use of that confusion and utilizing it for our self-definition of what it means to be from the WANA diaspora.
Hi Mayis, thank you for wanting to converse on the (wide) notion of representation and belonging. Considering the scope of the conversation, we will unfortunately not be able to tap into the many layers and understandings of representation and belonging. The first questions would be if you actually feel represented in Dutch media and in cultural institutions such as museums, galleries and venues here in the Netherlands? And if so, how do you see yourself represented?
Having socialized mainly in a state where representation in the media and culture is highly politicized and shaped by the ideological commitments of certain institutions, I must say I hardly ever felt represented in the mainstream narrative within Turkey as well. Which makes it difficult for me to imagine how I could be justly represented by the Dutch cultural institutions when I don’t have a comparable example of how it can be done correctly back where I’m from. It’s tricky, but also empowering because that leaves us space to define this representation for ourselves and our communities. I must also mention that the incredible work of Nazmiye Oral, Adelheid Roosen and the Zina Platform in the Netherlands were great examples of how our stories can be told with truth and nuance.
In what ways do you see yourself represented in cultural institutes in specific, for instance are there particular contexts you’ve felt more attracted to?
There are centuries old colonial and orientalist ideas and prejudices that are still alive because they still serve certain political and economic agendas. Through the media I think they often trickle down to people and manifest themselves as racism, violence, fear or confusion. Colonial Europe never imagined us as people with agency and power, and the current extension of that history is still perplexed about what to make of us. I’m attracted to the idea of making use of that confusion and utilizing it for our self-definition of what it means to be from the WANA diaspora. To direct the conversation ourselves and control our own narratives. The kind of representation I want from the cultural institutions is one that provides us with the means to use our knowledge, experiences, creativity and histories as tools for subverting colonial and orientalist structures and building new ones in their place.
Having socialized mainly in a state where representation in the media and culture is highly politicized and shaped by the ideological commitments of certain institutions, I must say I hardly ever felt represented in the mainstream narrative within Turkey as well. Which makes it difficult for me to imagine how I could be justly represented by the Dutch cultural institutions when I don’t have a comparable example of how it can be done correctly back where I’m from.
Were there any instances that made you feel like you didn’t really have a voice within these institutions?
For the youth of the WANA diaspora (and other parts of the world) who don’t hold an EU passport or a specific residence permit, the 2,5 times higher tuition fees of studies in the Netherlands is a terrible paywall, made worse by their limited work permit. Ending up in one of these Western European institutions is something only people with a specific background can achieve, which makes it really difficult to talk about a voice in these institutions that can represent a diaspora. The other side of the coin is also visible in how, for example, the number of Turkish students at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy who came from affluent families of big Turkish cities greatly (and historically) outweigh the number of Turkish students who are second, third or fourth generation members of Turkish guest worker families, who hold passports but for whom the socioeconomic conditions keep the pursuit of an artistic career out of the picture.
I had the opportunity to exist within these institutions. This privilege amplified my voice. And in the specific example of the Gerrit Rietveld Academy and especially my department VAV-Moving Image, I often felt heard when I needed to raise my voice. Even though at times our demands were handled clumsily, I still trust that we all were in that conflict with the intention of learning together.
How could cultural institutions be changed in regard to the way in which they (mis)represent the diasporic WANA voices?
With better accountability and genuine commitment to change. This is what I tried to highlight in my essay Issues of Accountability in the Dutch Cultural Community: Questions for the Post-October 30 Era published on my website. I also believe that we need better organization and funding for asserting more presence and engagement, intentional and structured dialogue and cultural healing for the people of diasporas. For us to get together and nourish our potential for finding out what shape belonging can take for us. To question what “integration” is, to question the conditions under which we can co-exist in peace and create a future together.
Do you consider the World Wide Web and digital means of communication important for connecting with your roots in Turkey?
Over the years I have created numerous podcasts in Turkish language, highlighting topics and conversations that could have been a bit more difficult to initiate within the Turkish state borders due to state censorship or fear; and was able to reach people through social media. I’m not the only one at all; there are many creatives also within the Turkish state borders who initiate and sustain a cloud resistance that communicates through digital means. I think it can absolutely be a great tool. I see reflections of this in the interactions I had with people who engaged with what I shared so far. It definitely shapes change.
What would it mean for you to be part of an institute which focuses on the West Asian and North African diaspora?
These spaces and our togetherness in them create a mirror effect, allowing us to see ourselves in the lives, stories and experiences of each other. They also provide more connections to really care for our needs and put them in the center. We need this alliance to address urgent problems such as what climate change will soon mean for the people of our diaspora. Human rights issues. To diminish the effects of racist politics on our future. To create a strong presence and rhetoric for the specific “nostos” of our people, which in return would create deeper grounding, larger funding, true healing, belonging and a future built for us in our wholeness. Allowing ourselves to hold all our complexities, without letting different agendas capitalize on a hyperfocus on certain parts, highlighting one while invalidating others. How could we create structures that refuse generalization while asserting on our right to be acknowledged in all our historical and current complexities?
Thank you Mayis for our inspiring talk sparking many thoughts – that together form a soil of understandings blooming brightly in conversations yet to come. Your talents, eagerness for (radical) change and kindness are definitely with an incomparable magnitude. Wishing you all the best in your personal life as in your professional practice.
Interview by Narges Mohammadi