Tuesday 21 April 2015

The Sculpture Garden of Cuma Altıntaş- An Outsider Artist from Bodrum

In June 2013, I was driving across the back-roads of Turkey's Bodrum peninsula. While passing a dusty path, I noticed a surreal legion of painted, stick-like sculptures posed on the roadside. There were hundreds of them...


 Weird forms: Dragons riding bicycles; women; balbal-like humanoid figures, made out of wood or a strange mix of concrete and plaster; were lined up for yards on end. It was a delightful forest of anomalies, a spectacle more fitting to a crazy surrealist's estate from Spain or France rather than the artistic and intellectual desert that is Turkey. I was pleasantly surprised. I got out of my car and started exploring the forest of sculptures.

Soon, a small figure emerged from a hut at the far end of the field and walked towards me in greeting. Wizened, dark and cryptic, he looked like one of the statues come to life.

He was the sculptor who made this wonderful forest, and his name was Cuma Altıntaş. We sat down outside his hut and he told me his story. A Kurd from a village near Sivas in the far-eastern part of Turkey, he had escaped to Bodrum after a troubled youth involving political persecution, inter-family strife and heartbreak.

When younger, he was castigated by village elders for making sculptures, which are forbidden in the Moslem religion. Cuma told me he was tormented by all sorts of nightmares caused by his childhood guilt about making statues.

In his new life in Bodrum, Cuma lived by selling his sculptures to well-off Turks wishing to decorate their holiday villas, and by working in local gardens and fields when ends didn't meet. He had gained limited fame as an eccentric local artist; he had appeared in several newspaper articles and was once on TV.

As a fellow artist, I was honoured to meet him. It is very rare in Turkey to meet a creator with a vision and style as distinct as Cuma's. As we walked through his garden I took hundreds of photos, and Cuma explained me some of their meanings.

Here is a small selection from Cuma's garden of unearthly delights:

A horned lady, sculpted out of wood.

A pallid face with horns, a "demon" according to Cuma.

An anthropomorphic log.
Cuma was a master at turning natural flaws into parts of his sculptures' facial anatomies. 

"Sleeping beauty." Cuma said that "one woman" kept reappearing in most of his sculptures.
This phenomenon is common in many male artists - indeed, it might be the very purpose some of us venture on our artistic journeys.

Humanoid figure with snails for tears.

A dark, human-faced log.

Humanoid sculpture made out of painted concrete.
This statue resembled a balbal made by ancient Turkic people.

Feminine form with slitted eyes. One of my favourite pieces.

A melancholic figure.

Sculpture made out of a cracked log - two faces or one?

A resting snail added character to this sculpture.

A general view from Cuma's sculpture garden.

A concrete bust with a strange, talisman-like nose.
This statue reminded me of one of Clark Ashton Smith's arcane sculptures.

Red sphinx with splayed, lizard-like feet.
The "one woman" is definitely making another appearance here.

A more maternal woman's face, caved out of lightweight pumice.

A dazzling red serpent-dog-man-thing rose out of the ground a few feet away like one of Max Ernst's visions come alive.
This was one of Cuma's most subliminal sculptures.

Two restful figures.

Among the humanoid forms, this weird thing stood out in looking more like a bird or a fish.

"Black head," made out of painted concrete.

Another detail from Cuma's sculpture garden. The karstic hills of Bodrum peninsula loom in the background.

Two feminine companions.

A goddess-like figure with "horns" fashioned from the branches of the tree it was carved from.

Goggle-eyed figure among hemlock plants.

Another red sphinx, with splayed, sucker-like feet.
Once more, it is a haunting representation of Cuma's lost lover.

This statue was distinct from all others in featuring a representation of the ancient Mesopotamian "winged sun" pattern, as well as unknown text set in cuneiform characters. In the present day, Kurdish nationalists sometimes claim direct descent from ancient Mesopotamian civilisations, using this purported origin as a rationale to refuse the religious and national hegemony of the states in the region. It would be all-too-understandable if Cuma, a Kurdish sculptor persecuted for religious and ethnic reasons in the past, harboured such sentiments as well.
A magnificent dragon with three horns.

A general view from Cuma's garden.

A dinosaur-dragon thing with wings and tentacle-like fingers - one of Cuma's most distinctive visions.

A gnarly dragon with knobby horns. It reminded me strangely of the prehistoric reptile-mammal known as Estemmenosuchus.

Cuma used the natural curve of this pine branch to make his sculpture appear as if it was dancing.

Eerie-looking demon figure with horns emerging from its cloven head.

One of Cuma's feminine mystiques again.

Another woman, painted an intense red with a round, moon-like face.

This was a particularly cute female form, sculpted out of a rectangular lump of concrete.

"The hand of god," sculpted out of a dead olive tree, sat by the roadside and beckoned travellers to Cuma's sculpture garden.

Olive-bark sculpture with cryptic scratches.

A pale, lanky dragon.

A red queen sat imposingly among dozens of strange, elongated monsters.

A sweet woman with a red, lanky reptilian companion.
The dragon was also female, as evident from its long, pendulous breasts.

A pale, elongated statue in the corner of Cuma's garden. A road sign on the background, announcing that "the nation comes first," reminds that the shibboleth of nationalism is never too far off in Turkey.

Cuma also made dozens of smaller sculptures. This was a weird trio of a pumice bust, a dog-cat-thing with multiple bodies, and something like a snake with two heads.

Another strange animal with six legs and a branching tail that resembles a plant.

A "crawling man," one of the cutest forms in the garden.

Two more "crawling men," or "cats" as Cuma called them.

An arcane dragon figure with ribs? Even more proto-statues made by Cuma: cut-down trees embedded upside-down into the ground, loom in the background.

Finally, this was the makeshift verandah that Cuma used to entertain his visitors. Coming from a city where "artists" use every excuse to pursue arrogant and "glamorous" lives, this was one of the nobler details about Cuma's outsider wonderland. This was a guy who created simply for the joy and lust of creating. He did care for fame, status, wealth or a "proper life."

This austere lifestyle gave him even more free time to refine his art. Cuma was a better artist than most of the talentless, conceptual hacks and peevish emulators plying their trade in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey.

I really admired Cuma's austere lifestyle and surreal creations. The phenomenon of outsider art remains woefully understudied in modern Turkey. Who knows what other geniuses and untold masterpieces are hiding in the mountain villages, the favelas, towns and other neglected corners of this bizarre country?

UPDATE - 2018:
Both Bodrum and Cuma's life have changed considerably since I wrote this essay. Bodrum, already a burgeoning part of Turkey, has now become a veritable suburb of Istanbul. Cuma was evicted from the site I first met him in, and has moved to the artsy Gümüşlük bay on the seaside; joining a community of film stars, intellectuals and other artists. He now documents his life and sells his works through the "Heykel Tarlası" - Field of Sculptures page on Facebook.