“I try to approach artworks as historical witnesses…” — 5in10 with Banu Karaca

Banu Karaca currently is a fellow of the research program Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices. She holds a PhD from The Graduate Center of The City University of New York and is a sociocultural anthropologist working at the intersection of political anthropology, art and aesthetics, nationalism and cultural policy, museums and commemorative practices. Karaca’s ongoing research centers on the question of missing provenance of artworks in Turkey against the background of the politics of dispossession in the late Ottoman Empire and throughout the republic.

Banu Karaca

Copyright: Banu Karaca

What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?

Growing up as child to parents who had immigrated to Germany in the late 1960s and 70s respectively, issues around how to translate both language and experience became important to me early on. The same is true for questions of how (cultural) difference and inequality are configured both conceptually and politically. One issue that perhaps most directly influenced my work today is an interest in the historical and present connections between people, things, events and places that are either forgotten, or construed as unfamiliar, unconnected and radically different from each other.

How would you explain your current research to a stranger in an elevator ?

My current project looks at the phenomenon of missing provenance of artworks within the context of the multiple kinds of dispossession that brought modern Turkey into being. Trying to trace the fate of missing, stolen, lost and misattributed artworks produced in the late Ottoman Empire and in the early Turkish Republic, the project works with the assumption that with missing provenance we loose the stories of artists, collectors and audiences. Rather than solely tracing current location or ownership of such works, I try to approach artworks as historical witnesses that might help us find alternate ways of narrating (art) history in Turkey.

Which stations of your academic journey were extremely formative to you?

Being trained at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and having the chance to work with Vincent Crapanzano have significantly shaped the kind of academic inquiry I am pursuing today. But I would also like to note that experiences outside of the academy have likewise shaped my approach to my work and the topics I work on. For instance, I originally went to New York City to work as an arts manager – and the daily trials and tribulations of the art world I witnessed first-hand were formative for my interest in and understanding of art.

How is it to do research in Germany?

The structure of the Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices fellowship and the exchanges with colleagues here as well as at the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry provide an exciting and stimulating environment for driving this project forward. And then, there is the city of Berlin itself that has in many ways been at the center of looted and dispossessed works of art. The historical specificities are configured quite differently to the case of Turkey, and yet Berlin and Germany overall present an intriguing foil to think about the dynamics of my current research.

If you had one wish, what would you wish for the further development of your subject?

As someone who works on the politics of art in both Germany and Turkey, I have found that the persistence of dichotomies like center and periphery, West and East, and, more recently, Christianity and Islam continue to produce asymmetrical perceptions. Over the last few years, we have heard a lot about “de-centering the West,” and highlighting “entanglements” of different areas of the world that were long thought as disparate and unconnected, despite the histories of imperialism and colonialism. These approaches seem to respond to longstanding postcolonial critiques of Eurocentrism, Orientalism, and ultimately racism. I say seem, since we are yet to see substantial shifts in how scholarship is being conducted, not least because disciplinary boundaries have essentially been left untouched. My wish would be that the premises of de-centering the West were taken seriously. This would not only entail a serious rethinking of our conceptual and methodological tools but also a disinvestment from certain structures of privilege in academia that have long structured scholarship.

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