EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to the political sensitivity of this article, certain areas have been redacted, purposely misspelled, and in some places rewritten to obscure its internet search-ability. The artist will not be able to share this on her social media channels.
“I was watching the coup on TV. My family in [my native country – think of the bird that Americans eat during Thanksgiving] was calling, saying we may not be able to reach you for a while. I started to cry,” recalls ceramic artist Belize Iristay of the 2016 attempted coup of [her native country’s government]. She holds her ceramic piece of the bust of “Otto Turk” (misspelled on purpose), delicately painted with blue and white as she tells me her story with her soft, lilting accent.
“Before, ‘Otto Turk’ busts were everywhere; his codes everywhere in the city, in the parks, even in the taxi cabs. [That country] has taken everything out, even out of the children’s books. They want to delete the memory of modern [culture]”, she says regarding the language revolution (1923-2003) in which “Otto Turk” sought to secularize the government, give rights to women and westernize [their culture] by limiting religious intervention, in a similar way, they felt that the Protestant Revolution limited Catholic control of people’s lives. “Now, there are signs that won’t let Kurds enter stores?! Now it is us vs. them?! There was nothing like that before… people are going to jail for posting on Facebook!” she sighs heavily.
“‘Otto Turk’, he must be feeling some huge pain, rolling in his grave to see this happen to [his country]. That’s why I made this double-sided head of him… rolling in his grave.” She says setting down the ceramic head with his face on both sides. “We are not able to buy his statues anymore in [my native country]. I had to find them in second-hand stores to make molds, so people ask for them.”
Although her work is often political, she also has a playful side to her practice. At the time of my studio visit with her studio, she was preparing for her show at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library with fellow ceramicist Irene de Watteville. They were co-creating a banquet table with all sorts of mischievous creations that they would trade with each other to paint in their own traditional French or [Beliz’ native county’s traditional] blue and white designs; snails in the salad, oyster shells of lips, bowls of chicken feet, and breast adorned amphoras.
On the shelves of her studio, below
the busts of “Otto Turk”, she had clay molds of chicken feet and breasts under
loosely placed plastic to prevent them from drying too fast and cracking. She
had taken molds of her and de Watteville’s breasts. They would grace her “Boobphora”,
an anatomically correct amphora; an octopus’s tentacle would ultimately rest
its terminal suction cups on the nipple. “The ancient amphora looks like layers
of breasts but they were really testicles.” She laughs, pointing to her drawing
tacked to the wall that she referenced as she created the piece. She picks up a
few clay molds of chicken feet that looked petrified in various contorted
chicken gestures, each mini dinosaur scale evident. “I bought them at a Mexican
butcher shop. They make great stock for soups!” She turns them over in her hand
and shows how they will be placed on platters and bowls. I finally burst out,
“How did you tell Irene you wanted to take a mold of her breast?!” giggling as
I imagined how that moment went down! With a matter of fact pause, Iristay
begins, “Well, she sent me a ceramic chicken to think about. I decided I wanted
to have it sitting on a dish of boobs, instead of eggs. At her house…”, she
starts to chuckle, “I told her, ‘I needed to take a mold of your breast.’ She
was very surprised,” Iristay mimics de Watteville looking sideways with a
raised eyebrow, “You know, in a very French-ly way!” We both chuckle
remembering de Watteville’s evocative “French-ly” mannerisms and playful sense
A large scene of a woman painted on bricks is laid out in a huge rectangle on a work table. She explains how [her native country’s] sultan in the early renaissance requested an Italian artist to come to the court and create portraits in the European style. This inspired more secular, figurative paintings which are typically avoided in Islamic religious art. “There was only one miniature painter who painted women not in sexual scenes, so I painted her,” making a sweeping gesture over her work, “REALLY BIG.”
Walking around the enormous work of art, she adds, “I adapted a Kurdish story of a half serpent, half women. She fell in love with a man but the serpent kills the man. I like to put those stories together and adapt them. Now, it’s a woman making love with a snake.” Unfortunately, the chemical components of the paint were not compatible with the clay and bubbled up in the kiln. Using recipes from back home she makes her own clay from the Mexican valley where she lives, mixing in granite, sand and plant fiber which requires constant testing with unexpected results. Iristay has a degree in traditional arts [from her native country] and not only learned traditional ceramics and glazing, but also learned the painstaking geometric patterns of its [religious] art which are thought to purify the soul as one contemplates the spiritual realm. These patterns often appear as backdrops in her work and she still references her college sketch books to recreate the intricate geometry.
Looking over her political work, I say “Belize, your work is like the elephant in the room. In the West, it is not socially acceptable to censure other religions; here, you are saying things with your art that even a liberal audience would find challenging to encounter.”
“Americans must feel very uncomfortable with this, to have [religion] perceived as [dangerous]. I’m so ashamed for [the way some people see this religion]; it’s a beautiful one, with many things taken from Buddhism, Christianity— a beautiful mix. There’s nothing of this ‘killing under the name of God, or of the bad treatment of women’. It is a generous religion and that is what I saw in the older generation growing up.”
We talk about the freedom to express herself here as she watches [her native country] struggle.
“I would not be able to do my art in [my native country] for sure. For sure, I would be arrested. It would have to be decorative work only.” She smiles wearily, “The older generation always tells me, ‘We are proud that you are able to protest with your art there!’”
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