White is the colour of hope, and that colour appears in some form in all of Canan Altinkas’s COVID-themed artworks currently on display in the WAG virtual gallery. Just as the pandemic has informed her acrylic and mixed media pieces, so too has her optimism about overcoming this scourge, and coming to grips with it in the meantime.
A native of Turkey, Canan has a PhD in Fine Arts Education and worked as an assistant as well as an assistant professor for 15 years while practicing her art. In addition to solo and group exhibitions, Canan has work in the permanent collection of the Izmir State Museum of Painting and Sculpture. She has been living in Kingston since September 2020, having been awarded an IIE (Institute of International Education)-Artist Protection Fund Fellowship, and is in residence at Queen’s University and the Agnes Etherington Art Centre until August 2021. The pieces in this exhibition, called “Wishing Trees,” were completed this year during two lockdowns and while COVID numbers surged.
The opposite of hope is darkness. In Void, a bold abstract acrylic painting, Canan refuses to let darkness reign. Alongside dabs of sky blue, large irregular white swatches reminiscent of pieces of fabric bring light and push back what may seem like endless night. In Blessings, more forcefully but in a similar way, white areas consume the darkness. Canan points to rows of small vertical lines that punctuate the painting: “I wanted them to represent little praying hands asking for blessings,” she says.
The loose application of paint in these two canvases -- broad strokes alternating with scratchy linework -- perhaps provides Canan with an antidote to the restrictions of COVID. Appearing in all of her work (her signature, in fact), is a tight vertical wave-like mark. “I like to use it as an active part of my painting. After all, my works are a part of me.”
In pre-Islamic times, Turkic tribal shamans prayed in temples built near trees and made wishes through trees. Today, in some areas of Turkey, people still do the same by tying colourful ribbons or scarves or scraps of fabric around tree trunks and branches. Canan’s mixed media called Wishing Tree comprises two tree branches from which hang actual wishes. They are written on multi-coloured ribbons and braid and strips ripped from the clothing of family members. The tree appears on a red background, the colour of pain, but is boldly outlined in white, the colour of hope.
Canan further develops the theme of hope by attaching white strips of fabric to her paintings, sometimes in semi-transparent bands, other times in fluffy bunches with the texture of a very shaggy rug. The effect of each is interesting. In Far, hope diminishes with the passage of (COVID) time as a friend’s wish to see the inside of a plane is not realized. The stark black and white of New Hopes offers a comforting, inviting alternative to the unease of the times.
Perhaps, in Connection, we see one of the most effective ways of using white bands of fabric to express hope. Overlapping and intertwining, these white strips create a web linking the anonymous faces of a small community – faces moulded from the ubiquitous face masks that define all of our social experiences. As important as the connections are the negative spaces they create: black, large, small, always present.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a Gordian knot is an extremely difficult or involved problem. COVID is just such a problem. The virus puts our lives on hold while we try to figure it out. Canan has symbolized this problem with her own Gordian Knot, which she has made in a piece of white, sheer, wrinkled fabric and placed on a black ground to create an interesting composition. If you look closely, you’ll see that the knot holds down the hopes and wishes written by real people in very pale orange script. “I hope that once the vaccination process ends, we will all be free again,” says Canan.
“Wishing Trees” continues until May 27 and will be on view in the WAG as of May 20, with health protocols in force.
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Ulrike Bender is a former graphic designer, art director and ESL teacher who, in retirement, has ventured into photography. She is currently a volunteer gallery assistant at the WAG and a docent at Agnes.