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The power of coming out of the closet

The artist duo Skuja Braden, created in collaboration by Ingūna Skuja and Melissa Braden, met Istanbul audiences for the first time with the exhibition titled Open Closet curated by Pınar Goodstone at Root Karaköy. The exhibition will conclude on Sunday, September 17th. Don't miss it if you haven't seen it yet!

Interview: İbrahim Cansızoğlu

Skuja Braden, Open Closet, 2023, porcelain, mixed technique, Installation view of the exhibition

Your rich and multilayered installation titled Selling Water by the River was featured in the Latvian Pavilion at the 59th edition of the Venice Biennial in 2022. Some pieces from this installation are included in your exhibition at Root Karaköy, and it seems there are some new works too. How did you design the layout of your first show in İstanbul?

Pınar Goodstone saw our work at the Venice Biennale and was captivated, saying she could not stop vibrating after being in our Pavilion. She contacted us offering to curate a show in İstanbul at the Root in Karaköy. I have always been fascinated with Turkey and its ancient roots. So, when Pınar found us and told us about what was happening politically and with the LGBT community in particular we immediately said YES! It was and has been an amazing experience so far.

We seem to always have something old and something new in our shows, sort of like keeping some of the yeast aside for the next batch of bread. The show went through many configurations in our minds before we surrendered to the predetermined structure of the wall shelf system. We selected works that were the strongest frontally knowing that they would only be viewed from a one-point perspective. We intended this show to be in solidarity with İstanbul’s Pride celebration and we were hoping that your "dictator" would no longer be in power so we could celebrate a new era of freedom for minorities in Turkey. We were thinking about strange beauty and that idea influenced the works that ended up filling out the composition which naturally metamorphosed into the Open Closet.

Skuja Braden, Selling Water by the River, 2022, porcelain, mixed technique, Installation view of the exhibition

In this exhibition titled Open Closet you reinterpret erotic pottery, a well-known genre with origins in antiquity. What were the challenges you had to overcome in studying and updating a genre with historical significance?

Our work focuses on erotica from different genres and time periods from all over the world. We are interested in how sexuality has been used for and against us throughout human history. Controlling human sexuality is and has been the ultimate way to control the masses. Who is doing it and why is a question we are deeply interested in learning about. Exploring human civilization through its historical references to human sexuality provides us with an interesting lens through which to view our current position and projections. Our work originates in conversation and then ideas develop and the expression or energy we attempt to form will be materialized in porcelain and this is its own thing which has a specific feel and function rooted in everyone’s cultural understandings.

Skuja Braden, Open Closet, 2023, porcelain, mixed technique, Installation view of the exhibition

In the context of reinterpreting ancient aesthetics, your work titled Monkey de Milo drew my attention. How this work relates to our transformed understanding of human beauty?

Good question! The Penis de Milo series was created by looking at male standards of female beauty. The Venus di Milo is the ultimate iconic symbol of that beauty standard created by men. We then looked at images of women drawn by male artists like Picasso and Miró, and we transformed their sketches into the heads of our Penis de Milos. The Monkey de Milo is one variation, I think the backside has a Geisha sticking out her tongue and this is probably more about feeling like a monkey playing up to standards that do not represent your feelings or sense of self. Women are the standard bearers of the colonized and commodified half of humanity. We are all groomed from childhood and most of us do not question what is going on. Why are things the way they are and how can we be better?

Skuja Braden, Open Closet, 2023, porcelain, mixed technique, Installation view of the exhibition

Certain imagery referencing nature is also dominant in your works, like the lotus, leaves, and apple figurines. What would you like to say about the relation between the representation of nature and cultural diversity?

When we try to make something beautiful, we always reference nature. The perfection of nature is the ideal, and with the ideal comes the actual. When we had our show Samsara in the Design and Decorative Art Museum in Riga, Latvia, we attempted to create a wall of virtues and sins based on the ancient philosophical teachings of Aristotle concerning what we get up to as humans and what is the remedy. How do we foster ourselves to be better? Making these virtues and vices was an extremely beneficial pursuit for both Ingūna and me because we realized once the show was up that almost all our virtue pieces were rooted in our observation of nature. The sins on the other hand were much more colorful and wilder, having been exaggerated projections from our minds.

Skuja Braden, Open Closet, 2023, porcelain, mixed technique, Installation view of the exhibition

There are many figurines in the show, all adding new layers to your presentation. The eye figurines reminded me of Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye in which fetishism and unrestrained sexuality are meshed with a dramatic narrative. What were the theoretical and literary sources you drew upon for this exhibition?

I haven’t read Goerge Bataille’s Story of the Eye but am going to look for it now! Thank you!

We both love fairy tales and have been reading Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber which is a retelling of older stories through the female characters' eyes, and they are especially thrilling. The figurines are a reference to earlier Votive dolls of Mesopotamia. Those stiffened figures with the crazy wide open staring eyes caught suspended in eternal prayer. The eye is all living beings, past, present, and future, and when you think about the “I” in that way it carries with it a huge sense of responsibility that has the potential to help us see how to be better.

Skuja Braden, Open Closet, 2023, porcelain, mixed technique, Installation view of the exhibition

A certain inclination towards incorporating daily objects into your aesthetics is also visible throughout the show. I think the mobile phone figurine and the pillow vase are the most striking examples in this context. How do you choose such daily objects?

The pillow vases are inspired by the idea is pillow books which were small books of erotica given to young Japanese wives that could be kept under the pillow and were used to arouse sexual interest and ready her for a night of sexual pleasure with her husband. The distance between that and the massive amounts of porn now consumed by mostly men on mobile phones is vast and, in many ways, has an almost inhumane and opposite effect on human sexuality. The things that intrigue us and horrify us all end up in our works. Our workspace is like a laboratory for understanding. We are trying to understand for ourselves first and the end manifestations hopefully hold deep truths for others to understand as well.

Skuja Braden, Open Closet, 2023, porcelain, mixed technique, Installation view of the exhibition

You organized a workshop titled Pop Porn at Boysan’s House last July. Would you like to talk about this workshop and your future plans in İstanbul?

The workshop was a lovely moment where we met extraordinary people living and leading forward towards a better future for everyone in İstanbul. We focused on erotica and showed many of our earlier works that are a celebration of lesbian and gay love. There is not a lot of imagery depicting same-sex love that is not kinky or monster-ish in some sense or another. This was a Pop-Up presentation given that the LGBT community was in hiding and fearing for their lives after the declaration from Erdoğan that there were NO LGBT people living in Turkey. The Pride march was shut down under massive police presence and dozens of people were beaten and thrown into prison for trying to march down the street the day of the intended Pride rally. I know what it is to feel like your life and love are illegal and I too marched and was beaten by the police in 1988 in San Francisco. I have lived through a tide change in the USA. I have seen first-hand the power of Opening the Closet so people can see and understand that you are right there with them, and you are just like them. I have seen masses of people become better through understanding that all is different, and all is the same.


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