Art Professor Explores Textiles in Turkey as Fulbright Scholar

Posted: February 21, 2011 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: February 22, 2011 at 10:25 am

By Catherine Ferraro

Maria Karametou with students at Mimar Sinan University of the Fine Arts, where she gave some seminars. Photo courtesy of Maria Karametou

Combining a love of art and history, Maria Karametou, assistant professor in Mason’s School of Art, spent six months last year in Istanbul, Turkey, as a senior Fulbright research scholar.

Her research project was titled “A Visual Investigation of Textile and Embroidery Design in the Search for Creative Expression.”

In her research, Karametou examined and documented embroidery and textile designs spanning the beginning of the Ottoman Empire to the present day, paying particular attention to their use of color, balance, movement and repetition.

In addition, she investigated Turkey’s contemporary art scene to determine if today’s artists are influenced by traditions from the Ottoman period. This is especially important, she notes, as the country’s cultural and economic landscape changes under the impact of globalization and Turkey’s possible admittance to the European Union.

A Complex History Tied to Textiles

Before leaving for Turkey, Karametou conducted preliminary research about the complex history of the Ottoman Empire. She learned about the textiles used at the time, such as extravagant embroideries that were an important part of both daily life and celebratory events.

Prayer rug, 17th century, Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, Istanbul

These textiles used vibrant colors and were often made with expensive and luxurious threads and materials, including pearls, gold or semiprecious stones. In addition, each era of the Ottoman Empire had distinctive designs, such as stylized depictions of tulips, medallions or large floral sprays. These changing designs reflected the political and social times under which they were produced.

When she arrived in Istanbul, Karametou was surprised to find little evidence of the designs and rich materials used to create embroidered textiles that were such a prominent part of Ottoman culture.

“When the Ottoman Empire began to crumble during World War I and the Republic of Turkey began to emerge, a huge shift between the two eras occurred,” says Karametou.

However, Karametou observed an ongoing revival of interest in old textiles, as evidenced by the many universities throughout the country that have robust textile and design departments.

Yet industrialization and commercialization have influenced the production of fine contemporary textiles and their designs, she found.

“These influences can be seen in the kind of materials that are used for embroideries and textiles today,” says Karametou. “It has become more common and affordable to use a variety of fabrics to replace the opulent ones used before, which, obviously, affects the end product.”

In addition, there are a number of organizations and artists’ collectives that are working to revive the traditional arts, she notes.

“It is very interesting to see the cultural changes that have taken place in the country throughout the past several centuries,” says Karametou. “It helps to highlight the dynamic shift that occurred with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the Turkish Republic.

“I feel that Turkey’s contemporary artists stand at an important historical time, as there is a tremendous amount of energy in the country right now in terms of both the contemporary art scene and the revival of interest in the old textile traditions.”

Family History a Strong Influence

Traditional loom, GFI Natural Research Design Practice Center, Istanbul

The project was partially inspired by Karametou’s own family history.

As a mixed-media artist, Karametou enjoys using conventional materials in unconventional ways. When she began using hundreds of bobby pins to create intricate designs and patterns, she was reminded of the similarly detailed embroideries she learned about as a child from her grandmother.

During these intimate moments with her grandmother, Karametou found out about her Greek family’s involuntary removal from their homeland of centuries in Asia Minor (today’s Turkey). This removal was the result of a mandate of the Treaty of Lausanne, which required the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey at the end of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s.

Karametou’s family, whose main occupation was rearing silkworms and working with textiles, lived in a small town near the Sea of Marmara. Karametou decided to learn more about her own personal history while she was in Istanbul, including traveling to this small town to find the location of her grandmother’s house, which she says was a life-impacting experience.

“My stay in Turkey was immensely enriching. In addition to my scholarly research, I had the opportunity to present several lectures and participate in panel discussions at Istanbul universities,” says Karametou. “Being afforded the chance to learn more about my family history helped me better understand the influences that have ultimately led to the person and artist I am today.”

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