A short portrait of the painter Nevin Çokay


By Güner Ener

One of the best ten contemporary Turkish painters, those and similar sentences come to my mind. There are good painters in our country, even a lot. But there are only a few very good ones. While putting together my personal list of the ten best Turkish painters I am very careful, so that I might not forget or do wrong to someone. Three of them have already passed away, while with some others I am not really sure. Are they only "good" or already "very good"? But I can tell some names without hesitating. One of those is undoubtedly Nevin Çokay. Many years ago when I still visited the academy, my friend Ferit Edgü came to our studio with a big canvas and showed it to us. It was a pure, strong stylization, a composition controlled by the colour blue. Two or three miserable children in standing position clung toeach other. We all were impressed by the proud, tender vibration that spread from the beauty of the painting, the masterly execution and the fact that although poverty was mentioned, by no means was it in the foreground. We stood in front of a painting of a young artist, who had concluded her study at our academy 4-5 years before, but was still widely unknown to us and also to the general public. Ferit left the painting there for some weeks, then he took it with him, which made me inexpressibly sad. That's how I got to know Nevin Çokay and her incomparable, wonderful works. A lot of time has passed since those days. I always watched Nevin Çokays masterly, high-class and high-quality works with the same admiration. With the years she did not grow older or withered, on the contrary, she matured rather and strengthened her place. While many painters pursued their well-tried, stereotyped pattern and served us over and over again up to the surfeit, being content by decorating the same meal with different garnish, Nevin Çokay completed her consequent, well-balanced and aesthetic works up to perfection. The bricks of these works are her big talent, her knowledge, her consciousness, her respect, her honour and her immense zeal. However, the foundation-stone is love. Her infinite love that she distributes so generously to people, animals, the nature, to the good and the beauty.

She paints neither for pure pleasure, nor for the sake of money, for her, painting was always life itself. As certain as we breathe or our heart beats she has completely devoted herself to something she considers as holy. When I started to write the sequence "Vitrinsizler", Nevin Çokay was one of the first names that occurred to me. With approximately 40 successful exhibitions which she opened since 1953 and although she has a very wide enviroment, she never belonged to those that used others, that used their elbows to stand in the front row. She always modestly chose the last row and, therefore, has earned the right to stand on the very top of the "Vitrinsizler". During her beginning years people and animals filled her canvas, together with their surroundings and objects to which they stand in relation. Then the period of the "embracing" followed, which she continues even today. Even in the worst living conditions the people of Nevin Çokay could embrace in love and therefor exist. In these paintings grief and pain, even desperation, is found. Nevertheless, the presentation is noble without slipping into populist banalities and without playing with our feelings. At the same time the embrace, meaning the love, the support and the will to hang on, are felt. In the beginning she painted cows, aquiescent and fertile, then horses moved in the foreground, as a token of freedom and dynamism, hope blowing in her mane. Her landscape paintings always showed real Nevin Çokay landscapes. Nature develops under her paintbrush without being betrayed,and yet is absolutely new and carries her unmistakeable stamp. During the last years flowers, pomegranates, apples, paprika and garlic, in luminous colours filled her canvas. Her people and animals and her nature told us about a blue, grey, beige and brown world for years. Now, in spite of the past painful, laborious years and in an absolutely unusual way she fills her still lifes with light in shining red, living green and yellow. Nevin Çokay put up resistance with her own weapons. Today Çokay who once mourned Bosnia in her paintings, paints no lamentations anymore, but life in bright colours, knowing about existence, resistance and hope. She shows us her horses galloping towards a bright horizon. And I ask my first question:

Dear Nevin Çokay, I want to start from the beginning. How did your love for painting begin?

There are many reasons for that. My father was a customs official.. We moved constantly, to Bandırma, Zonguldak, Kars etc., and that's how we got to know the people, nature and cultures of many different places. That's how my interest and my love of nature and folkloristic art began. As a child I could deal for hours with the most impossible things, e.g., ants or green grasshoppers I observed without getting tired. When I found a single leaf in the garden, I asked myself from which tree it had probably fallen down and examined it thoroughly. I loved animals. We always had all kinds of animals, wherever we lived. In Kars we even had a foal which I have sometimes sat on and rode around in the garden. The house in Çengelköy to which we moved in the 40's when we returned to Istanbul stood on a 6000 qm big property. We had cows and goats. When I went to the academy I painted a lot of cow paintings and everybody liked them. I will never forget when my teacher Bedri Rehmi especially liked one of these pictures and he suggested I exchange with one of his selfportraits. And that is what we did. While we lived in Bandırma, I visited the secondary school at that time, I became more and more interested in the sea and boats. At the time I was ill. My teacher Melahat Arda, who noted my talent for painting very early and encouraged me, urged me to draw the sea and the boats during my illness. The horses I've been painting during the last years certainly are connected to the foal in Kars. It had a white spot on its forehead and his young body, which seemed to be covered with brown velvet, was wonderful. It was a well-behaved animal with good character. Drawing it was a big joy for me. With time it turned into a symbol of freedom. I am not the only one in the family who is talented in painting. My older sister and my aunt are also artistic. It runs in the family, but except me none of them chose it as a profession.

And then the academy adventure began...

When my father was moved to Istanbul, I was very happy. I took painting very seriously by then. My biggest dream was to visit the academy of the fine arts. I knew, it would be hard for me to pay for that education. But I absolutely wanted it. In 1947 I secretly took part in the entrance examination and was successful. In the first year we primarily did classical drawings. In the second year we had to choose a studio. I decided to join the studio of Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu, which was awell-known name to me. From the first day a friendship full of respect and love connected me to Bedri Hodscha which began as a teacher-student, continued later as colleagues and lasted up to his death. During those days we made our canvases ourselves. Also paint was hardly affordable. I collected the colour pigments which dropped in the neighbouring bindery, crushed and mixed it with linseed oil to gain new paint. That was what I painted my pictures with. Bedri Rahmi noticed my difficult situation and with the help of his brother Sabahattin Eyüboğlu got me a job in a fabric factory. There I painted fabric pattern. Later, Adalet Cimcoz offered me a job as a synchronous speaker for films. We co-operated for 4 years. That's how I somewhat overcame the financial problems. I graduated in 1953.

At your study time you also dealt with other art directions, e.g., music. Can you tell me a little bit about that.

Between 1950 and 1953 I sang in the folk music choir of Radio Istanbul under the direction of Nedim Otyam. We went to Italy, gave concerts and also performed folkloric dances. You cannot imagine how wonderful and useful this trip was for me. I loved frescoes and sculptures. The museums in Italy gave me the opportunity to study them. I visited an exhibition of Matisse and also his conference. You see wherever I went, painting was always with me. When I finished the academy in 1953, I attended the entrance examination for the opera branch of the Istanbul conservatoire. From 300 participants only very few passed. I belonged to these very few. Unfortunately, I could not afford the admission fee and I concluded this subject, for good. I was not selfish, I could never have asked my family for something. After that it was only me and my painting.

And you went on your way as a painter....

Yes, the friendships with Nedim Günsür, Mehmet Pesen, Fikret Otyam, Turan Erol, Orhan Peker, Mustafa Esirkuş and Remzi Raşa, which were founded during the study time were even strengthened by our entry to the "On'lar" group. We took part in the seventh exhibition of the "On'lar" group and had good resonance. I opened my own first exhibition in 1953 in the gallery "Maya" of Adalet Cimcoz. The gallery "Maya" was a kind of art centre. It was a meeting place for the artists, thinkers and authors of that time. Sait Faik, Yaşar Kemal, Sabahattin Eyuboğlu, Nevzat Üstün, Özdemir Asaf, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar and Nahit Sırrı Örik were friends of Adalet and the gallery "Maya". My first exhibition aroused attention and got good criticism. Some critics referred to me and my paintings in very unusual ways, they wrote, for example, " Paintings as solid as the railway (the maiden name of Nevin Çokay) ". Afif Yesari spoke of the " painter with the sparrow steps". These were nice days. A nice aspect was also that I got to know my husband. Nejat Çokay was the manager of the gallery "Maya". We married in 1956. Since then we are together. Then there was also the circle of friends around Nuri Iyem and his studio in the Asmalımescit: Aloş, Kuzgun Acar, Sadi Diren and Oktay Günday. The friendship which had begun at the academy grew stronger in the Asmalımescit. Later we opened an exhibition under the name "Yeniler" group led by Nuri Iyem. And do you know where? In the Kuyucu Murat Paşa Medresesi in Şehzadebaşı. The exhibition became a big success. There were very few galleries at that time, so I showed my paintings every year in the City Gallery at Taksim and at theTurkish German Association in Beyoğlu. Later, when more and more galleries opened, I still exhibited there.

You also had successful exhibitions abroad. Can you say something about that in one or two sentences?

In 1979 I was invited to Holland. The famous Violinist Saim Akçıl was there at the time, as he had also made the contact. I stayed there for 2,5 months, but my paintings were shown for a year in different museums and galleries in Deventer, the Hague and Rotterdam. In the press there was very good criticism. Also a television program was broadcast. During those 2,5 months I visited museums, ambled down the streets and observed the different life style. It was the small things that impressed me most. A young professor and his wife, for example, who had bought one of my paintings during the exhibition invited me to their home. They asked where they should hang the painting, they even asked about the best light.

Let's come to your long-standing teaching activity

Oh, this was a very nice time, even though strenuous. I had a different teaching method. Just like my teacher Bedri Rahmi, I tried not to influence my pupils by my personal style of painting . From 1966 to 1970 I taught painting and art history at the Bakırköy Culture College. In my own studio I gave painting lessons for three years, in the studio of the Levent Art Gallery for four years, and in the studio of the art house Çizgi I gave three years of painting lessons. I had very gifted pupils. Two of them won the first price at a worldwide competition in Italy. We worked together like crazy. For example, we organised a big exhibition in the railway station of Bakırköy. In another year we realised an exhibition of 250 paintings in the Taksim park. Some became famous, such as Niyazi Toptoprak and Levent Arşıray. I am very proud of them all.

© May 2006
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