Kutlug Ataman's "Küba"

Stories of Thirst and Hunger

Forty people – children, men and women, living in the Istanbul shantytown called Küba – all have to fight hard to survive daily life. In his video installation, Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman's recorded their stories. Steffen Felger reports

"Are you happy?" the old butcher asks his young wife, lapsing into a coughing fit from sheer emotion. Just two minutes ago, she nearly wept on camera.

That was when she spoke haltingly about the children from her first marriage whom she will never be able to see again. But now she answers her old, sick husband calmly and seriously. She corrects him affectionately: "We are happy." They are no longer alone in the world, and in Küba that is very important.

A little further on a second woman remarks dryly: "All the people from Eastern Turkey are strange somehow. They expect every woman to bear four or five sons." She comes from Eastern Turkey herself, from Bitlis.

In Istanbul she has been forbidden to leave the house for months because she has only given birth to a single son. Those unable to count on law and order need many friends, and above all many brothers. "To their own dying day," this woman says, "mothers from the East live in fear of their sons being killed." Not just in Küba.

"Küba" is 41-year-old Kutlug Ataman's title for his video installation in which these people and three dozen others tell their life stories on 40 monitors. Stories in which murder and crime are as omnipresent as the fear of thirst and hunger.

Forty years ago they or their parents moved to the Bosporus from Southeastern Turkey and built the Gecekondu "Küba" on a plot of vacant land. Since then the "Kübaner" have been fighting for survival and for a place of their own in the big city of Istanbul.

Stories of Upstarts and Losers

Some appear to have made it. "I was so hungry I picked up bread from the street and ate it," a middle-aged man recalls coolly. Today his living room reflects modest prosperity. Proudly he relates how often he had to rely on his fists, his brothers and his friends on the way up. How he makes his living, he never mentions.

The losers seem to be in the majority in Küba. A traumatized young man shudders at the recollection of his time in the military, when he took part in the mass liquidation of political prisoners.

Two young bird-sellers steal from their competitors' aviaries at night because they understand nothing about brooding and breeding. A little girl tells the unbearably sad story of being an unloved stepdaughter in a monotonous staccato voice. Her friend wears a faded "Käpt'n Blaubär" t-shirt: no doubt about it, the videos are from the present.

On Track 1A at Stuttgart's Central Station

The Stuttgart festival "Theater der Welt", Theatre of the World", is the second stop for Kutlug Ataman's video installation after the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. It is a portrait of uprooted people forced to live as a community, working things out among themselves. Law and order have not yet reached Küba. Here the law of the jungle prevails.

Unfortunately, the organizers of the Stuttgart festival have adopted the social romanticism of their Pittsburgh colleagues, praising the "inhabitants' now-legendary spirit of resistance." The lawless misery of the immigrant ghettoes exists all over the world and has long since returned to Germany as well.

All the more reason to praise the achievement of Ataman, who spent two years working in Küba. In Stuttgart the Kübaner tell their stories in six old railway cars on track 1A of Stuttgart's central station.

The exhibition space functions as part of the installation: before its transformation into a postmodern temple to consumerism, Stuttgart's central station was the Anatolian guest workers' main rendezvous. Now many of the visitors to track 1A are their children and grandchildren.

Steffen Felger

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Isabel Cole

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