Q+Art: Artist Hale Ekinci Explores Cultural Identity with Colorful Embroidery Paintings
Using threadbare bed sheets, Turkish-born artist Hale Ekinci crafts intimate family portraits that cast cultural identity in a subjective light. Now based in Chicago, the multidisciplinary artist plays with gender politics and personal history by combining traditional fiber craft with modern collage techniques.
Ekinci begins with found bedsheets, often patterned with faded flowers, to create her embroidery paintings and fiber sculptures. “The domestic surfaces, such as the used, patterned bedsheets, hold personal and bodily history invoking feelings of home and intimacy,” she writes in her artist statement. Intercultural family portraits hover over the patterned flowers, allowing Ekinci’s Turkish heritage to mingle with her life in the American Midwest. Often, the artist obscures the identity of an aunt, sister, or husband with dabs of translucent paint and colorful embroidery.
Pulling from Middle Eastern tradition, Ekinci frames each bedsheet in oya, a style of Turkish lace women use to trim their headscarves. Far from mere decoration, the symbolic patterns in oya “serve as a secret language between women to express personal sentiments that must otherwise remain private.” Her reliance on “feminine arts”—embroidery, decorative patterns, lace trim—likewise reveals a fascination with gendered labor and its assigned cultural value.
Though decorative elements and patterning give Ekinci’s work a distinctly domestic feel, they also serve another purpose: “Ornamentation can actually trigger tension by teasing us in our vision’s periphery while our attention is on something else,” she explains. “It can proliferate and thus overwhelm the figure it initially sets out to embellish.” By shrouding her figures in transformative layers, Ekinci creates multiple cultural identities that fade in and out of focus. Ultimately, her work paints identity—particularly immigrant identity—as a malleable concept, flexible to a point, but beholden to others’ rigid definitions all the same.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Hale Ekinci discusses the joys of Turkish chocolate, fetishizing the starving artist myth, and the unknown true cost of an (American) arts education.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Hale Ekinci: A good novel they love, that relates to their work too. For me, that’s Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
HE: I feel like I should pick someone historic like Frida Kahlo, but I would love to hang out and become friends with Njideka Akunyili Crosby.
What are you trying to express with your art?
HE: I try to create a mix of conflicting feelings related to sense of home, relations, and cultural ties. I refuse dualities, so I juxtapose a range of elements that can be humorous, challenging, confusing, comforting, melancholic, or joyful. Being an international artist and an immigrant, I use familiar and foreign things in the same scene, obscuring them to the point where you can’t tell what/who is from where.
Do you prefer New York- or Chicago-style pizza?
HE: New York. I live in Chicago and I feel like Chicago-style pizza is more for tourists. I’ve never heard anyone go, “Ooo, I’d love some Chicago pizza right now.” We only get it if someone is visiting from out of town.
Would you work for free in exchange for exposure?
HE: Depends on the exposure and the experience. I am a full-time professor, so I pay the bills with my full-time job. Since time is precious, when I pick opportunities, “the joy” I will get out of them or the people I will meet is a major factor, too. That doesn’t mean I’m ok with predatory opportunities, but I have the privilege to be able to accept or reject things without focusing on monetary gain.
What person has most influenced your work?
HE: I think my undergraduate advisor, Maureen McCabe. She was an eccentric and a fascinating person, not only as an artist but as a human in the world with a range of interests. Her enthusiasm about my ideas helped me believe in my point of view and that I have something to say. She was also a good role model for existing in the world in an authentic way.
What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
HE: Eating a whole bar of Damak whenever I can find one to buy—it’s a milk chocolate with pistachios from Turkey.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
HE: Learn how to say “no” (from my grad school thesis advisor). He said it was especially important for a young woman artist/academic who will get asked to do a lot of free labor.
Is a formal arts education worth the money?
HE: Depends on your money situation. I was lucky enough to have scholarships and worked to support my education. The cost of education in the US is a real problem, and going into serious debt is scary. I can’t tell if it’s worth it or not—but there can be ways to find places that offer scholarships. I think being a studio assistant to a successful artist is a good option too, if available.
Would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist?
HE: Commercially successful. We have to end the “starving artist” fetish. Legacy is good, but I’m more interested in making an impact on my community rather than historically. We also know whoever writes the history leaves out many significant people including women, BIPOC, and non-Western artists, so I don’t trust to be involved in the history as a Middle Eastern woman.
What are you listening to in the studio right now?
HE: A podcast I like to listen to in the studio is Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam that “uses science and storytelling to reveal the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, shape our choices and direct our relationships.”
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
HE: I’m going on in multiple directions that I am excited about—using quilting, patterning with photos instead of focusing on family portraits, exploring photo archives, reading about crosses between ornamentation and abstraction historically, working larger scale, leaving the “Western” rectangle behind and embracing the fluidity of fabrics for shapes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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