Mehmet Basutçu, Nathalie Galesne
Onay Akbaş: " My heart is in two places, my country and Paris…"
The wide room where Onay Akbaş paints gives out on a sort of courtyard where other workshops are grouped.
The private section where he lives with his family is in the back, closed in by a secret intimate garden. White
canvases stand in the atelier, pining over their turn to be painted. The flat, blank, void suspension of the frames
is rather fascinating. Opposite to them, other enormous canvases tower over the left wall, glaring in their finished
attire. Onay Akbaş deconstructs when he paints: he deconstructs myths, figures, themes, shapes, volumes
imprisoned in swirling colours. His impertinent mind has tossed them all on canvas to intercept, deflect, provoke
«Kaleidoskopic paintings: prisms disrupt an image that leads on to thought… Akbaş plays a meticulous game,
where luminous inventions manage to break free and skill mends their outbursts. He paints with dazzling,
fleeting and patient style…” writes Fréderic Amblard, in the album that Akbaş has offered us.
A gift accompanied by words, which now flow free near Onay’s geometrical creatures.
Why did you decide to go to France?
Art School teachers in Turkey used to say that France was a sort of Mecca of art. The minds were imbued with
French culture. What’s more, the best science and art schools were based in France at the time. After all, didn’t
Picasso and all the other great painters thrive in France? I was bombarded by France too, not only because of
French painters but also because of Voltaire, the Encyclopaedists, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution,
Is this impression still true?
To me Paris was a must, but then I obviously learned that the real trip you take is within you. I simply found
myself and am now on my way back, to return to my inner self. That said, Paris is still a crossroad, every
painter dreams of going to Paris someday. Many foreign artists live around here. My neighbour is from
Argentina, the one facing me is Chinese, next to him there’s a Polish man…
Did the Mecca turn into a deceiving myth?
I was seeking enlightenment at the Mecca. For the first two years, my discoveries kept shocking me. Then
everything turns into habits and alibis that persuade you to stay, and so does comfort. This workshop for
example, I was very lucky to find it considering that about 15.000 professional artists live in this capital. Imagine
all the places I had to select and commission to get this one.
If you hadn’t left Turkey, you would probably not paint in the same way. How did exile influence your
My paintings resemble me; they resemble the life I live here in Paris. Art means suggestion, recreation, and
transformation to me, because you can never create from scratch, you need a recollection. No creation can be
above everything; that only applies to the divine, however you name it. To recreate you have to descend in your
inner self. I’m actually a stranger to myself, though I look for myself and little by little I find the other part of me.
I managed to know and understand my culture only when I came to France. For example, I really realised what
the political figure of Atatürk meant only in France.
Today, how do you live this cultural back and forth between Paris and Istanbul?
People often ask me how I feel being a Turkish artist in Paris. Honestly, I have trouble understanding this
question. It doesn’t really mean much to me. I’m familiar with this city now, my children were born here, it’s a
part of me. I live and work in Paris, and I have an interesting project in Istanbul. I want to create an art space
where I can permanently exhibit my artwork so that my painting can live after my death.
Isn’t it strange to talk about death when you’ve just turned forty?
Artists have a bigger ego than ordinary people, they’re afraid of death. It’s a universal fear but it takes on a
different meaning for them. They try to win it by exiting time. They want to witness the present and sign their
name on the future, and partake this future of which they still know nothing.
How would you define your painting?
I wouldn’t know how to label myself. I should be uninvolved with my painting, my creativity, to speak of my work
but I’m not. We could say that I don’t recognise myself in schools or “isms”. I love colour and the initial
inspiration. I’ve gone through various periods: a baroque period ; then I passed on to an impressionist period with
a strong pull towards nature. I was an expressionist for a while, I liked to play with the brutality of colours. Then I
passed on to a new type of representation related to comics though they lack the third dimension and fail to
integrate space, which in contrast is very important in painting. In fact, I added a lot and removed a lot from my
paintings. After 25 years on the art scene, you tend to want to lift some weight and simplify your expression as
much as possible.
What do you think of Turkey’s relationship with Europe?
There are two types of Europe : the one with ideas and values and the geographical one. I believe the former is
the most important. I was born in a village on the Black Sea and lived in the middle of the Cold War. Back then,
another secret war was taking place between ultranationalists and radical leftists to which I belonged, and for
which I lost a brother.
Despite its internal conflicts, Turkey stuck to NATO during the Cold War, we even fought in Korea and an uncle
of mine died there. Turkey made a tremendous effort at the time to stand by the Western world and by its
values. Feeding 1 million soldiers was actually above its means or at least, that money wasn’t spent on
education, health or welfare for the Turks. Now, what has happened since then? Turkey served as a buffer zone
to protect the Southern part of Europe from the USSR, and now several countries of the former Soviet block are
part of Europe but Turkey isn’t. That’s not really the best way to thank us for our loyalty and service. That being
said, I feel European and I believe that Europe should formalise its relationship with Turkey as soon as possible.