One camera, three cities: Istanbul, Tbilisi, Baku

One camera, three cities: Istanbul, Tbilisi, Baku

Joshua Bruce Allen
December 24, 2016

The complex geography of Southeastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Caucasus has been united and separated under many empires over the centuries. Current politics divides these regions on the basis of nation and religion, but that was not always the case. In his exhibition ArTriangle “City Stories”, respected photographer Mustafa Seven has chosen to highlight the parallel lives of three cities: Istanbul, Tbilisi, and Baku.

Mustafa Seven, in Tbilisi

Turkey-based Pasha Bank commissioned Seven to make this photographic journey, which he has been shooting for the past year. Pasha Bank Deputy General Manager Hale Yıldırım told The Guide Istanbul, “Pasha Bank is active in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. So we are a financial link between those countries, but we also wanted to carry that over into culture … These three countries are very close to each other culturally, and they’re also brother countries in a way. So we wanted to use this exhibition to present their historical features, their people, and their culture to art appreciators.”

For Seven, the exhibition has the effect of mirroring and multiplying the common features of these cities. “When wandering the exhibition you ask which photo is Istanbul, which is Tbilisi, which is Baku. You might know Istanbul from some iconic symbols but other people might not recognize them,” he explains.

Baku, Mustafa Seven

In all three cities you can find historic mosques, synagogues, and churches, but Seven never felt religion as a dominating force in any of the cities he visited. As a native of Istanbul, the culture of the two neighboring capitals made him feel immediately at home.

Major parallels, minor contrasts

The most surprising discovery of his trip was Baku, whose Western aesthetic is a contrast with its Caucasian surroundings. “I can say this about Baku, its architectural texture is very like a Central European city. That was a surprising thing for me. A lot of my friends have said the same thing, and you constantly ask yourself, ‘Is this really Baku?’ This shows that a lot of people don’t know Baku, and this exhibition is going to present them what it really is,” Seven says.

Istanbul, Mustafa Seven

Meanwhile Tbilisi offered Seven an alternative vision of Istanbul’s present by reflecting its past. “Tbilisi is more like a version of Istanbul from 20 or 30 years ago. It’s a city whose architectural fabric hasn’t been damaged, where there’s still a lot of open space, and where you can see the mountains from the city center. It’s a very poetic city in that way.” On the strength of Seven’s description, Istanbul aficionados with a taste for the nostalgic are advised to see Tbilisi before the skyscrapers go up.

Baku, Mustafa Seven

Through his photographs Seven noticed a further similarity between the cities, namely their ambiguous home in time. This is not to fall into the Orientalist trope of painting all Eastern cities in a misted past. Rather, the cities have such a variety of influences, from Caucasian village life to contemporary architecture, that everything from the birth of civilization to the space age is represented in miniature. As Seven says, “I really love the feeling of timelessness in photographs. There is that feeling in Ara Güler’s photographs and I humbly try to put that into my own photographs as well. In that sense Istanbul is a really great city. In some photographs it’s very hard to tell which era they belong to. That’s pleasing to me. You just find a few hints about the era in the photo, and that forces you to read the photo.”

The exhibition ArTriangle “City Stories” continues until January 31 at 42 Maslak Art!SPACE Gallery.