An exhibition sheds lights on the rich, pioneering, but little-known life story of Mihri, a female painter who rose to prominence in the late Ottoman era.

By Yao Hsiao

Photo courtesy of SALT

Mihri (1885–1954) was a portrait painter active both in Istanbul and abroad, and a leading advocate for the formation of the Academy of Fine Arts for Women in the Ottoman Empire. She had a strong influence in the art scene during the late Ottoman and the early Republican period, yet her name is not widely known today, many details of her life have long remained unearthed, and she had fallen largely into obscurity.

To reconstruct the identity of this important artist, researchers Özlem Gülin Dağoğlu and Gizem Tongo along with contributors Lorans Tanatar Baruh, Farah Aksoy, and Ahmet Ersoy, have curated the exhibition Mihri: A Migrant Painter of Modern Times at SALT Galata.

The exhibition tells the story of a wise, brave, and talented women who traveled widely, and participated in the transformational social change of her time. The title of the exhibition was chosen accordingly. “We don’t want to call her by her father’s, ex-husband’s, or [second] husband’s names; we want to praise her as she is, as Mihri,” Dağoğlu told The Guide Istanbul.

In addition to displaying some of Mihri’s most important works—including portraits of the poet Tevfik Fikret and the inventor Thomas Edison—the exhibition also features documents, letters, and newspapers that reveal the personality and life story of the artist.

Born in 1885, Mihri grew up in a notable family of Ahmet Rasim Paşa in Kadıköy. In this privileged milieu, she was able to develop her interest in painting by taking private lessons from Fausto Zonaro, the Italian court painter of Sultan Abdülhamid II. Later, the young, talented, and proactive girl decided to dedicate herself to art.

Because the Ottoman Empire’s Academy of Fine Arts didn’t accept female students, Mihri went to Rome and Paris to receive higher education in her early twenties. When she came back to Istanbul in 1911—after the constitutional revolution of 1908—the capital was filled with an atmosphere of questing modernization and improvement.

“These days the words of equality and justice are on everybody’s lips. But where is our academy of fine arts for women? Anything they do, they do it for men!” Mihri said in an appeal addressed to the Minister of Education Şükrü Bey. Thanks to her advocacy, the Academy of Fine Arts for Women was founded in Istanbul in 1914.

As director of the academy, Mihri encouraged students to paint outdoors and work with nude models, which were not common practices even among male artists at that time.

In the 1920s, Mihri moved to Europe again and then eventually settled down in New York in 1927. Besides her artistic achievements—such as teaching at Rollins College—Mihri was also a popular figure in the US’s art scene. She sometimes introduced herself as Princess Achba Rasim Pasha, taking advantage of her Turkish female identity. “It’s a kind of self-orientalism—she used the aspect that would attract the most interest,” Dağoğlu said. “She was wise. She knew the art market very well,” Tongo added.

According to some accounts, Mihri suffered from poverty in later life and died in miserable circumstances. “But it’s not true,” said Dağoğlu, “so we are proposing a new portrait of Mihri.” The researchers discovered that Mihri continued producing work and teaching in her studio during the Great Depression in New York. Mihri confronted and overcame hard times—as a woman, an artist, and a migrant.

The two researchers worked for a year and a half year to make this exhibition happen. “We hope it will be an opening of dialogue and further research on Mihri,” said Tongo.

The exhibition can be visited until June 9. SALT Galata, Bankalar Caddesi No.11, Beyoğlu; saltonline.org