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Clotilde Scordia

Nyl Yalter 10.jpg
Nyl Yalter 9.jpg

Recently honoured with the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale for her lifetime achievements, alongside Anna Maria Maiolino, Nil Yalter is currently featured in an exhibition at the Berthet-Aittouarès Gallery in Paris.

Titled "Exile is a hard job", inspired by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, the exhibition marks a significant milestone in recognising Yalter's artistic contributions in France, where she has lived and worked since 1965. In 1973, ARC, the contemporary art annexe of the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, dedicated its first institutional exhibition in Paris to her, but it was not until 2016 that the artist benefited from a first retrospective in France, at the FRAC Lorraine and more recently in 2019 at the MAC VAL. About time!  


Born in Cairo in 1938 to a Turkish family, Yalter only moved to Turkey in 1942. After her studies, she married the poet Théo Lésoualc'h in 1958 and accompanied him to India and Iran. Both took part in dance, theatre, and pantomime performances. Back in Istanbul, she initially pursued a career as an abstract painter inspired by the twentieth-century avant-garde movement, before transitioning to a second phase influenced by Russian constructivism. Soon she became interested in new media such as video and digital art and included them in her works, performances, and installations.   

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Exhibition's view - Nil Yalter « Exile is a hard job » - Galerie Berthet Aittouarès. © Betrand Michau. Courtesy Galerie Berthet Aittouarès.

The Berthet-Aittouarès Gallery presents six sets of works from her photographic and video work, dating from the 1970s to the present day: Habitations provisoires (1974-1978), Exile is a hard job (1983-2017), The Tower of Babel (1979), La Femme sans tête (1974, 24-minute video), Regard de l'autre (1991), and La Tour de Beaubourg (1978).   


Yalter brings together ethnography, sociology, feminism, and politics to build over the years a radical, engaged body of work that denounces societal inequalities. Through photography, video, performance, writing, and poetry, Yalter powerfully conveys her message to her audience. 

Nil Yalter, 1980, Istanbul slum, vintage silver photograph, handwritten text in graphite, collages, objects © Betrand Michau. Courtesy Galerie Berthet Aittouarès.

She was one of the first artists to address the living and working conditions of immigrants in France. By going to meet the Turkish community within the country, she gave a voice to these invisible people, who often worked underground. Every immigrant knows the pain of exile, the brutal encounter with a new language and culture, the uncertainty of a permanent home and job, as well as the clash of two worlds. Exile is a hard job is a long-term work. In Paris, Vienna, Madrid, and Mumbai, she asked the residents of working-class neighbourhoods to write the poet's sentence in their own language, so that they could finally speak. Exile is a hard job unfolds on wild posters pasted in the street, reaching out to passers-by.  


In response to the surge of immigrant labour in the post-war period and the return of the French from Algeria after 1962, France introduced the policy of new towns. The construction of soulless high-rise buildings designed to accommodate immigrant families played a role in the impoverishment of these communities. They became isolated from a dynamic and nurturing urban environment. Close to trade union networks, Yalter recognised early on that art needed to be involved in a time of socio-political and economic upheaval.  

Nil Yalter, The Headless Woman, 1974, black and white video © Nil Yalter. Courtesy Galerie Berthet Aittouarès.

In The Headless Woman or the Belly Dance video filmed by her husband Joël Boutteville, the artist, dancing to gypsy music, writes on her bare stomach a text by the philosopher René Nelli from Erotique et civilisations which evokes the clitoris and the orgasm it provides. Here, she denounces the forcing of men on women's bodies through the practice of excision, their capture by violence, coercion, and cultural norms that restrict female pleasure. This video was shown at the first major exhibition of video art in France in 1974, "Art Vidéo Confrontation", at the ARC.  


As a pioneer of intersectionality, Yalter's work appears ever more accurate and impactful. A must-see exhibition.

Nil Yalter, Exile is a hard job .

Exhibition at galerie Berthet-Aittouarès until December 23th.


Cover images : Nil Yalter, Temporary Dwellings - Paris, New York, Istanbul, 1977, silver photographs mounted on cardboard

© Betrand Michau, courtesy Galerie Berthet-Aittouarès.


Clotilde Scordia

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