top of page

« Exile is a hard job ».

Interview with Nil Yalter, a woman artist fighting

Arts et Expositions

by Eric Tariant, 11.29.2023

Nil Yalter is the winner of the 2024 Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale © Isabelle Arthuis

Awarded this year with the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale for her entire career, Nil Yalter is currently presenting her exhibition “Exile is a hard job” at the Berthet-Aittouarès gallery in Paris. Interview with a pugnacious artist whose work addresses questions of exile, feminism and even culture.

Recognized for her commitment and multifaceted creation, ranging from video to painting, collage to photography, performance to installation, and particularly for her work on issues of immigration, gender and class, and her fight against discrimination, Nil Yalter (born in 1938), of Turkish and French nationality, has just been rewarded with a Golden Lion for her entire career, alongside the Italian-Brazilian Anna Maria Maiolino . Interview with an artist, pugnacious and with a sharp mind, who will receive her Prize on April 20th. The opening day of the 60th Venice Biennale titled “Foreigners Everywhere”, a name borrowed from a Turin collective which fought against racism and xenophobia in Italy in the early 2000s. Nil Yalter is on display, until December 9th, on the walls of the Galerie Berthet-Aittouarès.

Were you expecting to be awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale?

No, not at all. I didn't even expect to be invited to the Venice Biennale, where I'd never exhibited before. I did, however, have the opportunity to meet Adriano Pedrosa, the general curator of the 60th Biennale. In 2014, he invited me to exhibit in a major show he organised in Rio de Janeiro, and again at Frieze masters. As the title of this 2024 edition of the Biennale is 'Foreigners Everywhere', Adriano Pedrosa told me that this edition could not happen without my presence. In Venice, I will be exhibiting at the Arsenale, in the largest space at the entrance to the site.

Nil Yalter © Oliver Abrahama

I'll be presenting my installation Exile is a hard job, the title of which is borrowed from a line by the Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet (1901-1963). I first showed this work in 1983 at the Arc-Museum of Modern Art of Paris, on the invitation of Suzanne Pagé, its director. This is the first time I'll be showing it along with posters of the phrase "Exile is a hard job", which have been append in different languages in fifteen cities around the world.


Where have you shown your work throughout your career?

I've had the opportunity to exhibit in many museums and cultural institutions. But very few in art galleries. I've often been asked by local collectivities to exhibit my work, particularly on the theme of immigration and the situation of women, in cultural centers and youth centers. It was in 1973, at the Arc, that I first showed my nomad tent, a yurt: "Topak Ev", the round house in Turkish. The installation was inspired by a work by Velimir Khlebnikov, the founder of the Russian Futurist movement. In 2012, I started posting the aphorism "Exile is a hard job" in the streets, accompanied by documentary images.

Nil Yalter, Exile is a hard job, exhibition at Galerie Berthet Aittouarès, 2023, outside ©Betrand Michau, courtesy of Galerie Berthet Aittouarès

I've shown this installation in many cities around the world, including Mumbai in 2013. It has also been shown at Biennales and exhibitions, including the Berlin Biennale in 2022 and in a major retrospective at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne in 2019. It takes the form of an installation consisting of my famous nomad tent, surrounded on the outer panels by drawings and texts explaining the living conditions of nomadic populations in Turkey. A book devoted to this installation, which has travelled to fifteen cities around the world, will be published to coincide with the Venice Biennale. It is now housed in the Arter Museum in Istanbul.

You're self-taught. How did you become an artist?

My vocation was born very early (laughs), at the age of five, listening to my paternal grandmother, a very pious circassian, who often took care of me at home. She used to tell me children's stories. One day, she started drawing her stories, putting them in panels, a bit like a comic strip. She then invited me to draw. It was a revelation. There were no artworks in my family environment. Figurative representations of living beings were forbidden in the Islamic world. Modern Turkey only exists since 1923. The country was then emerging from seven centuries of Ottoman rules. My family belonged to what we would call today the middle class. My father was a civil servant and my mother a foreign language teacher. I came to Paris in 1965 because contemporary art was non-existent in Turkey. I started out doing abstract painting. I had a copy of Michel Seuphor's "Dictionnaire de la peinture abstraite" in my hands. The great sculptor Ilhan Koman (1921-1985), to whom I was close, introduced me to the constructivist art and the work of Kasimir Malevitch. I learnt everything on my own. I didn't go to art school.

Nil Yalter, Exile is a hard job, exhibition at Galerie Berthet Aittouarès, 2023,  ©Betrand Michau, courtesy of Galerie Berthet Aittouarès

So your painting was inspired by Russian Constructivism?

Until 1965 in Istanbul, I painted with a lot of materials, a bit like Poliakoff. In Paris, between 1966 and 1970, I produced paintings that are very much in demand today. They were inspired by American Hard Edge painting and the work of Frank Stella, and also, indeed, by the Constructivists.


You moved to Paris in 1965...

Yes, but I first came to France in 1956, when I was 18. I was overwhelmed. I visited the Louvre and met Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre at the Dôme. Ilhan Koman took me with him to the Iris Clert gallery. It was there that I saw Yves Klein's first monochromes. It took me a while to understand how he got there. I realised that it was here, in Paris, that I had to settle down. In Turkey, I was completely cut off from everything, cut off from the cultural ebullition. I moved to France in 1965 with the intention of learning. I had become good friends with Sarkis, who was exhibiting at the Galerie Iléana Sonnabend on the Quai des Grands Augustins. I learnt everything from Iléana, who loved me very much. It was in her gallery that I met Rauschenberg. Then Robert Morris at Sarkis. I also frequented Pierre Gaudibert, and saw all his exhibitions at the ARC, the Animation Recherche Confrontation section he created in 1967 at the Museum of Modern Art of Paris.

When did you start working on migrants and immigrant workers, the issues that have made you an internationally renowned ?

It took me seven years to assimilate everything I learnt in Paris during those years. In 1971, in Istanbul, I attended the trial of three young revolutionaries who were tried and then hanged. I made a conceptual work that evoked this event. It was then that I met the ethnologist Bernard Dupaigne, who later on became th head of the Ethnology Laboratory at the Musée de l'Homme. Bernard told me that yurts were still used in Turkey by nomadic populations, the Bektiks, who lived in the steppes of Anatolia. These yurts were built by young women, from the age of fifteen, to live in when they reached adulthood. In 1973, I wanted to make my own yurt, to create one of these nomadic womb-shaped houses myself. Afterwards, members of these nomadic populations moved to the slums on the outskirts of Istanbul and Ankara. Others moved to France and Germany, becoming economic immigrants. Suzanne Pagé, who became director of the Arc, exhibited my tent at the end of 1973, surrounded by drawings explaining what nomadism is. The following year, I exhibited in Cologne, Germany, in a major group show.

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

The themes of immigration and uprooting since then, have always been present in your work...

I'm a citizen of the world. I was banned from living in Turkey for thirteen years, from 1980, the date of the military coup, until 1993. Today, I feel neither really Turkish nor French.


How did you manage to be accepted by the immigrant workers you show in your drawings, silver photographs and Polaroids? How did you establish a climate of trust with them, so that you could portray their living conditions?

I've always worked with local councils, particularly in Corbeil-Essonnes, Grigny and Ris-Orangis (cities in the Paris' suburbs), with social workers and sociologists, with people who looked after these immigrants. Before photographing or filming them, I had to convince them of the value of the work I was going to do.

Your work seems to be similar to the one of a reporter...

No. I reject that term. It's not reporting. It's archival and documentary work made by an artist.

Nil Yalter, The Headless Woman, 1974, black and white video ©Nil Yalter, courtesy of Galerie Berthet-Aittouarès

You are also known and celebrated for your videos. Which are you most proud of?

I'm most proud ofThe headless woman or the belly dance, a 24-minute video-performance I made in a single sequence in 1974, in which I inscribed on my stomach a text by René Nelli from Érotique et civilisation, while dancing to the rhythm of oriental music. It was a way for me to reclaim the body that had been taken away from women. René Nelli's text condemns excision and celebrates clitoral pleasure. In 1974, it was taboo to talk about the clitoris. Men were shocked. In fact, it's still a taboo today.
I made this video thanks to Dany Bloch, who was in charge of the video section at the Arc-Museum of Modern Art of Paris. It was shown at the first event dedicated to video art in France, "Art vidéo: confrontation 74", held at the Arc. My art works have always been made with bits of string. I've always done everything myself. In the early 2000s, I even filmed myself in videos like Lapidation. My commitment also took the form of action. In the 70s, with Mathilde and Esther Ferrer, I founded a group called "Les femmes en lutte" ("Women fighting). We met every fortnight, with women writers, painters and intellectuals, to discuss the situation of women in the art domain.

Are you still working today?

These days, I work a lot on the computer. I haven't painted or drawn for five years. I'm going through a difficult period at the moment. A year ago I lost my partner, the man I'd lived with for 45 years.

Nil Yalter, « Exile is a hard job »
Galerie Berthet-Aittouarès
14, rue de Seine, 75006
Extension until December 23th
bottom of page