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Nil Yalter, The headless or the belly dance, 1974




Point de vue December 4, 2023 — By Guillaume Benoit

Since the beginning of November, the Galerie Berthet-Aittouarès is hosting an exhibition of Nil Yalter, a figure of committed art, rooted in the society, observing ruptures and outcasts. As the Venice Biennale awarded her with the Golden Lion 2024 for her entire career, this exhibition is a welcome introduction to her work, which the Mac Val showcased  in 2019 with a fine retrospective.

Since the 60s, Nil Yalter has pursued an artistic research that goes beyond the framework of modern art. Combining research, encounters and testimonies with formal invention, her artwork, consisting mainly of videos and photographs, is never reduced to traditional fixity. This is because their essential material has always been intertwined with movement, migration and, consequently, the rupture that is reflected in the testimonies, encounters and discoveries that have punctuated her life. Performance, poetry, ethnology, politics and philosophy are all markers that dictate the form of the interventions she proposes in and out of exhibition spaces.


Rooted in the words of others and liberated by her own, Nil Yalter has devoted part of her life to researching the visions of others, offering through the issue of migration a window onto ways of life that rub shoulders with codified societies and offer, in their harshness as well as their happiness, possible alternatives. The question of the experience of the subjects is essential here, gathering particular testimonies to nourish a work that makes the kaleidoscope of tangled realities, sometimes invisible to those who live alongside them, the raw material of its deployment.

View of the exhibition Nil Yalter, galerie Berthet-Aittouarès © Betrand Michau Galerie Berthet-Aittouarès

It is then the way she looks at the world, her empathy with it, that offers a unique reading, leaving behind the marks of these commitments. All these faces, with their harshness, beauty and fragility, tell the story of the passage of time once the frontiers have been crossed, of the shift in identity as it is transferred to a new environment that first defines it as otherness and commits us to building the rest of our personal history on this initial difference. It is then the gaze of others and resistance to their hostility that defines the early years of migration. Hence the importance of this maxim in the exhibition at the Galerie Berthet-Aittouarès : "Exile is a hard job". Or how a situation, a state of affairs, commits those who find themselves in it to an act, a constant concern, a "trade".

It's a convincing way of challenging the current debates on identity, which all too often reduce it to an illusory form of values transmitted by the magic of birth on a particular soil, when it's not a question of physical appearance. Here, identity is shaped, opposed and confronted by the contradictions and paradoxes of societies that multiply injunctions and hierarchies.

Nil Yalter, Istanbul's slum, 1974, silver photographs, handwritten texts in graphite, 57,5 cm × 44,5 cm, Courtesy Nil Yalter and galerie Berthet-Aittouarès

The exhibition at the Galerie Berthet-Aittouarès, creates a fascinating circle around moments of the artist's career, which interact and are reactivated to form a coherent and rich ensemble. The human figure is rendered and transformed by technique, and technology also intervenes to stage this transforming reality. The Tower of Babel, which continues a corpus of work begun in 1974, also explores the disappearance of women's bodies by scattering their faces on the altar of male interests and power. The focus here is not just on women, but also on the margins : migrants, the lower social classes, male and female workers from all over the world, relegated to slums from Turkey to France, whose memory Yalter preserves, ultimately encouraging us to look further and further afield to read the issues that are always so close at hand. The effects, which are sometimes uncertain, as well as certain aesthetic choices marked by an assumed symbolism, nevertheless reflect the thirst for exploration and experimentation of an artist enamoured of freedom and fiercely possessed by her desire to understand others.

Like a cyclical vision, the body, writing, movement and memory come together in the exhibition's main video, The headless woman or the belly dance, a performance filmed in 1974 that offers a radical synthesis of the artist's work. Inscribing a fragment of a text by the historian and poet René Nelli in a circular fashion around a navel in the centre of the image, she then engraves on her own skin the phrase "The true woman is both convex and concave", offering a total symbolic reading of the female body. What welcomes and what repels. Based on a study of the female sex, this production also borrows from a religious Anatolian tradition of writing verses from the Quran on women's bodies to ward off infertility. Here, it is the dispossession of women's bodies that is diverted, the assignment of their sex, if not their existence, to procreation alone. By blending ethnology, the folklore of seduction dances, activism and artistic creation, this belly expresses a fragment of what these hidden heads have to say, while at the same time seizing the very weapons of their guardians.

Nil Yalter, Babel 's tower2, 1974-1977, 2000-2016,

Print polaroïds on Dibond and aluminium

Courtesy Nil Yalter and galerie Berthet-Aittouarès

By offering herself repeating a belly dance while never showing her face, Nil Yalter embraces all the polysemy inherent in the reappropriation of the body by women. Freed from injunction, moral prescription or the erection of new random codes, she turns the body into a place of creation where the multiple dimensions of the history, violence and pleasure that have shaped it intertwine, in a way gleaning its different identities that follow one another and chase one another, continually perpetuating themselves so as to forbid its end, its definitive categorisation, and allow each person to invent it anew. A performance staged the year after her major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art of Paris in 1973, in which the artist installed a yurt that will be reactivated for the Venice Biennale 2024.


In her own way, and with no regard for anything other than the lives she recounts, Nil Yalter reveals the absurdity of the stigmas that continue to fracture possible encounters, and impresses on the world the need to break free of these frontiers so that others can be heard as an opportunity.

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