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The Politics of Marbling in Istanbul

Spirituality and Innovation

Still from the music video for “Üzme Kendini” by Tarkan Çakır, designed by Kubilay Dinçer, an ebru artist who has worked to bring the art form into popular culture in Turkey.

Rose Aslan


Introduction

Tap, tap tap, goes the rose-stick brush on the artist’s fingers as she flicks paint onto a gelatinous surface in her studio. The image forming on the surface of the liquid resembles marble. She then grabs a wooden stick that holds a thin metal needle that she uses to drop bright green paint onto the surface and manipulates it to look like the leaf of a flower.

The process is mesmerizing to watch, and I am entranced as, with a few swift movements, the artist turns the surface of the liquid into an image of a tulip. Located out of a studio in the basement of a commercial and artisanal mall in the heart of Üsküdar, a traditionally conservative neighborhood on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, she has been practicing the art of marbling for the past ten years. She is part of a growing group of artists who have helped the art of ebru thrive and become an essential part of Islamic and popular Turkish art movements.

Paper marbling, or ebru in modern Turkish, has been introduced to North America by master artisans and the likes of Martha Stewart, primarily through the “European” traditions of marbling associated with fine bookbinding and other crafts. In contrast, Turkish styles of marbling are little known outside of Turkey, where it has recently become a very popular genre of art. In the past, it was only seen as a book art, used on the margins of calligraphic works, in bookbinding, and as a decorative background for manuscripts and paintings. Artists continue to use it in these applications, but it has also become a stand-alone genre of art.

Although theories abound about the Turkish term for the art, ebru is most likely derived from the Persian term abri (ebri in Ottoman Turkish) meaning “cloud.” There are thousands of places where one can learn the art in Istanbul alone, including in K-12 schools, and there is a growing number of professional artists who have recently emerged on the scene. On first glance from a novice observer, ebru appears as simple blotches of paint on paper, often accompanied by highly stylized flowers. Part of the allure of this art form is watching how it is practiced , which appeals to people because the art seems both mysterious and calming.

Although flowers and random patterns are not inherently “Islamic” and ebru does not contain the mathematical measurements and geometrical designs that can be found in popular forms of Islamic art, it is deeply rooted in the traditions of calligraphy and the arts of the book, and it is still seen as such in Turkey. Artists and scholars cannot agree on its categorization—whether it is a Turkish art, an Islamic art, a global art, or a folk art—but it remains an important art form practiced in Turkey. Ebru only recently became an independent art form, with the art considered on its own, and ebru artists dedicating their lives to this single genre of art. This medium has developed rapidly in the past twenty years into a sophisticated art form that does more than complement other types of artwork.

A Brief History of Ebru

Ebru entered into its own over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. One of the first artists to develop floral marbling pieces as stand-alone artworks was Necmeddin Okyay Efendi, who was also an imām, calligrapher, and bookbinder. His student Mustafa Düzgünman (d. 1990), an apothecary, bookbinder, musician, and tesbih (rosary) maker, developed the art form further and passed it on to a select group of students who then worked hard to raise its profile.

(L) ebru teacher in process of designing a tulip on stylized background; (R) a sample of Hatib ebru by Mustafa Düzgünman (photo credit: Rose Aslan).

Düzgünman gave a small group of his students an icazet or diploma, although Düzgünman himself did not receive one from his teacher Necmeddin Okyay Efendi.1 Düzgünman was from a strict Muslim family, and he identified with Sufi teachings; apart from running his store, he spent his time in the company of dervishes and served as a custodian at the shrine of Shaykh Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi, the founder of the Celveti Sufi order. He wrote mystical poetry infused with Ottoman language and cultural references, and even composed a poem, “Ebruname,” replete with Ottoman cultural and Sufi mystical allusions. He taught his students how to interpret and understand ebru through mystical lenses, and they helped bring these ideas into mainstream ebru practices.2

The emphasis of Düzgünman’s students (who are now some of the most well-known ebru artists in Turkey) on the icazet system appears to be an attempt to elevate the status of ebru among the other more widely recognized traditional Turkish-Islamic arts.3 They also seek to define the art through strict guidelines and philosophical ideas that they believe have their origin in Islamic doctrine and belief.4 The popularity of marbling in contemporary Turkey has led to the rise of artists who are able to support themselves primarily through their art rather than just practicing it on the side.

Making Ebru Traditional

On one end of the spectrum are ebru artists who hold on to “tradition” and attempt to strictly regulate and define “ebru,” while classifying new styles of the genre as “not ebru.” These artists include those who received an icazet directly from Mustafa Düzgünman, including Alparslan Babaoğlu and Fuat Başar, and their many students. Düzgünman’s apothecary was a hub for Sufis, intellectuals, and artists, and while many people visited him hoping to study ebru with him, he was reluctant to teach those who asked. He only taught the art of ebru to a select few who carry on his legacy, some of whom attempt to regulate its practice.

Icazet of Alparslan Babaoğlu given by Mustafa Düzgünman in 1989, which includes the chain of teachers going back to Edhem Efendi (d. 1904) (photo credit: Rose Aslan).

Babaoğlu and Fuat Başar are extremely well-known in Turkish ebru circles. They can be considered purists, strictly adhering to the practices of Düzgünman and only allowing for a protracted and careful development of ebru designs. Before his recent retirement, Babaoğlu worked as a full-time engineer and practiced ebru in his free time, while Başar has been a full-time ebrucu, or marbling artist for many years. Başar is also a master calligrapher who teaches both ebru and calligraphy at art institutes and independently. Babaoğlu is especially strict regarding the practice of ebru and speaks out against artists who do not adhere to his rigid guidelines. In numerous glossy volumes and articles, as well as at conferences, Babaoğlu has laid out his version of the history of ebru and description of its rules. He claims that real ebru follows in the footsteps of the masters and cannot deviate from tradition. He posits that any art that resembles ebru but does not adhere to the traditional rules can only be called art using ebru methods, but cannot itself be called “ebru.”

(L) Alparslan Babaoğlu in his home in front of his art; (R) Fuat Başar at Art Cafe in Istanbul, where he holds a Saturday evening gathering for artists most weeks (photo credit: Rose Aslan).

Başar is more generous in his characterization of the art and has taught hundreds of students, many of whom have become renowned in their own right. Although he still adheres to the traditional ideas of ebru, he approves of innovation within ebru as an art, as long as it adheres to some basic guidelines. He demands that ebru be aesthetically pleasing and based on knowledge of the art, follows fundamental moral principles (as in no nude portraits), and has roots in traditional ebru methods.

Pushing the Limits of Ebru

On the other end of the spectrum is a growing group of artists who are mainly self-taught and did not train with the “traditional” masters. Many of these Turkish artists also developed their techniques through interactions with American and European marblers at events and conferences held throughout the world over the past thirty years. Perhaps the most well-known Turkish artist, at least internationally, is Hikmet Barutçugil, who has been practicing the art since the 1970s.

Despite having met Düzgünman on several occasions, he did not study with him and experimented on his own until he mastered the art. Barutçugil is perhaps the most well-known ebru artist internationally, having done much to promote the art. In 1996, Barutçugil established “Ebristan” (which he translates as “the Istanbul ebru house”), an atelier in Üsküdar, where he conducts ebru lessons, holds exhibitions, and hosts visitors from around the world.5 Originally trained in textile art at the university level, Barutçugil also teaches ebru at Mimar Sinan Fine Art University in Istanbul. Barutçugil is continuously on the move, traveling around the world, as well as extensively within Turkey, to give ebru workshops, participate in art fairs, and to promote ebru in various ways.

He practices what most could consider traditional ebru, but his work is considered innovative since he usually chooses to disregard the strict guidelines set forward by Düzgünman and his students. Additionally, he has self-published thirty-seven books, most of which contain different themes from his extensive collection of art as well as his biography and considerable discussion of connections between Sufism and ebru. Barutçugil is highly respected by ebru artists and other Turks and has received support from high-ranking politicians, including current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

 

Barutçugil is also mostly responsible for creating associations between Sufism and ebru in recent years. In most of his books, talks, and in interviews with the media, Barutçugil emphasizes these links and the mysterious nature of the art. Barutçugil credits his friend Ahmed Yüksel Özemre with coming up with many of these concepts, partly out of his friendship with Düzgünman. Barutçugil teaches his students to say a special dua, or supplication, which was written by Özemre, before beginning their ebru practice, to center themselves and to show respect for the art:

In the the Name, and, with the Love of God, the all-Beneficient, the Eternally Merciful

My God, my Lord! Do not let the patterns that emerge in this Ebru vat,

in accordance with your pre-eternal decrees, delude and charm the nafs

of this powerless servant of Yours, who is incapable of fathoming Your 

Wisdom hidden inside the outward manifestation of Your creation,

and thus do not let his egotistical self have free rein over him!

O Protector (Ya Hafiz!) Protect my nafs from

the mistaken assumption that I possess the power to create,

from hidden shirk (associating partners with You),

first and foremost, declaring myself to be a creative

parents of Yours, and from the lust of presiding over others!

Please endow this helpless/mortal servant of Yours with

the perfect courtesy, springing from the conviction,

that, “There is no subject save God!”

Please grant graceful to the toil and moil at this table, 

and combine with with the yarning of every mentioning Your Name 

and every burning with the desire of Your Countenance, and please accept it form me, as a simple sign of my servanthood!

Destur (Please permit me Hazrat-Haqq)

Just like the thousands of supplications available in the Islamic tradition that Muslims can recite before engaging in specific activities, Barutçugil describes the ebru dua as a ritual practice that artists can engage in to delve into the batin, or internal realities, of the practice of ebru. Barutçugil frequently discusses the mystical dimension of the art, focusing on the difference between the batin, esoteric meanings, and zahir, external realities, both terms used by Sufis to describe the deeper realities of the universe and their experience of God. He explains that most artists only understand the zahir of the art and he only teaches the batin of the art to students who prove they would be receptive. Numerous interviews and articles with Barutçugil reflect his mystical interpretations, such as the one above, in which he discusses ebru as a spiritual means to reflect the beauty of the divine, which can help both the artist and viewer in drawing closer to God.

One up and coming artist is Garip Ay, whose YouTube video went viral in 2016 depicting his unique take on the art, turning it into a cinematic presentation, with a focus on the performance, rather than the result on paper. His videos have entered many people’s social media feeds around the world, especially his imitation of Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.”

Ay is trained in Western art as well as Arabic calligraphy, and has also taught himself cinematography so he can film his work in process. Although he grew up in a conservative Muslim Kurdish family from the southeast of the country, he has recently started exploring new beliefs and ideas outside of Islam.

His videos garnered the attention of Netflix, which commissioned Ay to produce ebru videos for Narcos, Stranger Things, and The Crown, as well as a Japanese skincare company that created a TV commercial and specially-designed packages for their products with Ay’s help.6

Iconic characters from the popular Netflix series Narcos, Stranger Things, and The Crown rendered ebru-style by artist Garip Ay.

Ay is now more focused on cinematography, video editing, and traveling to do installations around the world rather than practicing the art. He accepts few of the requests he receives and does not consider himself a traditional ebru artist. He previously worked in Hikmet Barutçugil’s Ebristan, assisting with art projects and putting his fine arts skills to work, painting illustrations on top of Barutçugil’s marbled art pieces.

Another innovative, self-taught marbler is Kubilay Dinçer, a biology graduate based in the majority-secular and hip neighborhood of Kadıköy. A younger artist who identifies more with Buddhist and atheist philosophies than Islam, Dinçer has brought ebru into the pop culture of Turkey, expanding beyond paper to apply it on textiles, including baseball hats and even body marbling at summer beach festivals. Dinçer even helped introduce marbling into the alternative rock scene, appearing in a recent rock music video as the main character, an ebru artist who is infatuated with a woman who sees her in all of his ebru paintings. For the many ebru artists who perceive themselves as traditional and who tend to align their work with Islamic values and beliefs, this application of ebru would seem sacrilegious.

Until recently, ebru has primarily been practiced by more religious artists and appealed to (and been collected by) devout Turks, but artists like Ay and Dinçer have successfully brought the art into a broader, more public arena. Their art and personalities appeal to secular Turks who are less interested in the art’s connection to religion and primarily enjoy its aesthetics and varieties of use. They have also helped internationalize the art by bringing in more universal themes that go beyond traditional Turkish aesthetics and bring it more international appeal.

Contesting Ebru

Behind the visual draw of the art, “traditional” artists have developed an entire philosophy, much of it rooted in Sufi thought. Most scholars and ebru artists trace the practice of ebru in Turkey back to a Naqshabandi Sufi shaykh, Sadik Efendi (d. 1846), who migrated to Istanbul from Bukhara in the early nineteenth century. Sadik Efendi headed the Özbek Tekke in Üsküdar, on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, bringing some knowledge of the art with him, although numerous other theories abound as to how the art arrived in Turkey from Japan and China via Iran and Central Asia.7 Some artists, such as Ay and Dinçer, believe that ebru possibly has its roots in pre-Islamic Anatolia, where it was practiced by shamans to foretell the future. Art historians have not mentioned this as a possible origin, so at this point, it is mere speculation and perhaps adds to the mystery fans of the art associate with it.8 This narrative also fits into the historical precedent set by Kemal Atatürk with the rise of the Turkish secular republic. The Turkification of Turkey’s Islamic heritage has been an ongoing process, although the current Islamist government has been working to re-Islamicize Turkish heritage and to rewrite the narrative.9

There are various examples of ebru being made in Istanbul from before Efendi’s time as early as the sixteenth century.10 In the context of the Özbek Tekke, Sadik Efendi taught Edhem Efendi, who in turn taught his grandson, Necmeddin Efendi. Although many ebru artists argue that the art is inherently mystical because it was produced by dervishes in the Sufi lodge, others such as Nüsret Hepgül and Jake Benson, have posited that these dervishes produced large quantities of marbled paper for the burgeoning printing trade, which sustained the lodge economically. The organizers of the Sixth International Ebru Congress held in 2016 held a number of events at the lodge and celebrated the historical connections of the lodge to the art.11

Eda Özbekkangay’s ebru desk, where she hangs photos of her ebru teachers, Sufi-inspired art, and an ebru stencil piece with a verse from the Qurʾān and an invocation to the family of the Prophet Muḥammad (photo credit: Rose Aslan).

Eda Özbekkangay, the great granddaughter of İbrahim Edhem Efendi, is currently working to revive the lodge as a center of ebru learning and practice and actively promote ebru as a Sufi art. Her family continues to live at the lodge and she has plans to hold lessons and revitalize the historical practice at the site.

Despite her family connections, Özbekkangay studied with prominent ebru artists such as Başar and Barutçugil and she has no qualms about referring to her art as a Sufi practice. She has demonstrated his work at beach festivals in the Mediterranean holiday town of Bodrum, at universities around the world, and, most interestingly, at the Mevlana Museum in Konya. She often performs in collaboration with experimental musicians, offering a visual accompaniment inspired by the others’ performances. Özbekkangay performed the art for visitors in the garden of the Konya museum, which although now a secular institution, is still revered as a sacred space containing the grave of Rumi and his descendants, followers, and prominent members of the Mevlevi Sufi order.

In conversation, Özbekkangay describes her time at the Museum as mystical and spiritually inspired and explains that she developed new techniques and styles that came out of being in proximity to the grave of Rumi. She entitled a recent workshop she gave at the American University in Dubai in May 2017 “Resonance of Rumi,” where she represented her work as being inspired by the spirit and poetry of Rumi. In conversation, she makes constant references to Rumi and Sufi concepts, and sees her practice and artistic pieces as being intimately connected to the mystical dimensions of Islam.

A deep dive into the world of ebru artists in Turkey can tell us a lot about contemporary debates around the nature of Islamic art, the appropriation of it, and the struggle to claim authority over a visual culture that has become universalized and defined in as many ways as there are artists. Those artists who trained with Düzgünman and identify as “traditional” seek to regulate and mark the art as their own, while others seek to expand its potential and find new ways to express themselves through the medium. The government and others in the country strive to claim it as their own and define it as part of Turkish folk culture rather than part of a larger Islamicate civilization. The battle to label ebru as a Sufi art or a Sufi practice reflects a larger debate in Turkey over the appropriation of mystical practices (such as whirling sema of the Mevlevi dervishes), imagery, lodges and shrines, and terminology.

 

Rose Aslan is an assistant professor of religion at California Lutheran University. She received her Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In addition to studying material and visual cultures of Islam, her research interests include the ritual practice of Muslims in post-9/11 United States and sacred space and pilgrimage traditions in medieval and contemporary Muslim societies.

 

  1. An icazet is a formal certificate that is used by traditional Muslim scholars and artists to certify that a student has reached a level of mastery of a specific artistic or textual tradition. Among Turkish artists, the icazet system has been used for hundreds of years by calligraphers, but is a new addition among artists who practice marbling and illumination.
  2. For more on Düzgünman’s life, see Ahmed Yüksel Özemre, Üsküdar, ah Üsküdar! (Istanbul: Kubbealtı Neşriyatı, 2007) and Üsküdar’da bir attar dükkânı (Istanbul: Kubbealti Publishing, 1996).
  3. He did have at least one student, Niyazi Sayın, who refused an icazet from Düzgünman as he did not think it held any value.
  4. For an extensive critique of the ebru icazet system and the construction of tradition among ebru artists, see İrvin Cemil Schick, “İslâmî Kitap San’atlarında Standartlaşma: Usta-Çırak İlişkisi ve İcazet Geleneği,” Journal of Ottoman Studies 49 (2017): 287-322 and “Gelenek mi, Gelenekçilik mi? Ebru Örneği,” Notos 40 (June/July 2013): 51–54.
  5. For more information on Ebristan, see http://www.ebristan.com/.
  6. The packaging for the product can be seen here. Strangely enough, Ay’s participation and artistic creation was erased, and the company now describes the art on the bottle as being Suminagashi having been created by an artist from Japan. The art on the package is clearly Turkish-style ebru and has no connection to Suminagashi. While visiting his studio, Ay showed me images from his collaboration with the company to produce the designs.
  7. For more on the history of marbling in East Asia, see Jake Benson, “Historical References to Marbling in East Asia,” Society of Marbling Annual (2004), 20-27.
  8. Scholars like Jake Benson describe this as unsubstantiated speculation, for the earliest evidence of the art from the Islamic world only dates to late fifteenth-century Timurid Iran. See Jake Benson, “The Art of Abri: Marbled Album Leaves, Drawings, and Paintings of the Deccan,” in Navina Najat Haidar and Marika Sardar (eds.), Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015), 157-159. 
  9. For more on this topic, see Zeynep Kezer, “Familiar Things in Strange Places: Ankara’s Ethnography Museum and the Legacy of Islam in Republican Turkey,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 8 (2000): 101–116; Rose Aslan, “The Museumification of Rumi’s Tomb: Deconstructing Sacred Space at the Mevlana Museum,” International Journal of Religious Tourism and Pilgrimage 2 (2014); Wendy M. K. Shaw, “The Islam in Islamic Art History: Secularism and Public Discourse,” Journal of Art Historiography 6 (2012); eadem, “Between the Secular and the Sacred: A New Face for the Department of the Holy Relics at the Topkapı Palace Museum,” Material Religion 6 (2010): 129–131. 
  10. Based on research shared with the author by Jake Benson, a Ph.D. candidate at Leiden University, who is conducting his dissertation on the history of marbling.
  11. The first monograph in the Turkish language on the topic of ebru was M. Uğur Derman, Türk sanatında ebrû (Istanbul: Ak Yayınları, 1977). Along with Mehmet Ali Kâğıtçı, Derman attempted to tie the origins of ebru in Turkey to the Özbek Tekke. The lodge is currently at the center of a dispute between the descendants of the Sufi shaykh who ran the lodge, who continue to live in part of the building, and the Vekf, the religious endowment organization that controls the site, running an NGO out of the lodge and offering classes on Islamic studies. For information on its 2016 congress, see http://imcongress.org/en/index.php.

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The Politics of Marbling in Istanbul

Spirituality and Innovation


Rose Aslan


Introduction

Tap, tap tap, goes the rose-stick brush on the artist’s fingers as she flicks paint onto a gelatinous surface in her studio. The image forming on the surface of the liquid resembles marble. She then grabs a wooden stick that holds a thin metal needle that she uses to drop bright green paint onto the surface and manipulates it to look like the leaf of a flower.

The process is mesmerizing to watch, and I am entranced as, with a few swift movements, the artist turns the surface of the liquid into an image of a tulip. Located out of a studio in the basement of a commercial and artisanal mall in the heart of Üsküdar, a traditionally conservative neighborhood on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, she has been practicing the art of marbling for the past ten years. She is part of a growing group of artists who have helped the art of ebru thrive and become an essential part of Islamic and popular Turkish art movements.

Paper marbling, or ebru in modern Turkish, has been introduced to North America by master artisans and the likes of Martha Stewart, primarily through the “European” traditions of marbling associated with fine bookbinding and other crafts. In contrast, Turkish styles of marbling are little known outside of Turkey, where it has recently become a very popular genre of art. In the past, it was only seen as a book art, used on the margins of calligraphic works, in bookbinding, and as a decorative background for manuscripts and paintings. Artists continue to use it in these applications, but it has also become a stand-alone genre of art.

Although theories abound about the Turkish term for the art, ebru is most likely derived from the Persian term abri (ebri in Ottoman Turkish) meaning “cloud.” There are thousands of places where one can learn the art in Istanbul alone, including in K-12 schools, and there is a growing number of professional artists who have recently emerged on the scene. On first glance from a novice observer, ebru appears as simple blotches of paint on paper, often accompanied by highly stylized flowers. Part of the allure of this art form is watching how it is practiced , which appeals to people because the art seems both mysterious and calming.

Although flowers and random patterns are not inherently “Islamic” and ebru does not contain the mathematical measurements and geometrical designs that can be found in popular forms of Islamic art, it is deeply rooted in the traditions of calligraphy and the arts of the book, and it is still seen as such in Turkey. Artists and scholars cannot agree on its categorization—whether it is a Turkish art, an Islamic art, a global art, or a folk art—but it remains an important art form practiced in Turkey. Ebru only recently became an independent art form, with the art considered on its own, and ebru artists dedicating their lives to this single genre of art. This medium has developed rapidly in the past twenty years into a sophisticated art form that does more than complement other types of artwork.

A Brief History of Ebru

Ebru entered into its own over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. One of the first artists to develop floral marbling pieces as stand-alone artworks was Necmeddin Okyay Efendi, who was also an imām, calligrapher, and bookbinder. His student Mustafa Düzgünman (d. 1990), an apothecary, bookbinder, musician, and tesbih (rosary) maker, developed the art form further and passed it on to a select group of students who then worked hard to raise its profile.

(L) ebru teacher in process of designing a tulip on stylized background; (R) a sample of Hatib ebru by Mustafa Düzgünman (photo credit: Rose Aslan).

Düzgünman gave a small group of his students an icazet or diploma, although Düzgünman himself did not receive one from his teacher Necmeddin Okyay Efendi.1 Düzgünman was from a strict Muslim family, and he identified with Sufi teachings; apart from running his store, he spent his time in the company of dervishes and served as a custodian at the shrine of Shaykh Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi, the founder of the Celveti Sufi order. He wrote mystical poetry infused with Ottoman language and cultural references, and even composed a poem, “Ebruname,” replete with Ottoman cultural and Sufi mystical allusions. He taught his students how to interpret and understand ebru through mystical lenses, and they helped bring these ideas into mainstream ebru practices.2

The emphasis of Düzgünman’s students (who are now some of the most well-known ebru artists in Turkey) on the icazet system appears to be an attempt to elevate the status of ebru among the other more widely recognized traditional Turkish-Islamic arts.3 They also seek to define the art through strict guidelines and philosophical ideas that they believe have their origin in Islamic doctrine and belief.4 The popularity of marbling in contemporary Turkey has led to the rise of artists who are able to support themselves primarily through their art rather than just practicing it on the side.

Making Ebru Traditional

On one end of the spectrum are ebru artists who hold on to “tradition” and attempt to strictly regulate and define “ebru,” while classifying new styles of the genre as “not ebru.” These artists include those who received an icazet directly from Mustafa Düzgünman, including Alparslan Babaoğlu and Fuat Başar, and their many students. Düzgünman’s apothecary was a hub for Sufis, intellectuals, and artists, and while many people visited him hoping to study ebru with him, he was reluctant to teach those who asked. He only taught the art of ebru to a select few who carry on his legacy, some of whom attempt to regulate its practice.

Icazet of Alparslan Babaoğlu given by Mustafa Düzgünman in 1989, which includes the chain of teachers going back to Edhem Efendi (d. 1904) (photo credit: Rose Aslan).

Babaoğlu and Fuat Başar are extremely well-known in Turkish ebru circles. They can be considered purists, strictly adhering to the practices of Düzgünman and only allowing for a protracted and careful development of ebru designs. Before his recent retirement, Babaoğlu worked as a full-time engineer and practiced ebru in his free time, while Başar has been a full-time ebrucu, or marbling artist for many years. Başar is also a master calligrapher who teaches both ebru and calligraphy at art institutes and independently. Babaoğlu is especially strict regarding the practice of ebru and speaks out against artists who do not adhere to his rigid guidelines. In numerous glossy volumes and articles, as well as at conferences, Babaoğlu has laid out his version of the history of ebru and description of its rules. He claims that real ebru follows in the footsteps of the masters and cannot deviate from tradition. He posits that any art that resembles ebru but does not adhere to the traditional rules can only be called art using ebru methods, but cannot itself be called “ebru.”

(L) Alparslan Babaoğlu in his home in front of his art; (R) Fuat Başar at Art Cafe in Istanbul, where he holds a Saturday evening gathering for artists most weeks (photo credit: Rose Aslan).

Başar is more generous in his characterization of the art and has taught hundreds of students, many of whom have become renowned in their own right. Although he still adheres to the traditional ideas of ebru, he approves of innovation within ebru as an art, as long as it adheres to some basic guidelines. He demands that ebru be aesthetically pleasing and based on knowledge of the art, follows fundamental moral principles (as in no nude portraits), and has roots in traditional ebru methods.

Pushing the Limits of Ebru

On the other end of the spectrum is a growing group of artists who are mainly self-taught and did not train with the “traditional” masters. Many of these Turkish artists also developed their techniques through interactions with American and European marblers at events and conferences held throughout the world over the past thirty years. Perhaps the most well-known Turkish artist, at least internationally, is Hikmet Barutçugil, who has been practicing the art since the 1970s.

Despite having met Düzgünman on several occasions, he did not study with him and experimented on his own until he mastered the art. Barutçugil is perhaps the most well-known ebru artist internationally, having done much to promote the art. In 1996, Barutçugil established “Ebristan” (which he translates as “the Istanbul ebru house”), an atelier in Üsküdar, where he conducts ebru lessons, holds exhibitions, and hosts visitors from around the world.5 Originally trained in textile art at the university level, Barutçugil also teaches ebru at Mimar Sinan Fine Art University in Istanbul. Barutçugil is continuously on the move, traveling around the world, as well as extensively within Turkey, to give ebru workshops, participate in art fairs, and to promote ebru in various ways.

He practices what most could consider traditional ebru, but his work is considered innovative since he usually chooses to disregard the strict guidelines set forward by Düzgünman and his students. Additionally, he has self-published thirty-seven books, most of which contain different themes from his extensive collection of art as well as his biography and considerable discussion of connections between Sufism and ebru. Barutçugil is highly respected by ebru artists and other Turks and has received support from high-ranking politicians, including current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

 

Barutçugil is also mostly responsible for creating associations between Sufism and ebru in recent years. In most of his books, talks, and in interviews with the media, Barutçugil emphasizes these links and the mysterious nature of the art. Barutçugil credits his friend Ahmed Yüksel Özemre with coming up with many of these concepts, partly out of his friendship with Düzgünman. Barutçugil teaches his students to say a special dua, or supplication, which was written by Özemre, before beginning their ebru practice, to center themselves and to show respect for the art:

In the the Name, and, with the Love of God, the all-Beneficient, the Eternally Merciful

My God, my Lord! Do not let the patterns that emerge in this Ebru vat,

in accordance with your pre-eternal decrees, delude and charm the nafs

of this powerless servant of Yours, who is incapable of fathoming Your 

Wisdom hidden inside the outward manifestation of Your creation,

and thus do not let his egotistical self have free rein over him!

O Protector (Ya Hafiz!) Protect my nafs from

the mistaken assumption that I possess the power to create,

from hidden shirk (associating partners with You),

first and foremost, declaring myself to be a creative

parents of Yours, and from the lust of presiding over others!

Please endow this helpless/mortal servant of Yours with

the perfect courtesy, springing from the conviction,

that, “There is no subject save God!”

Please grant graceful to the toil and moil at this table, 

and combine with with the yarning of every mentioning Your Name 

and every burning with the desire of Your Countenance, and please accept it form me, as a simple sign of my servanthood!

Destur (Please permit me Hazrat-Haqq)

Just like the thousands of supplications available in the Islamic tradition that Muslims can recite before engaging in specific activities, Barutçugil describes the ebru dua as a ritual practice that artists can engage in to delve into the batin, or internal realities, of the practice of ebru. Barutçugil frequently discusses the mystical dimension of the art, focusing on the difference between the batin, esoteric meanings, and zahir, external realities, both terms used by Sufis to describe the deeper realities of the universe and their experience of God. He explains that most artists only understand the zahir of the art and he only teaches the batin of the art to students who prove they would be receptive. Numerous interviews and articles with Barutçugil reflect his mystical interpretations, such as the one above, in which he discusses ebru as a spiritual means to reflect the beauty of the divine, which can help both the artist and viewer in drawing closer to God.

One up and coming artist is Garip Ay, whose YouTube video went viral in 2016 depicting his unique take on the art, turning it into a cinematic presentation, with a focus on the performance, rather than the result on paper. His videos have entered many people’s social media feeds around the world, especially his imitation of Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.”

Ay is trained in Western art as well as Arabic calligraphy, and has also taught himself cinematography so he can film his work in process. Although he grew up in a conservative Muslim Kurdish family from the southeast of the country, he has recently started exploring new beliefs and ideas outside of Islam.

His videos garnered the attention of Netflix, which commissioned Ay to produce ebru videos for Narcos, Stranger Things, and The Crown, as well as a Japanese skincare company that created a TV commercial and specially-designed packages for their products with Ay’s help.6

Iconic characters from the popular Netflix series Narcos, Stranger Things, and The Crown rendered ebru-style by artist Garip Ay.

Ay is now more focused on cinematography, video editing, and traveling to do installations around the world rather than practicing the art. He accepts few of the requests he receives and does not consider himself a traditional ebru artist. He previously worked in Hikmet Barutçugil’s Ebristan, assisting with art projects and putting his fine arts skills to work, painting illustrations on top of Barutçugil’s marbled art pieces.

Another innovative, self-taught marbler is Kubilay Dinçer, a biology graduate based in the majority-secular and hip neighborhood of Kadıköy. A younger artist who identifies more with Buddhist and atheist philosophies than Islam, Dinçer has brought ebru into the pop culture of Turkey, expanding beyond paper to apply it on textiles, including baseball hats and even body marbling at summer beach festivals. Dinçer even helped introduce marbling into the alternative rock scene, appearing in a recent rock music video as the main character, an ebru artist who is infatuated with a woman who sees her in all of his ebru paintings. For the many ebru artists who perceive themselves as traditional and who tend to align their work with Islamic values and beliefs, this application of ebru would seem sacrilegious.

Until recently, ebru has primarily been practiced by more religious artists and appealed to (and been collected by) devout Turks, but artists like Ay and Dinçer have successfully brought the art into a broader, more public arena. Their art and personalities appeal to secular Turks who are less interested in the art’s connection to religion and primarily enjoy its aesthetics and varieties of use. They have also helped internationalize the art by bringing in more universal themes that go beyond traditional Turkish aesthetics and bring it more international appeal.

Contesting Ebru

Behind the visual draw of the art, “traditional” artists have developed an entire philosophy, much of it rooted in Sufi thought. Most scholars and ebru artists trace the practice of ebru in Turkey back to a Naqshabandi Sufi shaykh, Sadik Efendi (d. 1846), who migrated to Istanbul from Bukhara in the early nineteenth century. Sadik Efendi headed the Özbek Tekke in Üsküdar, on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, bringing some knowledge of the art with him, although numerous other theories abound as to how the art arrived in Turkey from Japan and China via Iran and Central Asia.7 Some artists, such as Ay and Dinçer, believe that ebru possibly has its roots in pre-Islamic Anatolia, where it was practiced by shamans to foretell the future. Art historians have not mentioned this as a possible origin, so at this point, it is mere speculation and perhaps adds to the mystery fans of the art associate with it.8 This narrative also fits into the historical precedent set by Kemal Atatürk with the rise of the Turkish secular republic. The Turkification of Turkey’s Islamic heritage has been an ongoing process, although the current Islamist government has been working to re-Islamicize Turkish heritage and to rewrite the narrative.9

There are various examples of ebru being made in Istanbul from before Efendi’s time as early as the sixteenth century.10 In the context of the Özbek Tekke, Sadik Efendi taught Edhem Efendi, who in turn taught his grandson, Necmeddin Efendi. Although many ebru artists argue that the art is inherently mystical because it was produced by dervishes in the Sufi lodge, others such as Nüsret Hepgül and Jake Benson, have posited that these dervishes produced large quantities of marbled paper for the burgeoning printing trade, which sustained the lodge economically. The organizers of the Sixth International Ebru Congress held in 2016 held a number of events at the lodge and celebrated the historical connections of the lodge to the art.11

Eda Özbekkangay’s ebru desk, where she hangs photos of her ebru teachers, Sufi-inspired art, and an ebru stencil piece with a verse from the Qurʾān and an invocation to the family of the Prophet Muḥammad (photo credit: Rose Aslan).

Eda Özbekkangay, the great granddaughter of İbrahim Edhem Efendi, is currently working to revive the lodge as a center of ebru learning and practice and actively promote ebru as a Sufi art. Her family continues to live at the lodge and she has plans to hold lessons and revitalize the historical practice at the site.

Despite her family connections, Özbekkangay studied with prominent ebru artists such as Başar and Barutçugil and she has no qualms about referring to her art as a Sufi practice. She has demonstrated his work at beach festivals in the Mediterranean holiday town of Bodrum, at universities around the world, and, most interestingly, at the Mevlana Museum in Konya. She often performs in collaboration with experimental musicians, offering a visual accompaniment inspired by the others’ performances. Özbekkangay performed the art for visitors in the garden of the Konya museum, which although now a secular institution, is still revered as a sacred space containing the grave of Rumi and his descendants, followers, and prominent members of the Mevlevi Sufi order.

In conversation, Özbekkangay describes her time at the Museum as mystical and spiritually inspired and explains that she developed new techniques and styles that came out of being in proximity to the grave of Rumi. She entitled a recent workshop she gave at the American University in Dubai in May 2017 “Resonance of Rumi,” where she represented her work as being inspired by the spirit and poetry of Rumi. In conversation, she makes constant references to Rumi and Sufi concepts, and sees her practice and artistic pieces as being intimately connected to the mystical dimensions of Islam.

A deep dive into the world of ebru artists in Turkey can tell us a lot about contemporary debates around the nature of Islamic art, the appropriation of it, and the struggle to claim authority over a visual culture that has become universalized and defined in as many ways as there are artists. Those artists who trained with Düzgünman and identify as “traditional” seek to regulate and mark the art as their own, while others seek to expand its potential and find new ways to express themselves through the medium. The government and others in the country strive to claim it as their own and define it as part of Turkish folk culture rather than part of a larger Islamicate civilization. The battle to label ebru as a Sufi art or a Sufi practice reflects a larger debate in Turkey over the appropriation of mystical practices (such as whirling sema of the Mevlevi dervishes), imagery, lodges and shrines, and terminology.

 

Rose Aslan is an assistant professor of religion at California Lutheran University. She received her Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In addition to studying material and visual cultures of Islam, her research interests include the ritual practice of Muslims in post-9/11 United States and sacred space and pilgrimage traditions in medieval and contemporary Muslim societies.

 

  1. An icazet is a formal certificate that is used by traditional Muslim scholars and artists to certify that a student has reached a level of mastery of a specific artistic or textual tradition. Among Turkish artists, the icazet system has been used for hundreds of years by calligraphers, but is a new addition among artists who practice marbling and illumination.
  2. For more on Düzgünman’s life, see Ahmed Yüksel Özemre, Üsküdar, ah Üsküdar! (Istanbul: Kubbealtı Neşriyatı, 2007) and Üsküdar’da bir attar dükkânı (Istanbul: Kubbealti Publishing, 1996).
  3. He did have at least one student, Niyazi Sayın, who refused an icazet from Düzgünman as he did not think it held any value.
  4. For an extensive critique of the ebru icazet system and the construction of tradition among ebru artists, see İrvin Cemil Schick, “İslâmî Kitap San’atlarında Standartlaşma: Usta-Çırak İlişkisi ve İcazet Geleneği,” Journal of Ottoman Studies 49 (2017): 287-322 and “Gelenek mi, Gelenekçilik mi? Ebru Örneği,” Notos 40 (June/July 2013): 51–54.
  5. For more information on Ebristan, see http://www.ebristan.com/.
  6. The packaging for the product can be seen here. Strangely enough, Ay’s participation and artistic creation was erased, and the company now describes the art on the bottle as being Suminagashi having been created by an artist from Japan. The art on the package is clearly Turkish-style ebru and has no connection to Suminagashi. While visiting his studio, Ay showed me images from his collaboration with the company to produce the designs.
  7. For more on the history of marbling in East Asia, see Jake Benson, “Historical References to Marbling in East Asia,” Society of Marbling Annual (2004), 20-27.
  8. Scholars like Jake Benson describe this as unsubstantiated speculation, for the earliest evidence of the art from the Islamic world only dates to late fifteenth-century Timurid Iran. See Jake Benson, “The Art of Abri: Marbled Album Leaves, Drawings, and Paintings of the Deccan,” in Navina Najat Haidar and Marika Sardar (eds.), Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015), 157-159. 
  9. For more on this topic, see Zeynep Kezer, “Familiar Things in Strange Places: Ankara’s Ethnography Museum and the Legacy of Islam in Republican Turkey,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 8 (2000): 101–116; Rose Aslan, “The Museumification of Rumi’s Tomb: Deconstructing Sacred Space at the Mevlana Museum,” International Journal of Religious Tourism and Pilgrimage 2 (2014); Wendy M. K. Shaw, “The Islam in Islamic Art History: Secularism and Public Discourse,” Journal of Art Historiography 6 (2012); eadem, “Between the Secular and the Sacred: A New Face for the Department of the Holy Relics at the Topkapı Palace Museum,” Material Religion 6 (2010): 129–131. 
  10. Based on research shared with the author by Jake Benson, a Ph.D. candidate at Leiden University, who is conducting his dissertation on the history of marbling.
  11. The first monograph in the Turkish language on the topic of ebru was M. Uğur Derman, Türk sanatında ebrû (Istanbul: Ak Yayınları, 1977). Along with Mehmet Ali Kâğıtçı, Derman attempted to tie the origins of ebru in Turkey to the Özbek Tekke. The lodge is currently at the center of a dispute between the descendants of the Sufi shaykh who ran the lodge, who continue to live in part of the building, and the Vekf, the religious endowment organization that controls the site, running an NGO out of the lodge and offering classes on Islamic studies. For information on its 2016 congress, see http://imcongress.org/en/index.php.

The Politics of Marbling in Istanbul

Spirituality and Innovation

The Politics of Marbling in Istanbul

Spirituality and Innovation