Posting Date: May 1, 2009
KSU College of the Arts venture into southeastern Turkey
By Gina Gareri-Watkins
(From left) COTA members
Members of KSU’s College of the Arts recently returned from a multidisciplinary study tour of Turkey. John Gentile, chair of KSU’s Department of Theatre and Performance Studies, Professor of Art Linda Hightower and Associate Professor of Art Education Sandra Bird were members of a KSU-sponsored group that visited Istanbul, Ankara, Konya, Catalhoyuk, Harran, Mardin and Sanliurfa in March 2009. The two-week tour was part of the KSU Institute for Global Initiatives’ “Year of Turkey” study program.
Each year, the KSU Institute for Global Initiatives focuses on a world region, providing country-specific lectures, performances, exhibits and films for educational and networking opportunities between KSU and its surrounding international communities. The study program’s advisory committee establishes valuable working relationships with consular officials, business leaders and expatriates from the country under study. This year’s study tour was sponsored in part by Atlanta’s Istanbul Center, a 501(c) 3 non-profit, non-governmental agency established to promote a better understanding between Turkish and American communities.
Bird has been actively involved with the Istanbul Center for about five years. Originally trained as a costume designer, Bird’s advanced education and professional experience led to her current specialization in cross-cultural aesthetics and criticisms with an emphasis on Islamic art. “My dissertation was on a 13th century Islamic travelogue that was pictorial, so I’ve been studying Islamic art for some time,” says Bird. “I attended a workshop five or six years ago at Georgia State on ‘Teaching the Middle East,’ and it was then that I got involved with the center.”
Bird’s ongoing relationship with the Istanbul Center helped encourage her colleague, Hightower, to become involved with the organization. “This organization is committed to many social projects—such as poverty and feeding people—in the U.S. and other countries,” says Hightower. “It’s exciting to work with a group that is interested in creating dialogue about humanitarian issues.”
The skyline of Mardin, Turkey
Having traveled to Turkey on a 2005 research trip, Bird found this year’s KSU trip enlightening by comparison. “This tour involved more interaction with the people,” says Bird. “We had an opportunity to meet with local families, individuals, mayors and ministers of cultures. The meetings in Istanbul were set up with sister agencies with the Istanbul Center.” Hightower found the trip educational on many levels. “Turkey is one of the most sophisticated places I have ever visited,” says Hightower. “Not only is the art and culture amazing, but the Turkish people opened their homes to us and cooked for us. They were so welcoming.”
The group explored two towns in the southeastern region seldom visited by Americans—a first for both the university and Istanbul Center—and an area predominantly Kurdish and Arabic. “I had never been to southeastern Turkey, and Mardin and Sanliurfa were wonderful,” says Bird. “There’s a variety of faiths and practices, and we found that the communities were actually supportive of one another. Mardin is really interesting because it’s built on a mountain and the buildings connect. One person’s porch is another person’s roof, so they are physically connected as neighbors. One thing that happens in one person’s house literally happens in another person’s house, so they are obliged to get along.”
Whirling dervishes in Sema, Turkey
Photographs courtesy of Sandra Bird
Bird also explains a similar sense of community that exists in the neighboring town of Sanliurfa, known as the ancient city of Urfa and the birthplace of Abraham. “Abraham is ‘Ibrahim’ in Islam. Abraham is considered the father of the monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” says Bird. “The sense of ownership of that particular father figure brings these people together.” Bird found their visit to the ancient city of Catalmoyuk another highlight of the trip. “It’s the oldest Neolithic village that we know of in the world that is still surviving,” explains Bird. “It was exciting to be there because it is the birthplace of religion in archeological terms.”
This year’s trip to Turkey may be the beginning of a larger partnership as the KSU administration explores the academic and personal relationships forged during the tour. “I am very interested in the work that is being done in the southeastern part of Turkey, particularly as it enhances the lives of the Kurdish people in that area. Samanyolu University and Haaran University are both attempting to transform art education in that area, and I entertain the idea of going back to this region one day to take part in their art education initiatives and perhaps develop a studies abroad summer project for our art education majors.”