Mehveş Leliç is an Istanbul-born photographer and lecturer based in Chicago, whose landscape images explore the relationship between humans and the environment, providing a momentary haven away from the globalised sense of isolation in today’s world. Works from her Partum series feature at the Biggs Museum of American Art’s biannual photography show opening this week.
A: The idea of home has a significant focus in your work. Why is it such an important concept to you?
ML: I recently moved from Istanbul to Chicago to Maryland, which led me to continuously question my own sense of belonging – as many artists do in their life and work. Maryland in particular was an unfamiliar place and truly unlike the more welcoming big city experience I had always had. I then understood deeply what it was to be a stranger. It was a transformational moment in terms of perceiving a disconnect between how I saw myself and how – as an immigrant – I was perceived by certain people. I thought a lot about family and status and how we related to our community.
There are also new and multi-layered themes of maternity, intimacy and caring in my work – I am a mother and I grapple with that too, as I myself settle into my role. I try to question what is perceived as familial, domestic or inherited. For now, I am very present in the work, and as I became more comfortable with myself, I started to look for more subtle narratives in my storytelling.
A: Female figures from various ages appear in your photography series, Partum. What was your intention behind the works?
ML: I was pondering women and the perceivable idealism of femininity. I gravitated towards the women around me, who shared my heritage and felt the conflict between these real and perceived socio-cultural and economical identities, and consequently, their place in the world. There is always a mitigation. I was also discovering – as my daughter was growing – what messages she was getting. So she and other female figures around me – mothers, friends – made it into my photographs, where I tried to focus on their complexities.
A: In your previous body of work, Ex Terra, objects are the main compositional elements. Could you talk a little about the motives behind making this series?
ML: In Ex Terra, I was interested in the spatial contrast between the domestic and the exterior. Mostly, I used symbolic and easily-discernable objects such as matroushkas, clocks, keys, vases with flowers in them. Then I placed them in ambiguous places. Where is the domestic space? Where does its borders begin and end? I felt there was a volatile relationship between the intimate inner and the imposing outer. I intended to problematise that. Still life worked in this sense because it helped me democratise the many objects that fell in my hands. I felt they could truly belong to the gaze of a viewer. I, in turn, could use the camera as a distancing tool. The idea was rooted in my frustrations with women’s domestic roles but I wanted to open that up and expand it.
A: In the majority of Partum, isolated, wide-open spaces are explored. What interests you about landscape photography?
ML: Landscapes are a tool for expressing the simultaneous feelings of beauty and subdued fear; gratitude and isolation, belonging and limitation. There would sometimes be these beautiful scenes that I felt like I was up against – some I would drive by over and over again. I do have origins in documentary photography, and I have been fortunate to be able to travel to on assignment, for NGOs, Nat Geo’s Young Explorers Grant, Geo Magazine and so on. And so there were a lot of landscapes where I intended to convey the experience of seeing, beyond the two-dimensional limitation of the print.
A: In one of the works from the series, a man’s eyes are reflected in the mirror. Can you talk a bit about this work in terms of its intentions?
ML: I made this photograph in the summer of 2017. It’s mostly about the potency of casual objects in terms of establishing belonging – consumables, such as car keys and some cash and food – and how we relate to them. In terms of the female gaze, I like to think it is a tender and intimating form of controlling how the subject is present in the photograph. That is my spouse, and I gaze at him a lot, obviously, but there are limits to how much I want to volunteer about him since I prefer a visual language that depicts love and intimacy indirectly. I like to think this was a good compromise, and the indirect presence helped with the mood and the motif of borders within the image. I usually have hundreds of versions of an arrangement in an image, and this was one.
A: Is there a recurring theme in your practice?
ML: The environment, either in a natural or constructed form, and how people relate to it, would be the recurring theme that I have been going after from the very beginning. I always try to visually link a subject to our shared world. And for that purpose I like chasing after the sublime.
A: What can we expect from you in future?
ML: 2018 was busy for me in terms of exhibits – and to wrap up the year I am in a group show at the Biggs Museum of American Art, Delaware. I am working on a print project ruminating around Istanbul, where I was born and raised.
1. Detail from Dunes, from the Partum series.
2. Verses, Flower, from the Partum series.
3. Detail from Reclining Auntie, from the Partum series.