Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Ates, Güler Ates - VM - Aniko Ouweneel 2

Güler Ates: Blanket I
The spiritual background of artist Güler Ates
by Anikó Ouweneel
Imagine being born in eastern Turkey where many are of Armenian descent, where Muslims, Syriac Orthodox Christians, and Yazidis have lived together in harmony for centuries. Where children learn about and respect each other's cultures and religious traditions. The many colours, fragrances, sounds, and rituals are part of everyday life. Then your family has to leave and you grow up in an Istanbul shantytown until you move on to Europe. It is only in London that your interest in your background begins to grow and its importance begins to dawn on you. This is what happened to London-based artist Güler Ates, who lets East and West meet in her work that includes video, photography, graphic work, and performance. With exceptional cultural sensitivity and compassion she is able to translate the situation of displaced persons and refugees into images.
Ates comes from the tradition of the Alevis, a mystical form of Islam, influenced by Sufism. The Alevis have areligious-humanist worldview based on love, respect, and tolerance. They believe that all people have the essence of God within them. In Alevism, God is called 'Hak', which means 'the truth'. They call each other 'can' (soul), a gender-neutral word, which results in an equal position of women and men in their culture. They regard God, the cosmos, and humanity as in complete unity. They believe that practicing a religion should not be at the expense of the rights of others.
For the Ates family religious experience was expressed in an undogmatic approach to poetry, music and sema, the dervish dance. Her father read poems by Rumi (Persian philosopher, poet and Sufi mystic from the 13th century) and the family made music and danced the sema together. This dancing results in a powerful and personal spiritual experience, says Ates. There is a lot of freedom and there are no imposed religious laws as is often the case under Islam. Not only her culture, but also her mother tongue Zazaki is threatened. It has been listed as an endangered language by UNESCO since 2009.
Ates' art focuses on performance and site-responsive activities (reacting to a particular place) in which the sensibilities of East and West meet. Cultural displacement and the quest for finding the home of the heart are at its core.
Her photograph Blanket I is part of Stations of the Cross Hengelo in the Netherlands, an exhibition that leads like a Via Dolorosa through the former industrial city of Hengelo, past fourteen works of art that are reminiscent of the Stations of the Cross which mark the events surrounding Jesus' suffering, death, and resurrection. The photograph was taken in the Royal Castle of Govone (near Turin, Italy), one of the royal palaces of the House of Savoy. In the building there are obvious traces of centuries of cultural exchange (a Chinese room, an English garden etc.). The scratched wall and the fresco – and their faded glory – can generate many meanings, just as the mysterious spectator wrapped in a rescue blanket can. Should this refugee be covered and protected from a culture that is alien to him/her? Or maybe she/he is looking for the cultural values of a new home? Or is this human being wrapped in luminous gold as a sign of a new beginning in the face of a decaying culture? Does the image perhaps show something of the value of a person in relation to cultural expressions of the past?
Ates' work deals with migration, exile, flight, and finding common denominators with our neighbours. When I ask her what she wants to convey to her audience from the perspective of her spirituality, she says: 'Be curious about other people's spirituality, keep asking questions and do not judge!' 
GÜLER ATES: BLANKET I (Piedmont Residency series), photography, 2018.
STATIONS OF THE CROSS HENGELO can be visited from 17 February to 30 March on Friday and Saturday afternoons from 12:00 to 16:00. The 2024 international exhibition Stations of the Cross will take place in Hengelo.  Past editions were in London (2016), Washington DC (2017),New York (2018), Amsterdam (2019), Deventer (2020) and Toronto (2012). This contemporary art pilgrimage depicts the path of vulnerability and vitality. The walk is an artful, contemplative pilgrimage. Every step and every work of art along the route is a reminder of how vulnerable people are. War, injustice, and loneliness are of all times, but there will always be people who are committed to peace, justice, and charity. Fourteen artists depict the suffering of Jesus and people in our time. The route takes visitors past cultural, historical, social and religious organisations in Hengelo. More information (including the route to be walked): see, or via e-mail address
The above text is based on conversations with Güler Ates, partly by telephone in 2024, partly in person in 2019, when her commissioned work was part of Art Station of the Cross Amsterdam of which I was co-curator. You can find out more about this installation here. When we were on an exploratory visit of the Church of Our Lady in Amsterdam to discuss the concept, we passed the children of the Sunday school of the Syriac Orthodox community. The children practiced the Psalm 51, singing in Aramaic, in the language in which Jesus taught. It was a surprising and meaningful cultural experience, which for me will forever be part of her installation. A performance of this prayer (although it is wrongly identified as The Lord’s Prayer in the YouTube title) can be heard here.
Source on Alevism (in addition to the conversations with Ates):
Alevi songs recommended by Güler Ates: (Insan Olmaya Geldim by Arif Sag)
Ali Ekber Cicek - Haydar: I Travelled for Fourteen Thousand Years, in Propellership
ANIKÓ OUWENEEL is a cultural historian, writer, curator and art consultant. She took part in the international project ‘Converting Sacred Spaces’ which was commissioned by the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, the Netherlands. It is her passion to create incubators and platforms in which art and inspiration for life reinforce each other. In her work she focuses on contemporary art and artists. She is one of the initiators of the Platform for Church and Art. Together with Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker she edited the Handboek voor kunst in de kerk (Handbook for Art in the Church, Buijten & Schipperheijn, 2015).
ArtWay Visual Meditation 3 March 2024