Threading A Long, Eclectic List of Curatorial Themes

Curator Naz Cuguoglu. Photography Nazli Erdemirel
Curator Naz Cuguoglu. Photography Nazli Erdemirel

My earliest art memories come from my father. I think he is a super talented painter, but after losing his father at an early age, he had to work to support his family, and never got a chance to paint. Nowadays, at the age of seventy, after his retirement which coincided with the pandemic, he started again, after the whole family encouraged him.

I became a curator because I wanted to take a break after seven years of intense education in psychology, five years of BA, followed by two years of MA in social psychology. I thought I always wanted to be an academic—reading, writing, and daydreaming have always been my guilty pleasures. But I was exhausted after a long journey, by all the drama and power plays in academia. I was always interested in the arts, and I thought it’d give me the freedom to challenge any sort of hierarchical structure. I realized shortly after, that at the end of the day, a curator is also therapist, a shoulder to cry on, someone you can rely on, or at least that is who I strive to be—a non-judgmental deep listener. And if we are both lucky, me and my fellow artists get to be partners-in-crime in our thinking and acting.

For me, writing and curating are co-dependent. One cannot exist without the other. Often, I process complex ideas by writing them down, journaling almost every day, taking endless notes on my phone. Most of the time these notes become seeds for my curatorial projects. I swing between being an extrovert and introvert so curating and writing tap into these different characteristics. Curating is an ongoing dialogue with artists, artworks, installation teams, co-curators, and many other collaborators—in curating, I am never alone. In writing though, one is left alone with an empty page. It requires a room for one’s own, which we should acknowledge is a privilege also, not granted to everyone. And still, I have to say I have been lucky. In the last years, we have been engaging in a collaborative writing experiment with my collective, Collective Çukurcuma. And, both my co-partners, Mine Kaplangi and Serhat Cacekli, and also artist friends, with whom we have been in an ongoing collaboration for years, feed me with ideas in these experiments. We question the authority of the voice, and work on a writing methodology that is beyond genres and subjectivities, that does not necessarily distinguish “I” from “you.” Here is an example, published in Droste Effect, which we wrote for our FLOW OUT exhibition at Bilsart, in Istanbul, in 2019, inviting art collective Istanbul Queer Art Collective and artist Funa Ye.

House of Wisdom Berlin
Artist Sumer Sayin’s book launch, House of Wisdom Public Programming, Berlin, 2016

Çukurcuma. In 2015, Mine Kaplangi and I were having wine at a pizzeria in Çukurcuma—a neighborhood of Istanbul, where we met and worked for many years. After the first bottle, we decided that we needed to do something together—as simple as that. It was right after the Gezi Park Movement, a wave of demonstrations in 2013 contesting the urban development plan for the park. I think we felt this urge to create a platform for our generation to come together, and keep the feeling of community alive. We try to carry that initial intention in every project. Collective Çukurcuma is a place to experiment, to fail, to talk to each other for hours over wine, it is a space for small victories. One project which I am glad has been going on for three years now is our reading group. We started this project with our writer and curator friend Gökcan Demirkazık. We have been meeting every two weeks with a group of participants at our homes, cafes, restaurants, street corners, just discussing what we read. This turned into a support system in times of crisis, and a horizontal learning environment despite the hierarchies of the art world. We introduce specific reading lists to a young and emerging generation of art professionals, artists, and writers. It was great to do these reading groups as part of the Istanbul Biennial and Istanbul Design Biennial, and to reach out to a wider audience of international art professionals and to the public. Besides that, we collaborate internationally with other curators and pair artists to open up a space for dialogue, you can read about our projects, such as “Survival Kit” in 2017, in Yekaterinburg and Istanbul; “Asymmetric Kin” in Nashville and Istanbul, in 2016; and “IdentityLab Project” in Turkey and Sweden, and many others on our website. Currently, we are working on a reading list for the Asian Art Museum and on an article commissioned by Apexart (a collection of essays addressing collaborative curating). Also, we just opened our community library at the permaculture initiative EKBİÇYEİÇ in Kurtuluş, Istanbul. It is a library to exchange art books for free, we are super excited!

On the spectrum between spontaneity and premeditation, it’s premeditation for me. My life requires me to be very organized. I come from a loving middle-class family, and I am proud to say that I have been financially supporting myself since I started college. I really want to note this here because I feel like it often goes unnoticed in the art world. If you want to support yourself financially and do the projects you love to do, it is a hustle. I always worked a lot, and experienced burn-out as most of us do, working full-time jobs at institutions while also grant-writing for independent projects. But I am lucky to be supported by an amazing community, friends, family, colleagues, who always held me when I felt like falling. And I am lucky that they remind me the beauty of the spontaneity as well. It has always been a privilege to be part of Collective Çukurcuma, and to be surrounded by amazing otherworldly collaborators.

"Asymmetric Kin" opening, Mixer, Istanbul, 2016
“Asymmetric Kin” opening, Mixer, Istanbul, 2016

I never curate an exhibition without Collective Çukurcuma’s brain juice.

The major curatorial theme for me is collaboration, this question that Vietnamese filmmaker Trinh T Minh-ha, asks: How can we speak nearby rather than speak about? Collaboration took me to different thematic harbors. Chronologically: the power of libraries as public spaces; Borges; the political and sociological dynamics defining our cities and ourselves; political survival kits in the context of self-censorship; the House of Wisdom in 8th century Baghdad; monuments in ever-transforming cities; ghosts, or hauntology, as described by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and their nostalgia for a past that never was; new identities that transform places; angry kittens as political resistance; gardens as sanctuaries and their non-human habitants; more about libraries; imagining eco-feminist futures and alternative world-building methodologies; speculative fiction writer Ursula K Le Guin; artist and writer Etel Adnan; and ecofeminist scholar Donna Haraway; among many others. These themes are all interconnected to each other, and show what me and my collaborators are worried about at a given moment, and what keeps us awake at night. Curating is a way of survival.

As an artist advisor for the Joan Mitchell Foundation (JMF), I have been conducting virtual one-on-one studio visits for the Foundation’s grant recipients, which is designed to help the artists reach their artistic and professional career goals. Specifically, I advise in topics related to connecting with art writers and art professionals, writing artist statements, publicizing exhibitions, and applying for grants, fellowships, or residencies. Eventually, these conversations sparked a blog entry in 2018, titled “How to build and maintain a relationship with a curator over time, and why it’s important”, commissioned by the JMF, and discussing how it takes two to tango when it comes to curators and artists. In this short article, I discuss the role of love, care, and patience in nourishing these relationships. I learned a lot from the JMF regarding how to build and flourish an institution, based on care in artits-curator relationships, which is sometimes easier said than done in the art world.

"Flow Out", Bilsart, Istanbul, 2019
“Flow Out”, Bilsart, Istanbul, 2019

The best advice I ever got, was about what is research. “It can be anything. It does not have to be sitting in front of your laptop, reading for hours, it can be a walk in the park or a conversation with a friend.” I got the privilege to be a student of Claudia La Rocco, at CCA’s curatorial practice program in San Francisco, and I learned so much from her. This comment was just the most eye-opening for me. It majorly transformed my approach to writing.

And the worse advice I ever got was ”I think you won’t be able to succeed in the arts, you’d do better in psychology.” It was the worst because nobody should be so discouraging to anyone, but also now that I look at it, I can see that it does not have to be one way or another. Recently, I started a certificate program in psychoanalysis, why not? This interest led me to develop an exhibition project about mythological creatures to open at Slashart in San Francisco, this coming spring. This project looks closer at dreams, magic, and miracles, perceived as belonging to the realm of fantasy, and ridiculed by the Western analytical thought, that sees it as inferior.

I have been accidentally growing an orchid for a year. My landlord gifted me one last year. I never cared for one before. And she has been surprising me with new baby sprouts every month since then. You just need a moist environment, some direct sunlight, I think, because I am really no orchid expert. It only requires some water when the soil gets dry—so really it’s a dialogue, and patience. Just watch from a bit of distance, do not interfere with your human-ego unless the orchid wants you to, this lady has been teaching me all about surviving indoors during pandemic.

"Ghosts" tour, Redbull Art Around Arnavutkoy, Istanbul, 2018. Photograhy Nazli Erdiremirel
“Ghosts” tour, Redbull Art Around Arnavutkoy, Istanbul, 2018. Photograhy Nazli Erdiremirel

I have been based in San Francisco for the last two years and I used to travel to Istanbul every six months. After the pandemic, I could not really go back home, which has been hard to navigate psychologically. One thing I learned is to talk to friends and family frequently, to get a sense of home and calibrate myself.

The perfect future invention would be a teleportation device. I miss home.

I keep sane by going to karaoke with the CC team and friends. During the pandemic, it’s replaced by going to the Golden Gate Park for a walk or camping at the Yuba River on the weekends. I am grateful for having access to such close beautiful (and complex) landscapes in California.

When I am not working in the art world you can find me in my garden in San Francisco, having a nonsense dialogue with roses and birds.

If I were an art collector I would collect work by women artists, artists of color, and emerging artists—we need to change the art history narrative that has been taken for granted for so long.

If I wasn’t curating I would be a librarian. Aren’t librarians just the nicest, most understanding people on earth? I am not sure whether I’d even be close to the bar which they set out to be so high, but I’d try.

Naz Cuguoğlu

Independent curator

San Francisco, US, and Istanbul, Turkey


Naz Cuguoğlu is a curator and art writer, based in San Francisco and Istanbul. She is the co-founder of “Collective Çukurcuma,” experimenting with collaborative thinking processes through its reading group meetings and international collaborative exhibitions. She held fellowship positions at the KADIST and the Wattis Institute; researcher positions at de Young Museum and SFMOMA Public Knowledge; and worked as a projects and exhibitions manager at Zilberman Gallery, Maumau Art Residency, and Mixer. Since 2017, she has been working as an artist advisor for Joan Mitchell Foundation. Her writings have been featured in SFMOMA Open Space, Art Asia Pacific, Hyperallergic, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art,, and elsewhere. She received her BA in Psychology and MA in Social Psychology from Koç University, and another MA from California College of the Arts’ Curatorial Practice program.
She has curated exhibitions internationally, at institutions such as The Wattis Institute (San Francisco), 15th Istanbul Biennial Public Program, Framer Framed (Amsterdam), Kunstraum Leipzig, Red Bull Art Around Istanbul, among many others. Her writing has been featured in SFMOMA Open Space, Art Asia Pacific, Hyperallergic, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, and elsewhere. She co-edited three books: After Alexandria, the Flood (Umur: 2015), Between Places (Verkstad Konsthall: 2016), and The Word for World is Forest (The Wattis Institute: 2020), and presented at institutions such as SALT (Istanbul), Norköpping Art Museum, Contemporary Art Center (New Orleans), and Curb Event Center (Nashville).

Art critic and writer.

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