By BRUCE DENNILL
Istanbul. Home to the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Golden Horn, the Grand Bazaar, the Topkapi Palace and dozens of other world-famous tourist attractions, it’s also riddled with side roads; non-descript, non-guidebook diversions that are often as interesting – or more so – as the huge, ancient architecture surrounding them.
Sultanahmed, the old city, is the epicentre for such unofficial draws. It’s a compact area, wedged in between a modern highway, the Bosphorus and a couple of hills on which people have lived in civilised structures for longer than almost anywhere else on Earth. If you’re on foot, the gradient eventually funnels you down the slope, away from the big squares, through residential areas and into thoroughfares like El Sanatlari Merkezi, a street narrow enough that cars need to park on the pavement.
Unremarkable as it is, it is home to a small shop and gallery that is notable, the Cemal Toy Art Gallery. The place is as packed as the streets around it, littered with framed pictures of varying sizes, bits of untreated canvas and parchment, paintbrushes brewing in different solvents and other paraphernalia – rolls of tape; air conditioner remotes; a cellphone – all splattered with paint.
At a desk at the back of the shop sits a young man, taking occasional sips from a cup of cold coffee as he concentrates on incising lines into a flattened bamboo sheet, bringing to prominence the faint sketch already marked on the surface.
It doesn’t occur to me that he might be Cemal Toy – Turkish names, to my South African ear, are just more exotic words juxtaposed in unexpected ways, so for all I know, that term could have something to do with the paintings on the walls, or be the local equivalent of “Acme Frame Depot”.
But the young artist’s demeanour suggests something different. He’s palpably proud of what he’s doing – in the sense that he knows it’s valuable (there is no hint of arrogance). He tells me his name but asks that I don’t publish it, explaining that he is merely an apprentice, minding the gallery on behalf of and carrying out the duties apportioned him by the man he refers to as his master: Cemal Toy.
It’s a scenario not many would envisage in the 21st century. Surely such practices – in trades such as painting and sculpture, particularly – belong to another age? The Renaissance, perhaps? My digital camera and cellphone suddenly feel somewhat out of place. They’re wired to make things quicker – supposedly easier – but even the smartest programmer can’t add the soul personified by this teenager who sits in an art shop, learning a craft that in many Western mindsets would see him marked as barely employable for a “real” job.
Toy, it turns out, is a graduate of a local institution: Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. Let that sink in. A university, dedicated to fine arts? A fad, surely. No – it was founded in 1882 and has been training artists, architects and experts in associated fields ever since. Toy is a beneficiary of a philosophy that prizes art, and is ensuring that this culture is propagated by giving talent from the next generation not only the skills needed to create works of beauty and commercial appeal, but the knowledge of the heritage that informs them.
Toy’s stated influences are Turkish miniatures of the Ottoman period and the way traditional Turkish carpet makers can tell stories with their designs. These are fairly common inspirations in this part of the world – Toy’s is one of dozens of shops and marketing stalls featuring depictions of Istanbul’s striking “whirling dervishes”; dancers who spin while wearing easily recognisable outfits as part of the Mevlevi (an order that is part of the mystical Sufi school of thought under the general banner of Islam) Sema ceremony.
But Toy – and his modest assistant – invest in more modern artistic notions as well, with one interesting piece comprising a number of small silhouettes populating a group of hexagonal spaces, creating the impression of an elegant party being held in a beehive. Elsewhere, beautifully detailed watercolours of Istanbul skylines and views offer tourists souvenirs more tasteful than the fridge magnets and T-shirts they’re likely to have thrust into their hands elsewhere.
Perhaps a greater gift to the visitor, though, is the ethos on which the Cemal Toy Art Gallery seems to be built. Every major city has small galleries scattered throughout its suburbs. But those usually feel like retail spaces, not training grounds; like markers for dreams that have been sullied by the realities of bond repayments rather than hubs in which passions are explored and built upon.
Head back to the major attractions up the hill later – you must; there’s much to admire. But linger in Istanbul’s side roads too. The return on investment is different, but wonderfully satisfying.