Ron Hoenig interviews a gutsy gallery owner and reflects on mirrors, courage and the process of engraving ourselves on each other. (Image source: The Main Gallery via SA Attractions)

By Ron Hoenig | @ronhoen

Turkish artist and gallery owner Ozlem Yeni has a huge appetite for life, seemingly boundless confidence, and the courage to open her Halifax Street location, The Main Gallery, on the day the city went into lockdown in November 2020.

A former lecturer in performing arts and stage design, Yeni says the gallery focuses on the art of culturally diverse groups, bridging countries and people.

Pictured: Ozlem Yeni, seated. (Image source: Ron Hoenig)

Yeni has short, dark, razor-cut hair and is wearing bright red drop earrings. There is a single long lock of hair curling to just above her waist, as if it has other lives to live.

“It is for everyone from diverse backgrounds, both locally and internationally,” she says.

The most recent exhibition, A Fresh Breeze, was a group exhibition of six Turkish artists: Asli Canpolat, Esra Kavci Ozdemir, Firat Neziroglu, Hande Kilicarslan, Mahir Kurtulan and Yeni herself.

Each artist uses traditional Anatolian art techniques but using materials more associated with western approaches.

In A Fresh Breeze, she explains, “the artists are using traditional Turkish art styles, but they are making them contemporary”.

She decided to join the exhibition with her Turkish friends and wanted for the first time to show her own heritage.

“This is the first time I’ve used Turkish motifs in my design.

“I built a person with the mirrors. It has a head, it had a body, it has a heart, it has a chest. So, this is me, but it can be anyone because you can’t see the gender. But when you see the detail, it has a mirror and it has an engraving on it.

She researched the meanings of the symbols and chose the ones that reflect her life story.

“Artists are the bridge between the traditional and the contemporary. They are adding a personal touch and a personal story,” she says.

Each, she says, reflects a part of her. The symbols reflect her culture, and when a viewer looks into the mirror, it reflects the viewer, but the symbol is engraved on the viewer’s reflection.

“Everybody can be a mirror, but everybody has an engraving of others on themselves. I can be part of their heritage,” she says.

The traditional Anatolian graphics include the ramshorn, running water, hands on hips, tree of life, wheat, pomegranate and dragon. Each has specific meanings.

For example, a gigantic snake-like dragon safeguards treasury and secret possessions. It is the sacred symbol of the creation of the world; this magnificent creature with a golden harness brings fertile rains and protects heaven. Representing immortality, and for guarding, protecting and occasionally healing.

The mirrors come with cards explaining the complex meanings of the symbols.

“Turkish people use these motifs to tell a story. They use the symbols everywhere. They use them in wall painting, on the chimneys, on tiles, on carpets, rugs, anything.

Pictured: Yeni reflected in her mirrors (Image source: Ron Hoenig)

“When you see it, you are reading the story of the person who is telling a story via the motifs.

“I am on a journey and my story hasn’t finished. That’s why when I’m selling the pieces, I’m not selling the whole person. I’m selling the individual pieces, because I’m sharing the part of my story and it can be replaced.”

I’m surprised. How can you replace the part that’s lost?

“I will make another mirror. I will change the motif and I will put something else there because I am changing and growing,” she says.

“I’m on a journey. I’m not finished. When someone buys a mirror, they take a part of my story with them and put it into their room.”

Time is on her mind and mine. “I’m 46, nearly 50,” she says.

When I first met her a few days earlier I’d told her, “I’m 71, and my wife of 40 years died two years ago.”

There was something about the intimacy of her mirrors with engraved symbols that provoked my revelation. Or maybe my grief is engraved on me.

Yeni says the gallery had its genesis in the early death of her mother, who died of cancer in 1988, when Yeni was 13 years old. She had been diagnosed three years earlier, but she, her sister and older brother were not told. They watched as their mother became weaker, not knowing why.

“My father knew it but didn’t tell us. They were trying to protect us, but it was so sad.

“She was like a friend. She was the carer, the love-giver. She didn’t hide anything from us.”

Grief knocked the 13-year-old girl and her family into a confrontation with the price of living.

“It wasn’t just losing my mum. I felt like I couldn’t live anymore.”

The feeling of responsibility kept Yeni living.

“When she passed away, she said to me: look after your sisters.”

The sense of responsibility to her dead mother has driven her.

“She told me not to postpone anything. When COVID happened I was so emotional. COVID had already started and a couple of months later we had a lockdown and life changed.”

Yeni and her engineer husband were cut off from extended families in Turkey and knew they had no way to return there if any family member became seriously ill.

So why start a gallery?

Perhaps because of the early death of her mother, Yeni is very aware of time.

“I was 44 and I turned 45 in January 2020,” she says.

“I always wanted to have an art gallery and I thought if I have COVID and if I’m going to die, I would love to give it a try and I can say to myself, at least I tried.”

Then she reflects.

“Because I was 45,” she says with emphasis, as if life is racing away from her. Maybe it is.

There’s something about 50. We call it middle age. But, even now, few of us live to be 100.

“I am full of the life, but life comes with everything. I don’t just choose the best part of it because if you don’t feel this sadness, how will you be grateful for the other part,” she says.

After her mother died, Yeni’s father self-isolated in his grief, but Yeni was a feisty 13-year-old. When her father said he couldn’t cope with the children and the house as well as a job and asked her to leave school and manage the house, while he remarried, she refused.

Some months later her father remarried and when Yeni was 15, her father and stepmother had another child.

Stepmums have bad press

“At the beginning we had a cold war with my stepmum,” she laughs, “but she was so patient and loving and she didn’t take anything personally. She was a great mum.

“We went back to near normal with stepmum and stepsister but I was still playing half-mum role with my sister because when we were kids we grew up with a lot of bad stories about stepmothers, so I was always protecting my sister. I was the one responsible to make sure she had a shower, brushed her hair, and got dressed.

“So, I saw the hard part of life at a very early age,” she says. “And I understand that everything depends on us, what kind of life we want to lead, we can live it.”

Yeni has packed a lot of life into her 46 years.

A few years after her mother died, she saw a psychiatrist and “built myself up”.

She had always wanted to be an artist, so she worked and saved money so she could enrol in a university in Ankara. But two years later she heard that Suleyman Demirel University in Isparta, a six hour drive from her home, was opening an art academy.

At the age of 20, she enrolled, telling her father: “No, I’m not asking your permission. I am just letting you know.”

She had done stage design in amateur theatre when she was concentrating on painting, and became a university assistant in stage design in the performing arts department.

Then she started teaching stage design at the Dokuz Eylül University at Izmir (formerly Smyrna) an almost six hour drive from Isparta on the west coast of Turkey. She finished her Masters and started her PhD on flexible theatre building.

She was soon teaching at the university and doing stage design for theatre, movies, TV shows.

In 2011, after 12 years in Izmir, she returned to the Isparta university.

In 2014, on one year’s leave without pay, she travelled to West Papua where her husband was working as an engineer in the Freeport mines. Two years later, she finally resigned from academia and left for Australia.

First stop: the Gold Coast

“It was an adventure. We loved it. So relaxing. Beautiful beaches, beautiful people, so friendly and the weather is so nice and I was like living a dream,” Yeni says about her time near Brisbane.

Soon there was a group exhibition and a solo exhibition The Mankind with the Royal Queensland Art Society.

In 2015, her husband had an offer from Mt Isa mines to be an engineer and the couple moved again to the Silver City, where she ran art classes and workshops and held exhibitions. She joined Arts on Alma, which held clay workshops, and met French-born ceramicist Michele Savoye.

“She taught me everything. I used to call her my ‘clay Google’.”

The couple stayed in Mt Isa for four years. Yeni wanted to have an exhibition in the regional gallery but found it a very old fashioned. She and her friends wrote a two-page letter to the director outlining its flaws.

Soon, the gallery was refurbished and in 2018 there was a grand re-opening with a very successful group exhibition including Aboriginal artists. Then, she had a solo show called Earthpeople, and a group show interpreting the nearby Riversleigh fossil area with her “besties”, Michele Savoye and Rowena Paine Murphy.

To date, she has had a number of solo and group exhibitions in Turkey, Japan, Australia and Albania.

In October 2019, she came to Adelaide. Some years before she had wanted to apply for a sculptural art competition in Adelaide’s parklands, but she could not enter because she was neither a permanent resident nor a resident.

“I’d read about the festival and art galleries, so we came for a site visit and I was even more certain that’s where I want to live.”

The last thing on her mind was starting an art gallery. Then a few months later COVID happened and things changed.

“I couldn’t see any reason to postpone. I’m a perfectionist and I like to organise everything perfectly when I start something, but life shook me up and said: no, you can’t be perfect!

“Life told me, ‘I’ll do the plan for you’.”

So she “took life’s lesson” and started to look for spaces. She chose a space between Hutt Street and Pulteney Street and refurbished it. Now it has a fire-engine red exterior and the large space retains its industrial concrete floor.

She sees the process of her art and her vibrant gallery as honouring the short life of her mother.

“My mum  didn’t have a long life to share so I am sharing for both of us.

“When I die, I will know that part of me is still alive and living another life.”

You can visit Yeni and appreciate her work at 156 Halifax Street, Adelaide.