Notable female firsts in Turkish arts


Women have made the world a better place, through their hard work and determination, whether as teachers, writers, homemakers or pioneers. While the relationship between a mother and a child highlights the importance of women in the continuity of life, the crucial roles they play in the development of societies have always been obvious to discerning eyes.

An old photo of Afife Jale. (Sabah file photo)

Thanks to their scientific work, anthropologists have been able to prove that it was women who allowed the start of ancient civilizations. They were the first to make clay pots and to invent the rope. They also discovered fire and edible plants and thought of combining the two to make food. In other words, life would not be possible without women.

In more modern times, where they were often incomprehensibly ignored or relegated to the background, women broke stereotypes, proving that they could achieve anything they wanted. Thus, women have always been the key agents of development and change. To appreciate the power of women in the run-up to International Women’s Day on March 8, we’ve compiled a list of pioneering Turkish artists in their field.

First woman in contemporary painting

Mihri Müşfik Hanım, born in Istanbul in 1886, is the first contemporary Turkish female painter. Having received a European education, she is interested in literature, music and painting.

Mihri Musfik Hanim.  (Sabah file photo)

Mihri Musfik Hanim. (Sabah file photo)

Müşfik was trained by Fausto Zonaro, the palace painter during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II. Focusing on portraits and figures in her paintings, she combined European and Turkish styles in her brushstrokes. His portraits bear traces of cubism and expressionism, which were the current styles of his time.

The artist has also worked as an instructor in many girls’ workshops, including Istanbul Darülmuallima (Girls’ Teachers’ College) and Fine Arts Academy for Girls (Inas Sanayi-i Nefise Mektebi). Among the artists she has trained are Nazlı Ecevit, Aliye Berger and Fahrelnissa Zeid.

First female sculptor

Turkey’s first female sculptor was Sabiha Ziya Bengütaş. Born in Istanbul in 1904, Bengütaş has been interested in fine arts since childhood. In order to improve her skills, she enrolled in the painting department of Istanbul Academy of Fine Arts (Sanayi-i Nefise Mektebi) in 1920. After a year, she began to study sculpture at the same school. as the top student in the class. .

Sabiha Ziya Bengütaş poses with a dog.  (Sabah file photo)

Sabiha Ziya Bengütaş poses with a dog. (Sabah file photo)

Sabiha’s passion for sculpture and her enthusiasm led her to learn the secrets of the trade quite quickly. Benefiting from a state scholarship, she also managed to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, Italy.

The artist made sculptures and busts of many personalities, including Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey and Ismet Inönü, Turkey’s second president.

Woman behind the camera

Armenian-born Maryam Şahinyan was the first female studio photographer in Turkey. Born in Şahinyan Mansion in the central province of Sivas in 1911, Maryam and her family moved to Istanbul and adapted to a new lifestyle in the republican era of the Turkish Republic.

After her mother’s sudden death, Maryam had to quit school and help her father support the family. His father Mihran was interested in photography and had a studio named Galatasaray Photography Studio in Beyoğlu. Maryam ran this studio until 1985.

Maryam Sahinyan.  (Courtesy of Salt Galata)

Maryam Sahinyan. (Courtesy of Salt Galata)

Another first in the art of photography was that of Yıldız Moran who was the first female professional photographer with a college education. Moran was born on July 24, 1932 in Istanbul. After dropping out of Robert College in her final year in 1950, she traveled to Britain to study photography. She studied photography at Bloomsbury Technical College from 1950 to 1952 and then at Ealing Technical College. She then became an assistant to the famous photographer John Vickers at the Old Vic Theatre.

Moran has successfully combined the technical and theoretical knowledge she acquired in school with her experience in studio and stage photography. Her first exhibition was in Cambridge in 1953, and she held five more exhibitions in London in 1954. Her exhibitions aroused much interest. Moran is known as one of the best photographers of all time for the new perspective and aesthetics she introduced to photography.

An old photo of Semiha Berksoy.  (Sabah file photo)

An old photo of Semiha Berksoy. (Sabah file photo)

First prima donna

Turkey’s first opera singer was Semiha Berksoy, born in Istanbul in 1910. Studying music and visual arts at the Istanbul Conservatory, Berksoy was also a painter at the same time. She started her career with the role of a character named “Semiha” in the first Turkish sound film “Istanbul Sokaklarında” (“In the streets of Istanbul”), directed by Muhsin Ertuğrul in 1931. Being cast in operettas in Istanbul theaters, she later performed in the first Turkish opera “Özsoy” in 1934, commissioned by Atatürk and composed by Adnan Saygun. Rewarded with the opportunity to attend the Berlin Academy of Music for further training, Berksoy then rose to international fame, becoming the first Turkish prima donna to perform on stage in Europe.

woman on stage

Having made her name as the first Muslim actress on the Turkish stage, Afife Jale quickly rose to fame. Born in 1902 in Istanbul, she was admitted to the theater department of the Istanbul Conservatory. As her father was against her acting career, she left home. Afife appeared before the public with the role of Emel in the play “Yamalar” by Hüseyin Suat, which was staged at the Apollon Theater (now Rexx Cinema) in the Kadıköy district of Istanbul, in 1920. Then playing her first role under the alias “Jale,” she became known as Afife Jale.

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