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Rebuilding Queer History: Orientalism and Queer Art

As part of the Queer Art article series, Eran Sabaner exposes the complex relationship between Orientalism and queer art.

Sarp Kerem Yavuz, Pray, 2016.

Over the last 20 years, queer Turkish artists have appropriated Ottoman materials, media, techniques, and props to depict queer narratives and themes. The most well-known examples of this would be Taner Ceylan’s Lost Paintings series (2010-2013), Kutluğ Ataman’s video works Turkish Delight (2007) and Double Roasted (2007) as well as Ferzan Özpetek’s Turco-Italian melodrama Steam (1997). Furthermore, neo-Ottoman style is embraced by more emerging artists such as Sarp Kerem Yavuz and Sinan Tuncay.

Ottoman style in contemporary Turkish queer art is the subject of my undergraduate thesis. Although the motivation behind adopting this particular style is way too nuanced for me to explain in this brief article, I believe two reasons stand out the most: As a response to the government’s rhetoric of the neo-Ottoman politics and identity construction, these artists actively resist the erasure of (male) queerness from the Ottoman Empire’s history. Yet, they are also challenged by Western Orientalist narratives regarding homosexuality and respond to the Orientalist history of queerness. 

The purpose of this article is to expose the complex relationship between Orientalism and queer art. Queer artists try to undermine Orientalist ideology by appropriating Orientalist imagery. The tropes they adopt exaggerate and parody the East/ West binary. Furthermore, by subscribing to these imageries, Turkish artists try to survive the Eurocentric artworld. 

Adopting Orientalist imagery has its own dangers. Orientalist imagery helps Eastern artists distinguish themselves in the Western-dominated art world, conforming to the commonly held beliefs of the West in order to be accepted. Thus, Orientalism allows Turkish artists to be recognized in the international art scene at the cost of fetishization. Such a struggle is observed most explicitly among diaspora artists or artists who work or reside abroad. When appropriating from Ottoman history, queer artists are subjected to the task of distinguishing the “real” Ottoman from the Orientalist narratives. Such an obligation, as well as Orientalism’s relationship with the history of queerness in the region, require artists to confront Orientalism. 

Contemporary Turkish artists look into the history of homosexuality in the Ottoman Empire when constructing a queer, Ottoman identity. Yet, the queer history of the empire is often muddled by Orientalist tropes, as Western travel accounts are oftentimes used as primary resources for research on Ottoman homosexuality. Academics such as Dror Ze’evi consider Western travel accounts to be dubious resources, due to both the authors’ intentions and the privileged position they have in the Ottoman society. Many travel accounts view the Ottoman Empire as the Oriental “other,” and often contrast it with the sexually “pure” Europe. 

Edward Said writes in his book Orientalism that for many Westerners, including Flaubert, the Orient was a place where one could practice sexuality the way they could not in Europe. In other words, in the Orient, Westerners enjoyed the freedom of “licentious sex.”168 This was partially due to the Westerners’ assumptions of the East, but also the law system of the Ottoman Empire. As Peter Drucker explains each ethnic/religious group had its own jurisdiction in the Ottoman empire. According to the millet sistemi, Muslims, Jews, Armenians, Greeks and the Western “Franks” had separate courts. Although other courts punished sodomy (liwat in Arabic), the Western aristocrats who travelled the Empire were more liberated than the Muslim Turks in comparison. 

Not only the Orientalist scholars are responsible for misrepresenting the sexuality of the Ottoman Empire, but they also dismiss localized models of sexuality in the Empire. For example, Khaled El-Rouayheb argues that the contemporary Western language of the homosexual does not fit with the norms of the Middle East in this period. He argues that Middle Eastern sexuality distinguishes homosexual love from homosexual sex and men in “dominant” sexual positions from men in “passive” sexual positions. For example, when engaging in same-sex intercourse, the penetrator is thought to be committing a sin, while the penetrated is thought to have an illness. All these nuances counteract the belief that the Ottoman Empire had a more progressive position on homosexuality than its Western counterparts. Instead of a place of licentious sex, the Ottoman Empire had its own localized culture, in which sexual norms and abnorms were coded arguably on equally problematic terms. 

In addition to being faced the task of separating queer history from Orientalist discourses, Turkish queer artists have to address how Orientalism is present in their own artistic production. To confront Orientalism, Turkish queer artists apply the theories of self-Orientalism, parody, and third space to their work. However, these theories do not necessarily serve to eradicate Orientalism, nor the Oriental/Occidental binary. Conversely, Turkish queer artists that utilize these theories recognize the binary, as well as Orientalism’s presence in their art. Their goal instead, is to repurpose the main function of the binary. By appropriating Orientalism in their own particular way, they reject and disperse the notion that the Oriental is an idea that serves primarily to define what Europe is.


Ferzan Özpetek’s debut film Steam (1997) (Fig 12.) features explicit Orientalist tropes that are observed as part of the visual and the narrative. The movie follows an Italian couple’s (Francesco and Marta) journey to Istanbul, and their personal enlightenment as they spend time in this “mystical” land. What is distinguishable about Steam is how anything pertaining to modernity is absent. Apartments are run down, but neighborly relations are alive; the city is decaying but history and beauty are to be found amidst the chaos. We only see a glimpse of high rises (that in reality, inhabit most of the city center) when an evil real estate developer wants to gentrify the neighborhood for profit.

Moreover, serving as the chronotope is a Turkish bath, or hamam. Originally owned by Francesco’s aunt and neglected by the modern Turks, Francesco (and later Marta) attempts to preserve Turkish culture by running the hamam. The hamam becomes a place where Francesco can fulfill his homosexual fantasies.

Ferzan Özpetek’s debut film Steam (1997)

Visually, Ferzan Özpetek’s hamam is a homoerotic space. The color palette of the shots featuring the hamam tend to be blue and violet tones, connoting boyish and perhaps sensual energy. Figures are blocked distantly from each other, which allows privacy and the steam coming from the bath fogs the eyesight. The isolated space permits Francesco to discover his sexuality more openly. The homoeroticism observed at the hamam links back to Orientalism. Hamams are highly significant spaces in Oriental narratives of queer history, as they are strictly gender- segregated and are marked as homosocial. They represent the private sphere of the Ottoman society and are the settings to Western myths related to homosexual desire. 

In his article “Byron and Ottoman Love,” Peter Drucker retells the story of two Ottoman janissaries in Salonica who battled each other over a good-looking Jewish boy. The events escalated so quickly that the Sultan ordered 40 men from each company to be executed.

Part of the private sphere, hamams are an interest of Western Orientalist painters as well. Due to their lack of access to female bathhouses, Orientalists imagine Turkish bathhouses as a place where passive nude beauty is observed along with lesbianism.183 By adhering to the binary of the Occident/Orient, painters such as Gérôme and Debant-Ponsan are able to produce works of art that explore desire and deviant sexuality that arguably objectifies the female body. 

Ferzan Özpetek’s debut film Steam (1997)

As Girelli suggests, Orientalist tropes are utilized in Steam as a tool to re-invent the Turkish identity, and the Orient is “a revisiting of something once intimately known” from Özpetek’s past. In the Orientalist discourse, Western identity is defined through the imagined experience of the “other,” and the Oriental becomes the negative self. Anything that the West is not, appears as the Orient. However, in Steam, Özpetek defines the self through the “other” that is the self’s past. Özpetek’s self is not in opposition to the other: Girelli writes that constructing Turkey as the other is not the rejection of Turkish identity but rather a dislocation. In other words, Özpetek locates Turkishness from one end of the binary (the self) to the other, (the Oriental). Özpetek’s attempts could be interpreted as a way of practicing self-Orientalism. However, self-Orientalism, in this case, is to create a binary between the old location and the new one, both pertaining to the self. Özpetek is vocal about his decision to remove the “modern” from Istanbul because he seeks to remember the past through his films. Orientalism is a language that enables Özpetek to remember that past and the past allows the formation of the new self. 


Taner Ceylan’s 1553 and Kutluğ Ataman’s Turkish Delight are two separate works that depict two male figures dressed in female Ottoman attire. Although these works are in different media and have distinctive narratives, they both use gender and gender(ed) norms to critique Orientalism. 1553 is a hyperrealist painting featuring the artist Taner Ceylan’s partner covered in a transparent veil that has silver and gray floral motifs embroiled on it. Although we see the figure from the profile, his head is slightly turned to the right and his gaze is directed at the viewer. He appears unfazed, almost irritated. Yet, behind him, the enormous splatter of blood suggests this is a scene of a murder. 

In fact, in a surrealist twist to the otherwise impressively photographic quality of the painting, Ceylan’s face appears to blend in with the trail behind him. Ceylan’s nonchalance admits guilt, his hands are in blood. Within the Western context, the imagery in Ceylan’s painting would most likely be interpreted as a reference to Lady Macbeth. Yet, the piece alludes to a real-life tragedy that caused immense chaos in the Ottoman court, which was the execution of Şehzade Mustafa. Threatened by his eldest son’s military skills, and paranoid that he would take over the throne, Kanuni Sultan Süleyman ordered Mustafa to be executed. Many believe that the person that influenced Süleyman’s decision was Hürrem Sultan, or Roxelana, a Polish slave who became a mistress to Kanuni, and later his wife. Wanting her own children to be the next recipient of the throne, Roxelana might have convinced Süleyman to go forward with the execution. 

Taner Ceylan, 1553, 215×140 cm, oil on canvas, 2011.

In contemporary Turkey, Hürrem Sultan is one of the most well-known female figures in Ottoman history. For many, Hürrem Sultan is marked as femme fatale, smart and conniving enough to move from the ranks of a slave girl to the sultan’s wife. The figure’s enactment of Hürrem Sultan not only warps gender expectations, but also critiques the stereotype of the passive woman depicted in Orientalist images. His choice to dress his subject as her reflects his admiration of powerful female figures that reject the fate attributed to them. 

The high technical skill, attention to detail and dramatic effect of Taner Ceylan’s 1553 is missing in Kutluğ Ataman’s Turkish Delight, yet perhaps that is the intention. Throughout the video, in front of a simple black setting, Ataman dances to an “Oriental” darbuka rhythm wearing a belly dancer’s costume easily sold at your local tourist trap. To heighten his “look,” he sports a black wig, a golden tiara, and heels. His flat chest and lack of makeup evidence that this a low effort drag at best. To full comedic effect, he attempts to dance without any technical knowledge: at some point, he points his fingers upwards and grooves in true rock and roll fashion. It also appears that he is chewing gum during his performance, showing clear inattentiveness to his performance. Although the title Turkish Delight adheres to the clichés of Orientalist desire, eroticism is nowhere to be found in Ataman’s performance. Ataman draws a stark contrast to actual belly dancing performances that take center in Orientalists’ fantasy of sexually liberated East. That said, it is true that belly dancing, whether it took stage in the Orientalists’ fantasies or not, was an entertainment form that was linked to erotic desire in the Ottoman Empire. 

Kutluğ Ataman, Turkish Delight, 2007

In addition to the binaries attributed to gender and geographic location, both 1553 and Turkish Delight parody their own medium. Turkish Delight merges video art with traditional dance and costume, creating an anachronism between the two art forms. The source of each medium is opposing as well: video is essentially a Western invention while belly dancing is part of the local culture. In a similar vein, Taner Ceylan’s hyperrealist painting appears to imitate photography, blending the two media. While current technology would easily allow Ceylan to capture the same effect with a camera, he relies on traditional figurative painting instead. It is notable that his choice of medium is more associated with Western art (in fact figurative painting is almost never identified as Eastern) and it is positioned in the West. When thought in relation to Ceylan’s other works (more specifically his Golden Age series which is inspired by Greek myths) there are similarities in narratives across different periods and cultures).

Ceylan and Ataman’s attempts to parody, exaggerate and subvert Orientalist binaries could be explained through the idea of reclamation. In the Orientalist discourse, reclamation could be used in relation to Said’s third definition of Orientalism, which is the West’s authority and dominance over the East. Thus, in many ways, the West claims the Oriental culture. I describe reclamation as the act of appropriating and transforming Orientalist tropes to redefine and reposition “the Other.” By re-expropriating, the artists still recognize the binary of Occident/Orient, yet they actively critique such construction, often with humor. This idea might be resonant with queer studies that actively resist and subvert what is normative. Although often thought to be related to the queer community and thus homonormativity, queer studies could be used as a methodology for deconstructing binaries. Attempting to subvert normative narratives, Ceylan and Ataman are surely informed by both post-colonialism and queer studies. 

Third Space 

Sarp Kerem Yavuz’s Masallah series (Figs. 15,16) features photos of male nude models that have various Islamic patterns projected onto them. Most of these patterns are of vegetal motifs, and they are most likely appropriated from İznik ceramics and tiles. Similar to Ceylan and Ataman’s blend of media that is attributed traditionally to the Occident/West, Masallah series combines the Western, representational figure with the Oriental, non-representational motifs in a homoerotic style. What’s particular about Yavuz’s work is the unique way his subjects are positioned, and how his work is lighted. The men in Yavuz’s series perform both femininity and masculinity in their poses, at times they do not perform either. Rather, their positions look uncomfortable and awkward, or in some cases animalistic. Furthermore, in some of the images bodies are lighted in a confusing way and it is difficult to identify which body part the viewer is supposed to be looking at. In some cases, several bodies are intertwined, and it is almost impossible to separate them from each other. In general, the series creates excitement and reproduces desire, but it does so without relying on a specific code or sign. An air of ambiguity is present throughout each image. 

Sarp Kerem Yavuz, Hatun, 2016

I argue that with such a layer of ambiguity, Sarp Kerem Yavuz practices Homi Bhabha’s theory of third space. In his book The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha touches upon the problem of Eurocentrism in cultural diversity and the liberal view of multiculturalism. Finding alternatives that counter multiculturalism, Bhabha advocates the enunciation of cultural difference, which “problematizes the binary division of past and present, tradition and modernity, at the level of cultural representation and its authoritative address.” He further elaborates his view, with the introduction of the theory of third space. To Bhabha, third space is unpresentable in itself, because the symbols of culture do not have unity. To him “signs can be appropriated, translated, rehistoricized and read anew.” Sarp Kerem Yavuz’s images are open for interpretation and in flux the same way third space is. They are ambiguous because the cultural signs they rely on do not recognize the binary. In a way, Sarp Kerem Yavuz displays homoeroticism as the unpresentable, unbounded by any categories and sociopolitical binaries.

In an interview with Jonathan Rutherford, Bhabba comments on the political implications of third space, ultimately stating that third space displaces the histories that constitute it. Yavuz’s use of ambiguity in his work is arguably political, as it distorts the Orientalist history of Ottoman queerness as well as traces of Orientalism in contemporary Eastern works. The third space created by Masallah calls for new power structures that eliminate the binaries created by Orientalism.


The queer Turkish artists discussed above all have hybrid identities that allow them to tackle the essentialist notion of binaries, most importantly the binary of the Orient/Occident. As artists seeking visibility and acceptance in their home countries as well as the international art scene, they appropriate Ottoman style as a way of constructing identity, in a very complex way than Islamists do. In queer artists’ case, Orientalism is intertwined with the very history they appropriate, which results in them to seek theories that confront Orientalism. Ferzan Özpetek utilizes self-Orientalism in his film Steam. Taner Ceylan and Kutluğ Ataman use parody in their works 1553 and Turkish Delight while Sarp Kerem Yavuz’s series Masallah is inspired by the ideas of third space. None of these theories disregard the existence of the Orient/Occident binary. Instead, they repurpose and negotiate the binary to serve their own agenda. As their identities are informed by intersectionalism, contemporary Turkish queer artists have the power to redefine the power of hybridity and diminish the presence of Orientalism from the queer history of the Ottoman Empire. 

Works Cited 

Ataman, Kutluğ. İçimdeki Düşman (The Enemy Inside Me) Turkish Delight (2007) 

Batuman, Elif. “Ottomania.” The New Yorker, February 24, 2014. 50-58. 

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London, New York, 1994. 

Çakırlar, Cüneyt. Taner Ceylan Sotheby’s Catalogue Note. 2011.

Drucker, Peter. “Byron and Ottoman love: Orientalism, Europeanization and same- sex sexualities in the early nineteenth-century Levant.” Journal of European Studies 42, no.2 (2012): 140-157.

El-Rouayheb, Khaled. Before Homosexuality in the ArabIslamic World, 1500–1800. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Girelli, Elisabetta. “Transnational Orientalism: Ferzan Özpetek’s Turkish dream in Hamam.” New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 5, no.1 (2007): 23-38. 

Murray, O. Stephen. “Homosexuality in the Ottoman Empire.” Historical Reflections/ Réflexions Historiques 33, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 101-116. 

Nochlin, Linda. “The Imaginary Orient” in The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society, New York, Harper and Row Publishers. 

Peirce, Leslie. Empress of the East, New York: Basic Books, 2017. 

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books. 1979. 

Ze’evi, Dror. Producing Desire: Changing Sexual Discourse in the Ottoman Middle East, 1500- 1900. California: University of California Press, 2006.

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