The spiritual background of artist Güler Ates

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Imagine being born in eastern Turkey where many are of Armenian descent, where Muslims, Syriac Orthodox Christians, and Yazidis have lived together in harmony for centuries. Where children learn about and respect each other’s cultures and religious traditions. The many colours, fragrances, sounds and rituals are part of everyday life. Then your family has to leave and you grow up in an Istanbul shantytown until you move on to Europe. It is only in London that your interest in your background begins to grow and its importance begins to dawn on you. This is what happened to London-based artist Güler Ates, who lets East and West meet in her work that includes video, photography, graphic work and performance. With exceptional cultural sensitivity and compassion she is able to translate the situation of displaced persons and refugees into images.

Ates comes from the tradition of the Alevis, a mystical form of Islam, influenced by Sufism. The Alevis have a religious-humanist worldview based on love, respect and tolerance. They believe that all people have the essence of God within them. In Alevism, God is called ‘Hak’, which means ‘the truth’. They call each other ‘can’ (soul), a gender-neutral word, which results in an equal position of women and men in their culture. They regard God, the cosmos, and humanity as in complete unity. They believe that practicing a religion should not be at the expense of the rights of others. For the Ates family religious experience was expressed in an undogmatic approach to poetry, music and sema, the dervish dance. Her father read poems by Rumi (Persian philosopher, poet and Sufi mystic from the 13th century) and the family made music and danced the sema together. This dancing results in a powerful and personal spiritual experience, says Ates. There is a lot of freedom and there are no imposed religious laws as is often the case under Islam. Not only her culture, but also her mother tongue Zazaki is threatened. It has been listed as an endangered language by UNESCO since 2009.

Ates’ art focuses on performance and site-responsive activities (reacting to a particular place) in which the sensibilities of East and West meet. Cultural displacement and the quest for finding the home of the heart are at its core.

Her photograph Blanket I was taken in Castello Reale di Govone, one of the royal palaces of the House of Savoy. In the building there are obvious traces of centuries of cultural exchange (Chinese room, English garden etc.). The scratched wall and the fresco – and their faded glory – can generate many meanings, just as the mysterious spectator wrapped in a rescue blanket. Should this refugee be covered and  protected from a culture that is alien to him/her? Or maybe she/he is looking for the cultural values of a new home? Or is this human being wrapped in luminous gold as a sign of a new beginning in the face of a decaying culture? Or does the image show something of the value of a person in relation to cultural expressions of the past?

Ates’ work deals with migration, exile, flight and finding human common denominators. When I ask her what she wants to convey to her audience from the perspective of her spirituality, she says: “Be curious about other people’s spirituality, keep asking questions and do not judge!”


image: Güler Ates, Blanket I (Piedmont Residency series), photography, 2018.

The above text is based on conversations with Güler Ates, partly by telephone in 2024, partly in person in 2019, when her commissioned work was part of Art Station of the Cross Amsterdam of which I was co-curator. You can find out more about this installation here. When we were on an exploratory visit of the Church of Our Lady in Amsterdam to discuss the concept, we passed the children of the Sunday school of the Syriac Orthodox community. The children practiced the Lord’s Prayer, singing in Aramaic, in the language in which Jesus taught it. It was a surprising and meaningful cultural experience, which for me will forever be part of her installation. A performance of this prayer can be heard here.

Anikó Ouweneel is a cultural historian, writer and curator.

Source on Alevism (in addition to the conversations with Ates):

This text is also published as an ArtWay Visual Meditation 3 March 2024.


Alevi songs recommended by Güler Ates: (Insan Olmaya Geldim by Arif Sag)
Ali Ekber Cicek – Haydar: I Travelled for Fourteen Thousand Years, in

Songul Karli

This photo is part of the STATIONS OF THE CROSS HENGELO in The Netherlands which can be visited from February 17 to March 30 2024 on Friday and Saturday afternoons from 12:00 to 16:00.