“Why are we here?”
This question was whispered to me by a puzzled fellow member of a tour group at Istanbul’s Pera Museum. We were, after all, supposed to be touring the Istanbul Biennial, a contemporary art survey. And the antique paintings and engravings of Turkish social life around us looked awfully old.
But something was definitely off. Some of the works were authentically historical, while others—a chandelier, tiles printed with Arabic calligraphy, black-face miniatures—felt subtly different. In fact, these were designed to simulate historical artifacts by the artist Fred Wilson.
Wilson laughed when I recounted this moment of confusion to him. “I love it,” he said. “I’m interested in the museum because it’s a place where no one expects to be misled. Whatever they give you, you believe.”
Afro Kismet, the gallery-wide installation at the Pera Museum that is Wilson’s contribution to the biennial, projects the look and feel of a historical museum show, though closer inspection reveals inconsistencies.
The antique Iznik tiles, for instance, are black, which is almost never the case in reality, while the blue Arabic lettering on the wall reads “Black is beautiful” and “Mother Africa.” Perhaps most telling for the lay observer is a series of Ottoman-era paintings in which Wilson has identified at least one African figure and then painted blown-up portraits of him or her to hang next to the originals.
“I’m shifting the gaze,” he explained.
According to Wilson, even the Pera Museum’s curators literally couldn’t see these black figures at first. When he asked them to pull out all the paintings from storage that depicted African figures, they turned up only a few. But he pressed them, asking if he could look himself—and in the end he found about twice as many more. “They…