Vuslat Dogan Sabancı: Art as an antidote in times of profound disconnection

Vuslat Dogan Sabancı: Art as an antidote in times of profound disconnection
Leading lights  -   Artists

Between the ongoing humanitarian crisis from the February earthquakes and the divisive political climate amidst the presidential and parliamentary elections, the voices and needs of the Turkish people must be heard, perhaps more urgently than at any time in recent history.

In such moments, Turkish artist, activist and philanthropist Vuslat Dogan Sabancı believes that art has a particularly crucial societal role to play. While exploring a range of themes and mediums, her entire body of work is bound together by what she has described as an underlying “passion to start a movement that creates a listening climate” for the cultivation of empathy, healing, and ultimately, social change.

Artistic origins rooted in broader activism

A self-taught artist, Vuslat spent the first two decades of her practice working privately in her Istanbul studio alongside her successful career as a media executive. Despite long focusing on a different world, artistic creation became an increasingly crucial part of her life.

While in a very different domain, Vuslat’s years as CEO and Chairwoman of HürriyetTürkiye’s largest independent newspaperas well as a political activist provided her with insights that have greatly informed her art. From spearheading Hürriyet’s editorial shift towards gender equality and human rights issues to launching trailblazing lobbying campaigns for women’s empowerment, Vuslat’s social engagement has instilled in her the importance of generous listening, a concept and practice involving “hearing beyond words” using “your heart’s ear.”

In fighting to give women a stronger voice and equal treatment in Turkish society, Vuslat met women from all walks of life, from whom she learned how to listen generously in a genuine, empathetic way. Since these transformative experiences, generous listening has been the golden thread of Vuslat’s contributions to public life.

But it was a quiet, reflective period during the COVID-19 pandemic spent in her private studio that inspired her to take her art public and use it as a vehicle for her deeply personal philosophy of social change and healing.

Stepping into the light

Generous listening continues to inform Vuslat’s life in her new full-time career as an artist, with her works boldly inviting others to engage in this practice. Given that generous listening requires transcending the physical act of listening, she believes art is uniquely adapted to this pursuit by “inspiring people and inviting them to think beyond words” with an open heart.

A Place We Meet
Silver coated mullein plants and
Bayburt stones
Variable dimensions

In the past year, Vuslat has stepped out of her studio and into the light of the global art stage with a fully formed aesthetic voice, carefully honed over many years. Her debut solo exhibition, Silence, curated by Chus Martinez at Pi Artworks in London during May and June of 2022, embodied Vuslat’s vision of creating a transformative experience for the viewer and challenging our perceptions of and interactions with art. The exhibition gathered a captivating, complementary collection of works ranging from intricately crafted sculptures to drawings and installations, each a testament to the significant role of silence in our connections with ourselves, others and the natural world. 

Recognising that language often inhibits a deep connection with nature, Vuslat devoted Silence to countering this tendency by offering a space for visceral, authentic reflection on our surroundings. Using organic curves and forms, the sculptures of Silence evoke natural landscapes, reminding us of our delicate, fragile balance with the environment.

Bold leap forward into the past

Building on this initial public foray, Vuslat is currently preparing her second solo exhibition, Emanet, launching in June at the Baksı Museum in Türkiye, marking the first display of her work in an institutional setting.

Baksi Museum.

The Turkish notion of “emanet” has served as an anchor for this artistic exploration of personal identity and collective historical narratives. Roughly translating as something which is passed on and entrusted to future generations for protection and safekeeping, this ancient concept permeates every aspect of the exhibition, starting with its location.

Vuslat’s choice of Baksı Museum in northeastern Türkiye for Emanet is highly symbolic, as both share a devotion to the preservation of cultural traditions, shared experiences and geographies, as well as the use of forgotten wisdom to address today’s problems. Accordingly, the works of Emanet reflect the natural elements, cultural identity and history of Baksı’s landscape on the Anatolian steppe.

The landscape around Baksi Museum.

The region’s mullein plants, and their healing properties, served as models for Emanet’s sculpturesdisplayed on plinths made of local stoneswhile the flow of the surrounding river inspired its suspended spiraling centerpiece, ‘the Umbilical Cord of Life,’ a meditation on the cycle of life and death.

Umbilical Cord Of Life
3D Print on PLA
450 x 400 x 600 cm

Capturing Emanet’s essence, return curator Chus Martinez has noted Vuslat’s devotion to “creating an environment through art where we can listen to ourselves and reflect on what our ancestors have passed onto us and what we can add to this heritage to produce a better future.”

Harnessing art to spread generous listening

In 2020, Vuslat established the Vuslat Foundation on this very concept. Recognising generous listening’s potential as a “preventive medicine,” she created this global philanthropic organisation, to, in her words, facilitate “a climate of listening in education, civic society, business and government” in order to resolve conflicts “before they turn into crisis.”

Since its inception, art has been a key vessel for the Vuslat Foundation’s endeavours. Indeed, its public launch came at the 2021 Venice Biennale of Architecture, where in response to the theme ‘How will we live together?’ it presented a new installation, ‘The Listener,’ by Italian artist Giuseppe Penone to symbolise art’s capacity to elicit deep reflection, build shared listening spaces and spark meaningful conversations for change.

Alongside her own art career, Vuslat has said that the Vuslat Foundation “will continue to do these kinds of projects,” in order to spread the benefits of generous listening as widely as possible.

Over the coming year, the societal backdrop formed by post-earthquake national trauma, the upcoming Turkish elections and the centennial of the Turkish Republic’s founding by Atatürk will add additional weight and responsibility to these upcoming artistic undertakings.

As such, Vuslat remains as committed as ever to channeling art, whether hers or the work of other inspiring artists, to facilitate generous listening’s role in lighting a path of healing, understanding and redemption.

Ceramic and silver
coated leafs
Variable dimensions

Image credits: Kayhan Kaygusuz.