When Sarp Kerem Yavuz was 5, he drew a boat with smiling passengers and a caption that read "The boat that was curious about what was under the sea."
"I distinctly remember thinking about the internal conflict of a boat that wished to explore the bottom of presumably the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul without drowning its passengers," said Yavuz, an artist who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community. "A bit heavy for a young boy but, then again, I think it demonstrates that I was always meant to be an angsty artist."
Yavuz continued to draw throughout his childhood while also contending with a complicated family environment. His father was exiled by the Turkish government following a military coup in the 1980s because they declared his socialist-leaning theater troupe undesirable whereas his mother chose to live in France and work as a news producer for French national television. Yavuz was born in Paris in 1991 and lived there until 1994 when his father was pardoned by the Turkish government.
"My father forced my mother to abandon her career and return to Turkey," said Yavuz. "And by forced, I mean literally threatened to have me kidnapped and spirited away to Istanbul if she refused. They divorced shortly after our arrival and growing up in Istanbul, he was never around. I am grateful for his absence because it certainly shaped the way I make art and think about the world. Sometimes I wonder if life would have been easier if I had been raised in Paris, where being a gay teen would have probably been a less lonely affair."
Yavuz moved to the United States to attend Oberlin College in 2009 because he saw it as the "promised land for anyone wanting to live their truth." He said watching Sex and the City, Will and Grace, Queer as Folk and Noah's Ark was the catalyst for this move.
"Funnynow America looks more like Turkey with each passing day, and not in a good way for marginalized people across the board," said Yavuz.
Yavuz initially intended to study political science and then law, with an eye on working at the United Nations. These plans changed when he got to work with artists Don Harvey and Nanette Yanuzzi Macias at his college as well as Guggenheim Fellow Pipo Nguyen Duy, who taught him photography.
"I felt compelled to pursue art further and that led to my moving to Chicago to get my MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago ( SAIC )," said Yavuz.
Since then Yavuzwho divides his time between New York City and Istanbulhas created works using photography, light projection, neon and drawing around gender, politics, religion and violence. His work has been shown in 30 exhibitions and is in the permanent collections of institutions across the globe. Locally, Yavuz is represented by Carl Hammer Gallery in the West Loop.
"They have been my biggest supporters since my thesis show at SAIC in 2015," said Yavuz. "The five years I spent living in Chicago changed my life and I will always have a special place in my heart for the city and its artistic community."
Yavuz's 2014 creation #6 was recently included in a multi-artist online auction for Future Galerie, an art auction and sweepstakes platform. All funds raised from this auction benefitted nine social justice organizations. Yavuz chose Immigration Equality to receive the funds raised from his auction piece.
"As an artist visa holder, also known as Alien of Extraordinary Ability, few people know how many hoops I had to jump through to be able to exist as a practicing visual artist in America," said Yavuz. "And despite qualifying for the visa on paper, it was still a long and expensive process. I feel for anyone wanting to come to America to live a better life and supporting those who might not have had some of the luck and privileges I have had on my visa journey is the least I could do.
"Immigration Equality supports LGBTQ immigrants in need of legal help coming to or staying in the United States. It seemed to me that despite a growing current of anti-everything that is not heteronormative, America still is one of the safer places to for people who are not straight and cisgender."
Yavuz told Windy City Times that the gallery in Istanbul, Anna Laudel, that showcased his work was raided by the Turkish Ministry of Culture in 2019 due to a complaint that said the gallery was displaying "artworks that were offensive to the legacy of the Ottoman Empire."
"The sheer absurdity of the claim coupled with the lack of criminality of the claim, has me thinking my works must have pissed some people off, which although I was mindful of it was not the main intention of the series," said Yavuz. "I have a photography series in which I project traditional Islamic iconography, mainly Iznik tiles, onto male nudes, in an attempt to talk about the shifting political and cultural landscapes in the Middle East.
"I also have another body of work comprised of undead zombie caricatures dressed in traditional Ottoman outfits, either as neon sculptures or large scale digital paintings. This body of work, titled 'Curse of the Forever Sultan,' is a whimsical critique of government corruption and growing fascism we are all experiencing over the past decade, around the world."
Of the many accolades Yavuz has received over the years, he said the 2016 Palm Springs Photo Festival Emerging Artist Prize means the most to him. He added that the cutting-edge camera tech the festival organizers loaned him to create this work was the key to his successful photo shoot.
Yavuz, like many other artists, have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic on a financial level. He has lost many shows including ArtDubai, Art Paris, an Oslo gallery showing with The Little Black Gallery's homoerotic photo selection "Boys! Boys! Boys!" and a show at Fotografiska NYC for LGBTQ Pride this past June.
"It was disheartening at first, and I was genuinely worried about making ends meet by the time April came around," said Yavuz. "In my desperation I created a 25-print limited edition photograph that I decided to sell for $250, completely slashing my normal prices and taking a massive gamble. I announced it on my Instagram page and to my surprise it sold out in Europe within five days."
This gave Yavuz the incentive to create more of these photographs and has allowed him to financially survive the pandemic and re-think how he showcases and distributes his art. He said time will tell if social media is a sustainable sale mechanism but he is grateful that the platform exists to sell his work.
"Over the course of the pandemic, I saw several interviews with collectors on various art news outlets where artists were advised to use this time to create and not worry about the financial impact of the pandemic," said Yavuz. "Here is my advice to those collectors: thousands of artists survive by the skin of their teeth even in the best of times, and telling them not to worry about paying for rent or food or medicine during a pandemic is as out of touch and as useless as Marie Antoinette's quip about brioche in the late 1700s.
"To all my fellow artists: Never feel guilty for hustling and for fighting to survive. Commercial concerns do not need to govern your creative process but if you pretend that side of life does not exist or allow yourself to be shamed out of projects because they are not removed enough from capitalism, you will have a difficult time making it out there."
See sarp.info/, instagram.com/sarpkeremyavuz/ and futuregalerie.com/product/sarp/ .