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James Baldwin in Turkey: Bearing Witness from Another Place is based on nearly thirty images of James Baldwin by Sedat Pakay, a renowned photographer and documentary filmmaker who first met Baldwin when Pakay was a young student at Robert College (now part of Boğaziçi University) in Istanbul. The photographs were originally showcased in an exhibition at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle in 2012. The collection comprises a foreword, several essays by novelists, biographers, and scholars who knew Baldwin intimately or intellectually, a poem by Michael Harper, and an interview with Pakay.
The book’s back jacket features a photograph of Baldwin standing at the center of the frame at the entrance to Istanbul’s iconic Blue Mosque. His back faces the viewer as he firmly balances his shoeless left foot on a marbled ground. Baldwin’s right knee is bent. He has brought his ankle parallel to his wrist as he gropes his other foot to take off his shoe. Baldwin’s requisite shoe removal serves as a visual metaphor for the delicate counterbalance between his status as a literary giant, a celebrity writer bearing witness through the civil rights era, and his literal humility. This figural contrast between Baldwin, a colossal cultural icon, and Baldwin, a man of “slight frame,” as the accompanying exhibition’s curator Brian Carter phrases it in the book’s introduction (14), is a common motif in the book. The photo of Baldwin without shoes also amply illustrates that he is well equipped to witness and to write from this “other place” and its sacred spaces. The caption beneath it informs: “one cannot, out of respect, enter a mosque or a shrine with shoes on” (16). This annotation suggests that despite (or precisely because of) the emphasis on Baldwin’s experiences in the Middle East, the book’s primary audience is Western.
Lines from a traditional African American spiritual Baldwin knew well (“When I get to heaven I’m goin’ to put on my shoes / goin’ to walk all over God’s heaven”) echoed in my ear while viewing some of the photos in the book. Yet the volume does not contain photographs situating Baldwin within the Black church tradition so prominent in his novels and essays. Instead, the front cover of James Baldwin in Turkey shows his silhouette etched among minarets and masjids in shadowy relief on Istanbul’s Galata Bridge. This image pictures Baldwin once again in balance, standing at a crossroads between land and water, between shadow and light. It also subtly symbolizes Turkey as “a country notable for being a cultural crossroads in the Middle East, a location where historically Islam and Christianity meet in a kind of balance that must have appealed to Baldwin, the former child preacher,” as the novelist Charles Johnson observes in the foreword (7).
The book’s 2012 publication anticipated celebrations of what would have been Baldwin’s ninetieth birthday in August of 2014. The literary and cultural reassessments of the author included a shift from the emphasis on Baldwin as Harlemite, or honored resident in southern France, to considering places that, notwithstanding their physical geography, were equally important in the shaping of Baldwin’s imagination and affiliations. James Baldwin in Turkey is in conversation with works that seek to explore geographical sites of influence on Baldwin and his writing. These include: Magdalena Zaborowska’s James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009); Herb Boyd’s Baldwin’s Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), and Cora Kaplan and Bill Schwarz’s James Baldwin: America and Beyond (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011). More broadly, James Baldwin in Turkey’s intervention in scholarship, biography, and visual culture emerges within studies of African American writers, literary transnationalism, and the spatial imaginary such as Thadious Davis’s Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011) and Stepháne Robolin’s Grounds of Engagement: Apartheid-Era African American and South African Writing (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2015).
Likewise, James Baldwin in Turkey pays visual homage to his time in Turkey. It features a map, adjacent to the table of contents, highlighting Istanbul in regional proximity to the Black, Aegean, and Mediterranean seas. This paratext underscores how Turkey provided Baldwin a “clarifying distance” from Harlem, his birthplace, and Saint-Paul-de-Vence, his chosen home space. The portraits of Baldwin as a denizen of the Black expatriate literary, artistic, and political community in France—where he spent the bulk of his later life—are certainly significant. Yet his intimate experiences in Turkey, documented in vivid and arresting images in the book, reveal these as equally important to the complex and composite picture of the artist as a young—or not so young—man.
Turkey’s appeal for Baldwin was not merely geographically or spiritually symbolic. Practical considerations pressed upon the author—most notably, the need for the writer to have “quiet hours to write.” As Zaborowska notes, “Turkey provided Baldwin with a potent example of how much one’s immediate environment—literally the very spaces where one lived, slept, and interacted with others—influenced one’s ability to work” (39). Notably, two photographs, apparently taken sequentially and featured early in the book, adjacent to the foreword, portray a bespectacled Baldwin in 1965, seated at his writing desk. In the first photo he is reading, and in the second, the camera captures him pulling a freshly typed page from the typewriter—a draft from his novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (New York: Dial, 1968). These images fit squarely in the tradition of portraits of the Black writer at work, utilizing the tools and technologies of literacy. Both photos recall a trope that precedes the photographic medium: Phillis Wheatley’s frontispiece to Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). Like Baldwin, she is pictured pensively, quill pen in hand, writing paper and the efforts of her manuscript hand foregrounded, with an ink well and a book beside her writing table. Or, for a comparison to one of Baldwin’s contemporaries, the photographic depiction of Baldwin evokes several iconic images of Langston Hughes photographed while working, his fingers hovering above the typewriter keys.
Baldwin transformed his decade-long exile in Turkey into a place to productively work. He also made it a vital place to live, play, and rest. He needed and created sanctuary. Johnson aptly calls Baldwin’s sojourns to Turkey his “Istanbul interludes” (8). Interlude denotes a periodic pause, or respite. “Pakay’s photos capture Baldwin at moments that are intimate, domestic, and unguarded” (8). Many images frame Baldwin in repose: reclined on the patio of a cabana in Kilos beach on the Black Sea coast; apron-clad and smiling while leaning over the stove frying fish; seated adjacent to his friend and mentor, the painter Beauford Delaney, and warmly smiling; playing with the son of his friend, the singer Bertice Reading; in the small kitchen of his friend, the actor Engin Cezzar, who performed in one of Baldwin’s plays produced in Istanbul; lounging outdoors at a tea garden while inhaling puffs from a hookah. These varied scenes suggest that Turkey gave Baldwin a welcome reprieve during the peak of the civil rights movement and the social, cultural, and political upheavals in which he was embroiled.
As novelist Howard Norman, who interviewed Pakay for the collection, reflects, “When we step into a room whose walls are full of photographs, we enter the church of memory” (52–53). The majority of the photographs were taken in 1965, after Baldwin had recently turned forty. Notably, however, the book and exhibition emerged long after the end of his life. Wherever Baldwin sojourned, near and far, the work of his witnessing has lasted well beyond his lifetime.
I began this review looking at an image from the end of the book, in part to underscore the nostalgic tone found in many of the essays that accompany the photographs. Several include lines such as “I remember when . . . I met Baldwin in. . . .” Even the aforementioned front-cover feature of Baldwin’s silhouette frames him looking out to the left, as if he is looking backward, “bearing witness” to all he has already seen. This aspect of Baldwin’s photographic presence is one of the more compelling elements of Pakay’s artistic project and of curator Carter’s composite sketch. Almost all of the photographs of Baldwin in James Baldwin in Turkey portray him obliquely: through backward glances, side angles, in a squatted or seated position, and even with his back toward the viewer while he embraces two friends at a party.
The frontispiece is the singular exception to the indirect relation to the camera’s lens depicted throughout the book. In it, we see a headshot of Baldwin staring directly back at Pakay’s lens, and thus, at the viewer, with what Amiri Baraka eulogized as Baldwin’s “big world-absorbing eyes.” (“We Carry Him as Us,” New York Times, December 20, 1987). As viewers, we see Baldwin see us. As readers, Baldwin’s visioning reminds us that he was always bearing witness, and perhaps challenges us to do so as well. Baldwin’s witness, like his writing, like James Baldwin in Turkey, seems to transcend the past and look fully—unabashedly—into our present and forward to the future.
Meta DuEwa Jones
Associate Professor, Department of English, Howard University