One of the most significant figures in Turkey’s modern cultural history and an extraordinary creative force by any standards, Semiha Berksoy was, over her long lifetime, one of the leading opera singers in Europe, an actress, performance artist, poet and painter. Born in Istanbul in 1910, Berksoy began her creative career as an actress, taking, at the age of 21, the leading role in the first Turkish sound movie, ‘Istanbul Sokakları’ (‘The Streets of Istanbul’). Soon afterwards Berksoy starred in the first Turkish opera, ‘Özsoy’, performing in front of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, who became a lifelong fan and supporter. In 1939, for the 75th birthday of Richard Strauss in Berlin, she sang the role of Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos, becoming the first Turkish prima donna to perform on stage in Europe. Back in Turkey, she worked with Carl Ebert in helping found and inspire the Turkish State Opera and Ballet. Berksoy painted throughout her life, having studied art as a teenager, but painting was for her, until late in her life, an intensely private affair.
An autodidact, self-mythologizer and mystic, the works, expressed in a powerfully immediate and emotive style, comprise a compelling visual diary of both Berksoy’s storied career and her vital and turbulent inner world. Favorite and significant characters and scenes from operas and plays are depicted, as are, elsewhere, deeply personal and sometimes painful subjects, amongst them; her late mother, the death of her baby sister and the great unrequited love of her life, the avant-garde poet Nâzım Hikmet (1902–1963), persecuted by the Turkish state in the 1940s for his communist beliefs. When Berksoy scaled back her music and performance work later in life, she was able to spend more time painting and staged her first solo art show in 1969. Since then Berksoy’s visual practice had been increasingly recognized as a major cultural achievement in its own right.
In recent years the support of key figures such as Robert Wilson, Rosa Martinez and Omar Kholeif has brought Berksoy’s painting to wide, international audience. Martinez included 26 of her paintings in the 51st Venice Biennale, 2005. Her work has also been included in the 5th Istanbul Biennale (1997), Manifesta 2 (1998), 9th Shanghai Biennale (2012), Frieze Masters (2018), Sharjah Biennial 14 (2019) and Louvre’s The Moon exhibition at le Grand Palais (2019).