The Making of a Pioneer

Fatoş Üstek photographed by Bex Day

Fatoş Üstek photographed by Bex Day


Fatoş Üstek, director Liverpool Biennial

In partnership with Toast

It takes a certain type of person to take on a project that involves curating a new exhibition with different artists every week for 50—yes, 50 —weeks in a row. The thought of the logistics alone would make anyone break out in hives, but for Fatoş Üstek this is the perfect art adventure; embracing uncertainty and bringing people together to create something extraordinary is what she thrives on. This is just as well, as having recently moved to Liverpool to take on the directorship of the city’s biennial (the UK’s oldest and largest biennial) she now finds herself in charge of a new team and a huge public programme of exhibitions and installations that will open in July 2020 and run across the city until October. This openness to taking risks has helped Fatoş carve a career punctuated with innovative exhibitions, events and installations that have defined her as a pioneering voice in the arts.

Originally from Izmir, Turkey, Fatoş studied pure maths at university, something that might seem at odds with curation but it’s something she finds herself continuously drawing on in her practise. Her mathematical mindset was certainly useful when she took on the role of curator of fig-2, the ever-changing exhibition that took place over 50 weeks at the ICA. Each week Fatoş invited a new artist or group of artists to create work that would interact with the exhibition that had come before. “With fig-2, studying maths really helped me to be able to hold that overall picture in my mind and continuously see how everything was connected,” she explains. “It also helps with budgeting!”

Alongside her approach of exploring curation outside of the usual gallery space, blending together disciplines and perspectives is something that has informed Fatoş’ career. For her curatorial approach to Art Night, an art festival that takes place across London on one night, she took inspiration from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s concept of “Fusion of Horizons”—the idea that we each have an individual horizon that is limited by our aspirations, dreams, desires and knowledge and when we exchange ideas there is a fusion of horizons. Fatoş used this theory as the catalyst for Art Night, “I thought that was a really inspiring idea and starting point for the whole Art Night programme because embracing our differences is important, they help us learn, they make us grow and ultimately broaden our own horizons.”

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Although Fatoş is keen to bring together different perspectives she’s wary of ticking boxes and reducing people and ideas to their most obvious terms. This is something she feels in the way her own work is categorised, “I’m not interested in being a ‘Turkish curator,’ not because I deny where I’m from, but I don’t represent a whole culture.”

She sees the change in the art world to include more underrepresented voices as a huge positive, especially in relation to a mainstream award like the Turner Prize. She sits on the 2020 jury and believes you can trace a change in the art world through the prize. “I’m an optimist. If you look at the history of Turner Prize winners, it was very male dominated,” she says. “When you look at the last 5 to 10 years there has been a definite shift.” She puts this down to more prominent conversations around race, gender and LGBTQI rights. “When you are aware of something, you start to understand the issues deeper and with that understanding comes responsibility to change things where you can. With my selection for the 2020 prize I want to take risks, I’m looking for something surprising.” she says.

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Having left Turkey for Frankfurt in her early twenties knowing only one person in her new city, embracing risk and uncertainty is something that Fatoş has had to become comfortable with. “When you’re on your own, you become more self-reliant,” she explains. “You have to just figure things out and uncertainty no longer seems so intimidating.” She’s looking forward to employing her risk-taking approach to the Liverpool Biennial where the main thread will focus on the body as a way to explore our own relationship to nature, food and art. Working with curator Manuela Moscoso the programme they’re devising will focus on the Amazonian approach to the body as a wider holistic entity. The port of Liverpool becomes the mouth and the city itself hosting all of the exhibitions and installations will be the stomach—a place where attendees can gain nourishment and enrich their brains through the art they find along the way.

Fatoş builds every project with an exhilarating approach: alongside very critical and cerebral works you’ll find pieces of art that are playful and interactive and immediate. You’re invited to find your own way through the action, a formula she likens to literature. “It’s like writing a novel. There are the main characters and there’s the main story but there’s always these interesting sub-narratives, sub-currents that flow in between. I’m not interested in a strict narrative of the beginning, middle and end.”

Above left: Fatoş wears Toast cotton seersucker shirt and herringbone wool trousers. Above right: Fatoş wears Toast silk velvet column dress and Chie Mihara lace up boots.


All photography by Bex Day.