BY Simon Wu in Opinion | 08 APR 24
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The Venice Issue

Celebrating Nil Yalter’s ‘Exile is a Hard Job’

To honour the artist's Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Biennale, Simon Wu reflect on her long-standing poster series

BY Simon Wu in Opinion | 08 APR 24

In 2018, I spent a summer in Berlin, renting a room in Kreuzberg, a neighbourhood historically populated by Turkish Gastarbeiter - economic migrants who moved to West Germany after World War II to fill severe labour shortages. By the late 2010s, Kreuzberg was mostly inhabited by their descendants, a Turkish-German diaspora of more than three million people, under threat of displacement by encroaching tech companies. Laser-focused as I was on the particularities of my own Asian diaspora, it wasn't until after I met my boyfriend, Ekin, who is Turkish, that I became aware of this history. 

In 1983, Nil Yalter had a solo show at the Musce d’Art Modernc de Paris, the city in which she had been living since 1965. The exhibition centred around video installations of documentary interviews with migrant Turkish seamstresses in the ready-to-wear workshops of Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis. As a kind of prologue to the show, the artist wheatpasted posters throughout the city, painting over them in red with the shows title C’est un dur metier que l’exit (Exile Is a Hard Job). The posters contained a grid of photographs and drawings from Yalter’s earlier documentary piece about the Turkish workers community in Paris (Turkish Immigrants, 1977). Although images are repeated, variations appear across the rows: sometimes the faces are painted over; elsewhere, the bodies, blotted out by some unseen force, are replicated in pencil. The result is a snapshot of multiple generations of migrant life.

Nil Yalter, Exile is a Hard Job, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Museum Ludwig, Cologne; photograph: Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln and Jonas Klein

Yalter borrowed the title from the poem 'Sofya’dan’ (1957) by Nâzım Hikmet, a Turkish writer who spent many years in exile in Russia. But Ekin tells me that, in the original Turkish, Gurbetlikz or zanaat, Gurbetelik doesn't exactly translate to 'exile, but something like ‘living in a country that is not your own, not entirely by force and not entirely of your choosing’. It is most often used to refer to the kind of migrant workers with whom Yalter was intimately familiar. Since then, ‘Exile Is a Hard Job’ (1983-ongoing) has taken on an itinerant life that mirrors Yalter’s own; she installs the posters wherever she has an exhibition, translating them to the local context. In Berlin, I found myself at the intersection of multiple diasporas: the movement of my parents and grandparents, of Ekin's parents and grandparents, and of the Gastarbeiter. ‘Exile Is a Hard Job’ unsettles what it means to live abroad, pursuing a life closer to freedom – not a flattening, but a connecting and sharpening of the differences in class, intention and mobility across generational diasporas.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 242 with the headline 'Closer to Freedom’

Main image: Nil Yalter, Exil Ist Harte Arbeit (Exile Is a Hard Job), (detail), 2019. Courtesy: © Nil Yalter and Museum Ludwig, Cologne; photograph: Rheinisches Bildarchiv

Simon Wu is an artist based in New York. He is the Program Coordinator for The Racial Imaginary Institute and a graduate of the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program.