Yeliz Zaifoglu is the Cypriot London-based photographer giving the queer representation Cyprus needs. As part of Converse’s Proud to Be Campaign and the ongoing All Stars programme, a community of global creatives given the opportunity of mentorship, commissions and funding, Yeliz opened her first solo exhibition last weekend in London titled “Given and Found”, which explores the themes of femme beauty. Today, we caught up with the artist to talk about the meaning and importance of her exhibition, her ongoing work with Converse, and the ideas of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’.
Hey Yeliz ! How’s it going? How have you spent the last few days leading up to your exhibition opening?
Hey! I’m good thank you. I’m currently at an internship archiving for the Museum of Youth Culture, that is 11 till 6, Monday through Friday. So it’s been very much going, doing that while trying to keep contact with everyone in between and then going home and sorting stuff out. So it’s been very busy, but it’s been very fun
Your exhibition is called “Given & Found”. How did you come up with the name?
I was actually reading a poem that a friend of mine who’s also Turkish wrote. There was a couple of lines that floated around with the two words like given and found. I thought it works really well, because one of the big themes of the exhibition is the idea of the family that you’re given, and what that given family teaches you, and what your found family teaches you as well. It is traditional in some ways, but obviously, because of other factors, like being queer, or being of a different generation, they can teach you a lot of different things, while still making you realise the value of tradition. It’s about the idea of what you’re given and what you can find as you grow up.
This is your first solo exhibition and it’s supported by Converse’s Proud To Be campaign. Talk to me a little bit about this All Stars partnership you’ve got going on with Converse and how it’s come to life.
They invited me to be a part of the All Star community during lockdown. I was doing loads of creative things. I’ve always had my Instagram page where I just put stuff out there just for the sake of it. Somehow they caught on and thought I’d be a good addition. I obviously said yes, and I’ve loved it ever since. At first, it was just very much getting to know people within the community, like in the discord chat, seeing what other people were doing, and going to events, having that exposure to different creatives, not only in London, but around the world. Fast forward a bit, I saw a call out that was like “Want to be a part of the pride campaign? Send a minute or two minute video about talking about your style”. So I did it, because I was like, why not? I didn’t really know what was gonna happen from it. And the next minute, I was in Boston, helping them with the global campaign. So that was really fun and exciting. Everything was amazing, the people, the experience.
When it comes to brands representing Pride, it can easily be turned into a quick cash grab by slapping a flag onto a product without much touch. With Converse though, it’s so nice and refreshing to them actually getting involved with members of the community. What do you think is the best way for brands to support Pride and the LGBTQ+ community?
I can only truly compare it to how Converse has done it, because I’ve seen the back end of it. I think creating a community that connects you to those other communities, that enables you to get in contact with a variety of different kinds of people is one step. Then helping and supporting them, giving them access to such a big brand is another. Giving the chance to have the opportunity is something really special. Whether you can pick 100 people or 3 people, the accessibility to let people at least try is so important, because that chance to try hasn’t even really been there, and is still not really there for a lot of people.
In a lot of your photography, and especially this exhibition, you explore the idea of being or appearing femme. What does femme mean to you and why is it important for you to photograph it?
That idea of femininity, I’ve always kind of played around with it personally. I don’t view femininity as like this hyper constructed thing that has a really specific visual language. I wanted to do this project and focus on an idea of femininity that is played around with. The first unit of the photography was very much focusing on the traditional ideas of femininity, what that looks like, within a Cypriot perspective. So mothers, grandmothers, aunties, the little cousins that you take care of, embracing and celebrating a more traditional look that a lot of people are more exposed to. Whereas the second half of it is very much quietly discussing how you can have different formats and femininity that may align to a traditional in some way but on a deeper level, really, it’s anything. I think masculinity and femininity are just constructs.
I’ve always struggled with the idea of expressing one way or another because I like both sides. I wear baggy men’s clothing all of the time, you wouldn’t even know I had a body. Then I have those days where I’m just like “Yeah, I’ll wear a skirt”. It’s never like “I feel really feminine or I feel really masculine today”. It’s just what I decided to pick out of my wardrobe that day. Especially being from Cyprus, I’ve always had very dark hair on my body, specifically my arms. It was always a very big insecurity for me, because it was considered masculine. As I got older, I found that this is actually beautiful. I’ve got soft and lovely, luscious little hairs on my arms. Like, why does that make me be a man? It’s just stupid. However you decide to express yourself or how your body naturally manifests itself purely as a human is beautiful regardless, and someone shouldn’t make you feel bad about it.
How has your Cypriot heritage shaped the way in which you wish to capture the LGBTQ+ community?
I don’t think that side of my identity really informed my photography as much as my character as a person. I’ve always been a very curious person. I love talking, having conversations, sitting down and having tea with people and being really relaxed. Talking about everything and anything when you’re like 50 miles per hour talking to aunties is something that I’ve grown up with and a big part of the culture. That’s definitely informed the way that I like to shoot because I like to be very relaxed. I like using personal settings, natural lighting, and film that’s something very material and very real.
Who are some artists or photographers that inspired you and your work?
I’m awful at names, which is really bad. I should think of it. I actually studied film at university, and I want to go on to do a master’s in film criticism, or film philosophy. A lot of theorists that basically discuss the importance of what format you use, and what that can mean for a viewer in terms of visual language and spectators understanding, subconsciously, what you’re doing from what you’re using, has always been something that’s really fascinated me. That’s something that is really grounded in the reason why I like to use film. The colours are richer, and the whole material process of it, the fact that it’s real light has always interested me. So really, it just drew me more towards it. If I have to name actual artists, recently in the archive at Museum of Youth Culture, I’d done a piece on grime and garage, and I found a photographer I had never heard of before, called Jenny Booth. Her late 90s, early 2000s work, the colours, the dancing and the people, everything about it, I was obsessed with.
You yourself being a member of the LGBTQ+ community, what do you hope your photography, and this exhibition specifically, gives to the community?
A different angle of representation. When I was growing up, and I still am really, a lot of people within the exhibition, like some of the models have also said the same thing, there’s just not really people, specifically from Cyprus but also just that general end of the world that are there. They’re obviously there but we don’t see them. I can’t name you someone, so many people also can’t who are also Cypriot or Turkish or Greek, Moroccan, or Algerian. I just hope that someone who hasn’t seen that or is growing up and wants to see that or needs to see that, is able to see it.
And what about non-members?
Just a bit of fun, really.
What else can we expect from you, whether as part of Converse’s All Stars initiative or an independent solo project?
Well, hopefully more things with Converse! At the moment, I need to take a break because I’m tired. I am working on a project with another Turkish-Cypriot queer person as well. The whole thing is about hair texture, and embracing non-Eurocentric hair textures, what they actually look like and not how the media essentially whitewashes them. It’s still happening at the moment, but hopefully that will be out before the end of the year. It’s gonna be all lovely, black and white. It’s not just my project, I’m just the photographer. I’m getting directed, which is a nice break.
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