As I was walking through the Fener neighborhood of Istanbul with my friend George from Chicago, we came to an old Greek girls school that I had walked past several times before. It’s an abandoned building that sits hauntingly behind a high concrete wall topped by a barbed wire fence. But this time, the gates were peculiarly opened. A banner hung outside announcing a special art exhibition taking place there. We curiously walked inside.
Kalliopi Lemos, an artist from Oinousses, Greece, appropriately chose this venue for her exhibition “I Am I, Between Worlds and Between Shadows”. According to her website, “the exhibition is explicitly conceived for the ongoing global consideration of the status of women and children and the upholding of their self-respect and human dignity. The artist delves into a world of alchemy, myth and dream to conjure up sculptural figures and a sound installation that invite us to re-evaluate our understanding of the world, the womens place in it and their representation within it.”
Each classroom contained a sculpture of an animal that is somewhat human, but each one showed a strong element of pain and suffering. On the desks were newspaper articles about violence against women and children. The sound installation provided the voices of school girls. The exhibition ran between September 11 to November 10, 2013, and was open from Tuesday to Sunday, 11am to 6pm.
While the exhibition itself was interesting and provocative, it was the opportunity to explore the school that initially drew us in. The Ioakimion School for Girls was founded in 1879 and abandoned in 1988 due to lack of students and the dwindling Greek population in Turkey. The rooms are preserved as they were in 1988, complete with paint peeling off the walls and the faint musty smell of an unkempt building.
Pictures are posted of the last class to attend the school – a mere 3 students – and the staff . Charts on the wall document the enrollment of the school from it’s beginning, to it’s heyday of 260 students in the 1940s, to it’s uneventful end.
Looking closely at the labels on the doors, written in Turkish, you can see the Greek lettering painted over to reflect the strict government policy of all education being given in Turkish. Inside one of the rooms, old maps and materials used while the school was operating were still in place.
The sweeping view of the Golden Horn and the Fener neighborhood from the rear classrooms provided a startling contrast. Once a wealthy area with a heavy Greek population and filled with beautifully constructed homes, it’s now relatively poor. Many people from eastern Turkey filled the void of the Greeks that were either forced or chose to leave. A very different life devoid of it’s vibrant and colorful Greek past continued on the outside while the school remained silent and shuttered, the voices of old Constantinople Greeks echoing through it’s halls.
The exhibition was a very rare opportunity to get a glimpse into such a building, and the sculptures and sound installation complemented the experience very well.
Another old Greek school to visit in Fener is the Big Red School, which is still open to students.