On a dank March day, I visit the artist Ali Zülfikar. Portraits sketched in pencil hang on the walls. Right away, I feel strangely like the portrait subject. Ali Zülfikar wants to understand the soul of the people and to tell their story with his works. Whilst drinking a cup of tea, I find out more about him.
Ali, what actually brought you to Germany?
My ID card says that I was born in January, 1970. But actually, I was born on March 15, 1971 in Yavuzeli, Turkey. We are a very large family. In total, I have eleven siblings and I am number five. From 1989 to 1995, I studied pictorial art at the Turkish university Firat in Elazığ. I was very politically active and was under constant police surveillance. Once, I was in custody for almost 14 days. After that experience, I decided that I didn’t want to live like that anymore. That’s why I came to Germany in 1997. First, I lived in Bremen, and then in Hagen, and since 2001, I have been living here in Cologne. I have my atelier, as well as my gallery, Zeugma, here.
How would you describe your style?
I gathered my first experience in Turkey, but, of course, style changes over time. I have experimented with many different materials and have invented my own techniques, for example wool colour. I used to paint with colour. Since around 2000, I started to concentrate on portraits and tried out many different things. At the end of 2014, I got to the point where I thought: »Enough. You can only use one technique.« At that moment, I saw my pencil and knew that was it! Until now, no artist has drawn on canvas with a pencil. My portraits are not an exact reflection of the original. I ease myself into the moment and draw perceptions, characters and certain lighting conditions. That is the basis for my part of the further development of modern figurative art. But of course, I am constantly building on my ideas; I would like to draw something in very large format, somehow: A collage of the history of my work on a two-by-four meter canvas. I want to start with the first picture that I can remember. My dream is to draw this one more time from my memory.
What was your first drawing?
I was nine or ten years old and I drew the picture because of my girlfriend, who was very important to me. I was a little bit jealous because someone else could draw well and I thought to myself: »I can do that too!« When I showed my teacher at the time, he thought it was great. I didn’t want to keep the picture 35 years ago. In the mean time, I’ve advertised a few times to try to find that picture and I looked for my teacher. In the end, a Turkish newspaper from NRW published a story and not long after, they found my teacher. Unfortunately, the picture was lost. When I begin my project, I am going to try to draw it again from my memories. One saw a shepherd sitting under a cliff. Beside him was a dog and in the background, a herd of sheep in a field. That picture was also a pencil drawing.
What makes drawing on a canvas with a pencil so special?
Coal doesn’t actually hold on canvas. The first challenge was to make the pictures stay on the canvas. What makes this technique special are the different shades and shadows that I create with the pencil. From close, one can see the detailed structures and levels. Only through this technique, do the portraits gain their intensity and expressivity. I work out the personality of the individual layer by layer. The difficulty is that one can’t correct errors in a pencil drawing. You can see it right away. That’s why I have to plan everything before and then try to implement this plan without error.
Your portraits are mostly of older people. What fascinates you about drawing them?
Older people have everything that an artist needs. What they have experienced is written on their faces; sadness, happiness, suffering, luck or anger. The wrinkles, the lack of hair, the grey beard – they all tell a story. I always ask myself: »How can I pay this person respect?« I take my pencil, the face and the moment and I create a composition. In doing so, a true depiction of the proportions is just as important as an unscathed depiction of the emotions. For me, every face is a map. The job of the artist is to bring to light the soul of the individuals, to capture the mimic and the moment. It’s an honour for me to be able to draw older people.
Who are the people that you draw?
I met some of them at art shows or exhibitions and just asked them if I could draw them. I am always looking for motives. I also drew my grandmother though, who died twenty years ago. For a while, I kept dreaming of her and saw her face with this expression. Of course it’s a challenge because I can only draw and capture the moment. With a portrait, one can stop time and see people in a still stand. It’s almost like when one presses pause whilst watching a movie.
What is the most important to you about your pictures?
For me it’s the eyes! The eyes communicate with you, they transmit feelings. I want to create something special through the interplay between light and shadows. A smile is obvious, but it’s about the special things for me, the subtleties. Small things like scars sometimes create the effects of my work, laugh lines, fine hairs or veins. They are part of the atmosphere that I want to capture. And they are a part of the story that I want to tell with my pictures.
Text: Katharina Dorp
Photos: Maxi Uellendahl
Translation: Ella Murphy-Zomerschoe