Isimsiz by Güler Ates

Güler Ates

Isimsiz, 2008, Archival Digital Print, 51 x 51 cm, Collection of the artist, © Guler Ates, courtesy of Bridgeman Images; Photo: courtesy of the artist

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An Elusive and Ambiguous Woman

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A twenty-first century woman covered in brightly coloured lace and silk climbs a staircase in Leighton House, Kensington—the residence, in the nineteenth century, of Frederic, Lord Leighton.

Lord Leighton collected Middle Eastern artefacts to display in his London home. In her work Isimsiz the London-based Turkish artist Güler Ates highlights the juxtaposition of Eastern and Western cultures that resulted. Her photograph shows an Iznik hexagonal tile (c.1530) behind the banister and a peacock in front of it. Both of them reflect a Victorian notion of—and a colonially-influenced taste for—the exotic.

Veiled women drawn in Lord Leighton’s sketchbook struck Ates as particularly ‘exoticising images’ (Ates 2019). She toys with such images here. But the woman cannot be pinned down. While her head and face—parts of the body often associated with subjectivity and identity—are missing, her upward movement indicates her self-possession, power, and determination to move towards an undetermined destination. Her mystery is not imposed. It is not a fantasized otherness —a kind of dubious orientalizing mystique. Rather, the woman refuses to allow others to fully see and thereby objectify her.

Like the woman in Isimsiz, Ruth cannot be captured. Her portrayal is full of paradoxes, explaining why she has been characterized differently by biblical scholars (e.g. LaCocque 2004; Sakenfeld 1999; Donaldson 2010).

She is defined repeatedly as a Moabite—a foreigner from an enemy nation—but is hailed as a ‘worthy woman’ by Boaz (3:11) and affirmed as being worth more than seven sons to Naomi (4:15). (Seven was the number associated with perfection.)

She seems to find her voice in chapter 3 (v. 9; 16–17) but later returns to silence, is ‘acquired’ by Boaz (4:10) as property, and has her child, Obed, taken from her by Naomi (4:16).

She is submissive and obeys orders. But she is also feisty and courageous, risking social ostracisation to proposition Boaz on the threshing-floor (Nielsen 1997: 70; Koosed 2011: 73).

Who is Ruth? Does her character kowtow to patriarchal and colonial insistence that women’s—particularly foreign women’s—value is only to be found in marriage and bearing children for the nation? Is she a ‘model minority’ who is exploited as a source of social and economic capital? (Yee 2009:128–34). Or, do we glimpse in these chapters of the Bible a subversive divine affirmation of her creative resilience, self-sufficiency, shrewdness, and love?



Conversation with Güler Ates, 24 June 2019.

Donaldson, Laura. 2010. ‘The Sign of Orpah: Reading Ruth through Native Eyes’, in Hope Abundant: Third World and Indigenous Women’s Theology, ed. by Kwok Pui-Lan (Maryknoll: Orbis), pp. 138–51

Koosed, Jennifer L. 2011. Gleaning Ruth: A Biblical Heroine and Her Afterlives (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press)

LaCocque, André. 2004. Ruth, trans. by K. C. Hanson (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress)

Nielsen, Kirsten. 1997. Ruth (London: SCM Press)

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. 1999. Ruth (Louisville: John Knox)

Yee, Gale A. 2009. ‘“She Stood in Tears Amid the Alien Corn”: Ruth, the Perpetual Foreigner and Model Minority’, in They Were All Together in One Place? Toward Minority Biblical Criticism, ed. by R. C. Bailey, T. B. Liew and F. F. Segovia (Atlanta: SBL), pp. 119–40

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