From Being a Craftsman to Being an Artist: Interview with Cengiz Özek

by Mehmet Özbek*

Cengiz Özek was born in Istanbul (1964), and studied at the Traditional Turkish Decorative Arts and Theatre Department, Istanbul Municipality Conservatory. He is a depiction artist and actor of KARAGÖZ, which is on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Cengiz Özek, who has opened more than thirty exhibitions on Turkish puppetry, has performed over 1000 shows around the world. He serves as Chairman of the Istanbul Karagöz Puppet Foundation, of which he is the founder, and the general art director of the International Istanbul Puppet Festival. In the following text, we present highlights of our interview with Cengiz Özek, focusing on the art of KARAGÖZ in the context of interculturality, the transmission of this art form to future generations, and the possibilities of using this art form as an educational model.

Cengiz Özek: Photo: Courtesy of Cengiz Özek

Mehmet Özbek: There is a new book on Karagöz published by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. Your article “Karagöz Plastics and Aesthetics” stated that the works created and the depictions used, based on the Symbols of Turkish Culture and the directorate, can also affect Karagöz. What kind of design should be adopted while doing this type of theatre? And what limits should be imposed, if at all?

Cengiz Özek: Karagöz has a distinct artistic aesthetic, characterized by a profile view of the face and a three-quarter view of the body, which angles slightly towards the audience. The face remains in that view because it looks at the person in front of it. Such a depiction is vital in showing the body’s perspective and determining its volume. Once this basic technique is understood, the rest is straightforward and depends on the artist’s drawing ability. We have conducted many workshops all over the world, both for adults and children. The participants are given some specific conditions, such as using creatures from the deep sea, but it is possible for them to improvise. They can draw the animal of their imagination with the Karagöz technique, with the head entirely in profile and the body in three-quarter positions, according to their dreams. While it is possible in these workshops to apply such a requirement to a human character, the attendees feel a little uneasy about using people. Working with animal subjects, such as those from dreams, tends to be more efficient.

Tulpar – Winged Horse Figure in Turkish Mythology. Depicted by Cengiz Özek. Photo: Courtesy of Cengiz Özek

And what happens when you work with adults? And what can you say about bringing new characters to life in other parts of the world when you use only the Karagöz technique?

Our work with adults tends to focus more on data applications. We have had very successful results there, too. For example, I have a student in Mexico who uses my approach and creates his own plays. Diego Ubel has also established a modern regional theatre by applying the Karagöz technique and following the previously mentioned rules. Ubel’s plays tend to tackle contemporary issues related to his own culture or similar cultures. He calls attention to the problems of victims in countries facing problems similar to those of his own country, and he is successful in this regard.

A drawing technique that works very well for us is the Karagöz technique. So, we could say that great minds think alike. Of course, we can also see this technique in the Chinese shadow play. Of course, the Chinese shadow play does not have to show a hundred percent profile view on the faces most of the time. Sometimes we can get a front view, or the face can be seen at an angle of three-quarters, or at 45 degrees. As in most Karagöz depictions, the profile and the body are at 45 degrees. Known as Wayang Kulit, whose original name means leather puppet, it parallels the basic idea of leather shadow puppets made in Indonesia.  That is to say, it is based on the same design technique.

Cazu (Bugaboo) in Karagöz. Depicted by: Cengiz Özek. Photo: Courtesy of Cengiz Özek

You mention that the design features of the Çintemani pattern are also used in Karagöz during the creation phase of the images. Can you explain this tradition to us in a bit more detail? And what do you think about using this technique in new character creations like the Karagöz design?

Çintemani is a form of decoration rather than a technique. While it is not mandatory, Çintemani is a very important element in our traditional Turkish decorative arts. It is even thought to be important in the Buddhist faith, and is considered by some to represent the three faces of Buddha. In our country, however, especially during the Ottoman period, it was assumed that Çintemani symbolized power.

When I was fourteen or fifteen years old, I had some important conversations with my teacher, Süheyl Ünver, a distinguished professor who established and created the foundations of the illumination-miniature and traditional Turkish ornamental arts that have continued in our country up through the present. My professor also pointed out that the Çintemani had tiger stripes and leopard spots. This display of animal power can also serve a symbol of address; as you know, the frontline soldiers in the Ottoman army, the ones who attacked first, always wore frightening predator animal skins; this is an established fact. In Karagöz, on the other hand, we see these animal skins used only as ornamental elements.

How was this ornamental element used during the Ottoman period?

We understand that this ornamental element appears in the work of Hayali Nazif Bey. Also known as Hisar Karagözcü, Nazif Bey served as an officer in the Ottoman army with the rank of captain. We know that he was also in charge of the palace and the harmonica-ı Hümayun, and that he performed at the palace; he confirms this role himself. In my opinion, Nazif Bey is one of the masters who can best describe this ornamental technique; we can see traces of Çintemani in Nazif Bey’s figures, which I also exemplify in the book. Of course, Nazif Bey does not always use Çintemani, but he uses it consciously. Ragıp Tuğtekin, my teacher’s teacher, used this technique as well. We even see this type of ornamental technique in the work of his close friend, Hayali Memduh Bey. Maybe they were inspired by each other; this seems most likely. However, we know that each is also familiar with Turkish culture in general, because Çintemani is such a widely used pattern.

Karagöz by Cengiz Özek – with French audio and subtitle

In your opinion, should it be used in new character creations like this design?

I think that the designs can be used, and also that people should be encouraged to use components of their own culture whenever possible. Of course, you must know such components well before you can use them. At the present time, however, Turkish people do not use Çintemani because it is not well known in general. Yet anyone who knows can use it; for example, Çintemani works well to depict clouds; clouds are used in miniature.

On the other hand, I believe that people who are not Turkish can also use the different decorative details of Çintemani with success. I illustrated the technique in my latest Tulpar figure, in which a horse is flying in the clouds. I applied a pattern form called Rumi on the wings of the Tulpar figure. Rumi, as defined by our teacher, Süheyl Ünver, is the stylized form of different limbs of animals. They are entirely animal-shaped drawings that fit the horse figure well. These are stylized forms.

Of course, the audience must know that the figure used here is Rumi. But they do not know this, and that is the problem: we are removed from our own culture. I am not opposed to the kinds of topics that are currently taught in schools, but subjects that are central to our culture should also be taught. This culturally based aesthetics of structural design is part of our Turkish Mongolian roots. We see this understanding of pattern and anatomy in a region that extends to Iran, Afghanistan, India, the Rajasthan region, and Nepal, especially with the branches that dispersed after the Turkish Mongolian origin.

On the other hand, of course, it has come to Turkey by way of the Anatolian Seljuks, and we see this influence in many Turkish patterns. Of course, if we consider all the Turkic Republics, this is the drawing technique of a vast geography. It is helpful to use such decorations as often as possible. As a writer and illustrator, I can easily understand the anatomy of patterns since I am trained and experienced in this field. However, it can be difficult for others to identify the pattern as it may be unfamiliar to them.

Burak – According to the Islamic belief the riding used by Hz. Muhammad ascending to heaven. Depicted by Cengiz Özek. Photo: Courtesy of Cengiz Özek

Apart from Nevregan, what other kinds of tools can be used to create a shadow theatre figure?

What we call Nevregan refers to a very handy tool used to pierce leather. Imagine one end as a sharp knife tip that opens a slit by moving forward. By reversing the movement, an artist can widen the slit, thus allowing light to pass through. The artist uses a hammer and chisels or staples to create a hole by striking the figure. This allows for the complete removal of the section of leather marked in this way. However, Nevregan is not always used; other methods can also be applied.

As I mentioned above, shadow puppets can be found in countries other than Turkey, such as India and Indonesia. In China, laser technology is used to drill holes in shadow puppets. In Turkey, Metin Özlen was known for his exceptional leather-burning techniques in creating shadow puppets which involved burning the hide to make a hole. In fact, this is one of the most highly regarded methods used to create Karagöz, although burning causes the leather to become brittle and thus a bit more difficult to handle.

How would you characterize the relationship between digital media and Karagöz plays in a contemporary setting? How important do you think it is to present plays to larger audiences via electronic media?

In my opinion, watching theatrical plays on a screen reduces their value. In other words, I find it objectionable because I think that the aesthetics of art depreciates as a result. A play becomes something else when it is filmed and projected like a movie. Digitalizing involves reinterpretation, filming, and retelling the story in a different manner, which I am willing to do. However, having a play recorded by a single camera and viewed by ten thousand people simultaneously is not ideal. At the moment of the performance, the artists are communicating with the audience.

There is a flood of emotions exchanged between theatre artists and their audiences, an exchange of emotions that penetrates the shadow curtain separating them. This is the best part of shadow theatre as an art form. It does not make sense if you do not feel it; it definitely does not make sense to me. Although I also have some of my plays on digital platforms, my intention for using this technology is simply to create an image. I can only project my plays digitally if I am reassured that they will be viewed electronically.  But I am concerned that perhaps no one would come to my live plays again. On the other hand, in this kind of format, my plays are accessible to everyone.

Genie Figure – Depicted by Cengiz Özek. Photo: Courtesy of Cengiz Özek

So, where do you place Karagöz in the context of interculturalism? Do you think it has a mission?

We have performed Karagöz in cooperation with various international and intercultural theatre organizations. One of these was a joint production with the Taiwan Puppet Museum and Theatre Foundation, along with the owner and manager of Shadowlight Production, USA, who served as consultant and co-contributor. The play, entitled İpekyolu, featured Turkish shadow theatre and body shadow techniques with Karagöz as a moving human being.

Inspired by this project, we prepared another play called Shadows of Love. In this production, I performed the role of Karagöz, and a Chinese shadow play artist also participated. The plot revolved around finding two Chinese shadow puppets and bringing them together. Our production was featured as the opening show of a major arts festival in Taiwan and was also performed in Hong Kong.

Magic Lamb, Directed and Performed by Cengiz Özek. Photo: Courtesy of Cengiz Özek

In Hong Kong, another artist and I played Nasreddin Hodja using the Karagöz technique. The second artist used modern Chinese shadow play figures, and the two types of figures were blended on a giant screen with a range of videos projected on top. The Karagöz figures were also displayed in the video, and a narrator was situated at the front. Our production was also staged at the Istanbul puppet festival in Turkey.

Shadows of Love – Trailer, Taipei International Festival of the Arts, Cengiz Özek and Lu Baogang, 2012

What has the public reaction been to education-centered puppetry in the various cultural settings where you have performed?

In Kaohsiung, Taiwan, for example, the community has erected a massive shadow play museum, and the city serves as a major center for shadow theatre internationally. During the summer holidays, the local community hosts a festival to engage school children in various theatrical projects. Every school has a shadow play curtain, and a master conducts workshops to stage plays with the children on a weekly or monthly basis. The museum sponsors shadow play artists from around the world who work with school children to prepare shadow plays.  Given their broad international basis, these plays typically depict a number of diverse cultural perspectives.

The festival also organizes a competition among performances with a panel of judges who award prizes for excellence in a number of categories. In order to maintain and promote the shadow play as a valuable artistic tradition, an official state policy is clearly needed. The Ministry of National Education and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism need to work together with the aim of introducing and teaching shadow theatre as a valuable art form, not only but especially to children.

Noah’s Ship – Depicted by Cengiz Özek. Photo: Courtesy of Cengiz Özek

Why do you think that Karagöz as an art form is not often taught in university courses in Türkiye? And what is your opinion of traditional performing arts education in Turkish universities?

There is no course on traditional Turkish theatre in the conservatory, although some schools provide a solid theoretical basis on the subject. However, at the schools for performing arts, to my knowledge, no organized programs of study have ever been implemented. The situation now is unclear, but a class on traditional Turkish theatre should definitely be offered in the conservatory.  Courses on Karagöz are offered in schools like Ankara Faculty of Language, History, and Geography and Dokuz Eylül University, and while the curriculum is fairly well organized, the scope of this education is very limited.

There is clearly a need for more education on traditional Turkish theatre. The question has been raised as to whether such a program of education should be offered exclusively in colleges or theatrical schools. Turkish Art, including Istanbul folklore, was offered throughout the entire Turkish nation when the Republic was founded. But we also have to work much harder to circulate the cultural knowledge which is inaccessible to most people who live outside of Istanbul. Unfortunately, no such work has been done to date. Earlier I cited the example of the Taiwanese, who value and promote their tradition of shadow theatre, in contrast to the situation in Turkey, where our tradition lacks official support. With the founding of the Republic, a new Turkey was envisioned, one with a culture that severed its ties to the Ottoman past. As a result, the theatre was imported from outside. Andre Antoine and Carl Ebert were invited to establish city theatres and develop the state conservatory. The Stanislavski school was influential during this period, and some of the best teachers, such as Cüneyt Gökçer, Yıldız Kenter, and Müşfik Kenter, were educated in this school and became the leaders of the conservatory. Dozens of essential actors were also trained at this school.

So, do you think that western-centered approaches to education and Turkish culture were integrated?

Unfortunately, the educational program in the Stanislavski school does not include a theoretical course which focuses on the actors’ own culture, including traditional Turkish theatre, puppetry, shadow play, and middle play.  As a result, the actors are not culturally evolved, and this is a source of great pain. The goal of the school is to develop cultured actors who can interpret and understand what they read, question the history of a text, approach each text with a dramaturgical logic, convey information about the author, study in depth the cultural and theatrical movements within their own country as well as internally, and synthesize all such traditions. However, this is not happening, and an educational lapse has occurred.

A collage of Cengiz Özek’s depictions of Karagöz. Photo: Courtesy of Cengiz Özek

Could you please comment on the creation of contemporary Karagöz texts and shadow plays in Türkiye today?

This question is related to the history and evolution of the Turkish shadow puppet play called Karagöz, which began when the Republic was newly established. To better explain to the public the principles of the Republic, which involved Atatürk’s revolutionary changes, political leaders considered the possibility of utilizing Karagöz theatre, and various studies were conducted. However, this form of theatre was viewed as overly pedantic, envisioned as a teacher lecturing at a blackboard, and therefore was not well received. At that time, Küçük Ali played primarily in public houses; there is a section about this in the book you mentioned earlier.

Apart from that, there were some minor experiments with Karagöz. However, before discussing the present state of affairs, I would like to focus on the situation in the previous century and the beginning of the twentieth century. At that time there was a crucial Karagöz, Katip Salih, also cited in the book you mentioned, whom everyone viewed as strange. When we compile all the information from books published today, we find interpretations and narratives of many important authors who claim that Katip Salih interpreted Karagöz as a play. Katip Salih launched the plays in many locations and adjusted the costs of tickets according to proximity to the stage. In other words, he was looking at shadow theatre with the logic of a theatre operator. He was a cultured person brought up in Enderun, he knew many languages, and he had a broad knowledge of the theatre. Under his guidance, Karagöz was further shaped by external influences. The most extensive forms of entertainment of the period took place in Şehzadebaşı or in Gedikpaşa, and a Gullu Agop monopoly also appeared. Kalkan dances were performed, and magicians also participated. In other words, many events from Europe were staged in Istanbul.

Magic Lamp play teaser by Cengiz Özek

Significantly, the famous actress, Sara Bernhardt, also came to Istanbul. During this period, these events attracted great attention among the largest theatre operators. Katip Salih aimed to include these kinds of performances in the Karagöz plays.  Many old figures still popular today are figures from Katip Salih’s early plays; Hayali Nazif and Hayali Memduh also produced figures for Katip Salih.  Katip Salih created scenes from the opera, and he also staged a major Karagöz play. The performance drew on both the humor and the art of that period.  For this reason, he is the person I admire the most and regard as an exemplary artist.

During this period, a common form of livelihood, opening a café, seemed to require little specialized skill. Yet such establishments featured the Karagöz play to attract both café customers and an audience for the play.  In this way, the Karagöz plays were widely circulated, and often expressed an attitude of defiance toward the government.  Most likely, the erotic Karagöz plays were also initiated during this period, caught up as they were with the excitement of the era.

So, how is the Karagöz play being promoted today, following the earlier projects of Katip Salih, the first years of the Republic, and the People’s Houses?

Today, there are over 100 Karagöz artists in Turkey, many of whom are university graduates. A few of these artists are also conservatory graduates, while still others have been educated outside of the university. Many specialists argue that Karagöz should be performed as it was in the past; others want to adapt the form of traditional versions. For example, Tacettin Diker tried to modernize the play by adding characters such as the Janissary band and the ballerina. But the mere addition of new characters is not the point; rather, the conceptualization should be modern. The text of the play text, its staging, and the colors of the figures should be thoroughly modernized. In fact, a comprehensive modernization is imperative, and appropriate text format must be utilized.

Karagöz artists must also be concerned about defining connections among characters. After careful study, a trained Karagöz artist will draw the characters and arrange them so that they are looking at each other. And the area where sticks are attached will be situated at the center of gravity, so that the characters’ eyes focus on whoever is facing them in a simple stance. When two people talk to each other face to face, they typically look into each other’s eyes. If a person does not look inside his conversational partner, then he isn’t really communicating; he is estranged. Therefore, artists should design figures with prominent sets of eyes that are always looking at each other. After completing this process, the Karagöz artist will truly understand what Karagöz signifies. The immutable rule is that at all stages, the artist must recognize the close connection between structure and meaning that underlies Karagöz as an art form.

The performance of the play also relies on a specific structural format. At the beginning of the play there is an introductory section; for example, poems can be read. This is followed by the classic scuffle, and finally, the main play starts with a short conversation. At this point, the Karagöz may change costumes. When the final section of the play begins, the conclusion of the narrative must be approaching.  At this point, information is given to the members of the audience, who must remember what they have been told to do and perform accordingly during the chapter play in between. There is no limit to what can unfold at this point of the performance.  

Garbage Monster, play teaser by Cengiz Özek – English

Yet who knows how the plays were performed up through the end of the nineteenth century? We know recent history, and we also know that Hellmut Ritter wrote the text to Karagöz plays while listening to them. However, recording such plays by taking notes is challenging since people typically miss important details while writing what they hear. What makes Karagöz a play is more than the mere use of language; it is Karagöz’s movements and energy that form the basis of the plays. The nonverbal components stimulate the interest of the audience, connect them to the play and make them laugh and think; in this way, the audience is fully engaged. Subtle distinctions of meaning cannot be conveyed through transcribed plays alone, as these rely solely on words that describe the play. In this regard it would help if an artist were free to modernize a Karagöz play.  After being liberated from the past, the artist could consider how a Karagöz character might speak, based on other types of plays we have such as folk legends, surrealistic tales, and other text types. Indeed, the surreal is already unlimited, and allows for infinite variation.

Numerous social issues can also be addressed in a Karagöz play, as Karagöz is an art form that follows and satirizes contemporary society, dealing with daily events. When current issues are treated in the play, Karagöz has already begun to modernize. If an artist aims to develop a satirical figure but does not want to use a modern-day cartoon, an authentic Karagöz figure will emerge. After that, the Karagöz figure can be further adapted according to audience expectations and marketing potential.

Vak Vak Tree – (Tree of Life) Depicted by Cengiz Özek. Photo: Courtesy of Cengiz Özek

How difficult is it to incorporate humor in the composition of a Karagöz play and present the finished product to the audience as a coherent narrative? We would appreciate hearing your thoughts on this question.

Karagöz incorporates comedy in a performance by utilizing the technique of alienation, which creates a sense of surprise and intrigue in the audience. It is as if the beast is suddenly chatting with you, and something you’re afraid of suddenly becomes friendly. This is a typical comedic element, but it is not used in every play. I think that Karagöz draws on aspects of sitcom as a genre, especially the humor in the nonverbal narrative points I just mentioned. An illustration of the type of humor used in Karagöz can be seen when the puppet stumbles and falls after tripping on an object that appears to be a stone. Upon further inspection, he kicks the rock, only to feel pain in his foot. While gasping and kissing his foot in discomfort, Karagöz apologizes. Then he tries to pick up the stone and pull it forward. After a long struggle, he removes the rock, and another person emerges from under it.

At this point he needs to use the power of nonverbal comedy. While doing so, he should use his humorous approach on a logical subject that everyone believes to be stable and steadfast. The audience should accept things as they are; if not, the play is wasted. In other words, the audience should not have a chance to think; if the audience is against you, you will fail.

Crucially, the puppet in your hand must become a part of who you are. The moment that the puppet starts acting like a part of you, Karagöz will start to do whatever you want. And you will begin to show the audience the extension of that nonverbal communication you have established with your inner audience. The language shared among you is that of Karagöz. The moment you achieve this unity, your identity shifts from craftsman to artist: you have become a Karagöz artist.

Note: Date of the Interview: 04.11.2022

This interview was conducted as part of the study entitled American Myths/Folktales from the Perspective of Traditional Turkish Theatre Components: A Performance-Led, Intermediality-Based Practice, with Facial Expression Analysis (FEA), and was supported by the Tübitak 2219 Overseas Postdoctoral Research Program. Conversation Locations: Online / United States, California  – Türkiye, Istanbul. 


*Dr. Mehmet Özbek studied acting in Anadolu University, Department of Performing Arts, Türkiye, and participated as an Erasmus exchange student at Akademia Teatralna im Alexandra Zelwerowicza, Poland.  In 2012, Dr. Özbek performed as an actor in the Globe to Globe Theatre Festival at the Shakespeare’s Globe, London, UK.  He was awarded the Tubitak Doctoral Research Scholarship, 2014-2015, Department of Theaterwissenschaft, Ludwig Maximilian University, Germany, and is currently affiliated as Visiting Scholar, University of California, Irvine, Claire Trevor School of the Arts, Department of Drama.  At the present time, Dr. Özbek is also a member of the International Puppet and Shadow Play Union – UNIMA Turkey, and holds the position of Assistant Professor, Aydın Adnan Menderes University, Faculty of Communication.

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