(Cengiz Özek)

Today is the 4th of January, 2020 on Saturday, and my watch is indicating 20:40 local time around Istanbul, Feneryolu. As the old saying goes, I just harvested the energy to grab my pen with my bare hands.

Actually while I am putting down the words onto the keyboard of the so-called device, on the other side I am watching the backscattering of them to me from the screen with a little help of the software. I have got no idea how artistic or literal it is to assign this duty to such digital medium, instead of putting down my feelings with a real pen onto a real piece of paper, but I can say thanks to this technology that it enables me to transfer all these details that are accumulated on my mind and on my memories in that prompt and instant way. On this wise, I will be able to keep and save the things that I thought and felt through my brain and through my fingers. And as far as I can say, this situation helps the words to turn into clauses, clauses to chase interlaced sentences and it leads the paragraphs to unite together and to flow within an exciting and very special story in a continuous way. The background is ornamented through again with a very special album namely “Dreams”, belonging to a gifted Hungarian guitar player who deprived us of his high potential artistic future production at a very young age.

By the way; this will not be the last time that we stop by Hungary within this text. When I mention the word “Dreams”, my “Karagöz” adventure that I put on par with chasing rainbows comes to my mind instantly. I had many stations in between, that I stopped by and where I filled my pocket of knowledge and experience within my “Bungee Jumping” adventure after my “Dreams”. Right now, I will let us dive together into the details of the story of one of the stations that has a very special place among them and where I spent considerable stay during my voyage.

Yes, I will share with all of you a story that I prefer to entitle as “A tale of unusual dedication that is hard to believe” on the dynamic interface of Karagöz and Life itself. This is the story of “Cengiz Özek”.

When I highlight the words “Turkey” and “Karagöz Art”, I will be able to comfortably utter the following without being unfair to those who contributed, but also without neglecting to call a spade a spade. Cengiz Özek is a missionary who expressed himself with his art almost in countless countries, almost in every continent of the world for almost four decades, who performed all around the world with his performances several hundred times, who crowned his art with exhibitions almost in numerous countries, who revealed the creativity of children, adults and professionals from different cultures in many workshops via transfusing the Karagöz Technique to them autonomously, who succeeded in combining his art and other artistic forms together with many significant artists around the world through common productions and collaborations and bringing them together with the audience of different cultures (Sarajevo Youth Theatre Poroziste Mladih – Magic Lamp, Theatre Kubus Poland – Cinnamon Markets, Taiyuan Puppet Theatre Company Beijing Shadow Troupe and Cengiz Ozek Shadow Theatre Company – Shadow of Love, Shadow Light Productions Larry Reed Taiyuan Puppet Theatre Company Cengiz Ozek Shadow Theatre Company – Silk Roads).

The performances that he directed, wrote and made the puppet designs were put on stage by the actors and actresses of many different countries regularly, who had the honor to reward the Istanbul audience with a private, autonomous and independent “Istanbul International Puppet Festival”, who crowned the Karagöz Art with “Istanbul Karagöz Puppet Foundation”, whose figures and puppets are in the collections and archives of the world’s many important Ethnography Museums, who is the subject to many scientific articles that were drawn up by the field experts, while everybody is discussing such things in cyclic way like; “How we shall revive Karagöz Art, why it is performed only for kids nowadays, Karagöz is an adult art or no it is not”.

He is the one who is invited from the four corners of the world, who was deemed worthy to countless awards, who takes on responsibility to clean up the mess of conflicts and alienation among the Western Theatre Movements representatives and the Traditional Theatre Art representatives, who triggers this to come true via his administrative efforts, with his poster, stage designs and adaptations at many significant platforms such as Kenter Theatre, Dormen Theatre and City Theatre, that helps the sustainability and integration of Ottoman Culture and Modern Turkish Republic in terms of Karagöz.

He is such an artist to overstep the bounds of his country on such a way that a Mexican Puppetry Art admirer visited him after finding his Atelier after a long journey from Mexico City, to learn from him the “Karagöz Technique”. Most particularly, he is a role model to everyone who calls themselves “Karagöz and Puppet Artist” with his daily chockfull work and his professional manner to his occupation. “Cengiz Özek Shadow Theatre” is a school where anyone who passes by its office, to look over their aesthetic eye settings once again and to upgrade their working methodology to a higher version.

And this is exactly the reason why I consider it convenient to call this story “A tale of unusual dedication that is hard to believe”. It is almost impossible not to associate this epic journey of Cengiz Özek and Karagöz that I accompanied from time to time as a copilot to Jules Verne’s “Around the world in eighty days”. When you got involved into the adventure of Özek in a timeframe to be expressed by days which is to be considered rather short for humankind, within periods of time that you won’t be able to comprehend and estimate the scale, you dive into the voyage from the authentic Balkan atmosphere of Albania that reminds you the Thrace of the eighties, to the modern picturesque structure of Athens that is an interwoven combination of its antique and archaeological extent, from the “Graffities” that I call the “Language of Streets”, to 50 – 60 years old authentic “Karagiozis” figures that you hold in your hands and examine with admiration, to brand new tastes, from the applause and excitement of Athens audience to emotional tears of a Greek Theatre Owner whose family left their motherland behind during the commutation between Turkey and Greece, after all in one breath from an impressive performance during the Puppet Festival in Tunis during the Opening Ceremony, to exotic and unique ethnic streets of Tunisia, to colorful textiles and from the asquint of “Tunisian Pupies” to the huge gates of houses and fascinating architecture of “Sidi Bou Said” that is standing on the interface of Mediterranean and Arabic Culture. While you were not in great expectations at your office in Istanbul, you are personally visited by British Producers and Organizers who are in pursuit of an artistic Project Partner focusing on a work related with the Refugees.

Most particularly, during the Istanbul International Puppet Festival period, when you think of the minutes passing by with the Cambodian Shadow Puppets’ and Masks’ illusions, utterly different experience of yours with Taiwanese and Chinese Shadow Puppets, your dance with the angels and dragons when you encountered the Vietnamese Water Puppets, the moments that you have special artistic conversations on the dinner tables and while you are sipping your coffee with very important String Puppet and Marionette Artists after their performances, you have a break with your journey with Jules Verne and you are beamed up to the phantasm of “Alice in Wonderland” and you do not forget to express your greetings to “Lewis Carroll” as well.

At this point I owe Toni Zafra, Pavel Vangeli, Nadia Imperio, Karromato, Thomas Ettl, Drew Colby, Fifth Wheel, Mann Kosal, Cinemarionette, Chinese and Taiwanese Troupes to visit “International Istanbul Puppet Festival” as a result of the efforts of Mr. Cengiz Özek, a debt of gratitude, since I had the chance to watch and review closely their performances and styles and in its entirety since they gave me the chance to exchange ideas and establish friendship and since they reshaped the way we deal with puppetry and our perception of aesthetics. This adventure that reforms your perception of time once again from the beginning on where you intermix seconds, minutes, days, months and years to one another, lets you think frequently the stock saying in Turkish that you hear many times “Who knows more? The one who reads more or else the one who travels more?

Another aspect that I would like to lay stress on it about Mr. Özek is his professional and conscious attitude in his life routine. Özek, in terms of being at the meeting points in his professional life is precisely punctual, most probably as a consequence of his long year habit coming from his theatre background. Not even bad weather conditions do damage this punctual attitude of his. He is extremely meticulous to what eats drinks and dresses up.

At this point, he has many habits to take as a role model. He never misses any mealtime during the day. So to speak, he has a regular break routine as if break time bell rings while working and he has a particular systematical and well-timed working principle. He has a light diet rich in vegetables and protein. As refreshment and snacks, he prefers a combination of hazelnut, almond and dried fruits. He keeps himself away from starchy foods that he actually likes very much in a very conscious and strong-willed way as compromise to protect his health. But in special moments or as self-indulgence, he makes his choice of going off his diet for a while, he brings himself out of this mechanical routine and with a childish enthusiasm, he tastes some desserts, but of course small portions and especially he can’t stand against the traditional Pumpkin Dessert.

Another regular routine of Mr. Özek by the way while working is the coffee he prepared attentively and drunk several times a day and with their special presentations and authentic tastes, tea varieties from Far East. I don’t know why, but it tastes much better as long as he grinds and prepares the coffee. Özek is gracious and polite too, to ask and bring your coffee to you while working. On such a way, you are able to stabilize both your friendship and professional principles on a thin and healthy line. Another specific characteristic of Özek that I appreciate is that, he will be able to speak any type of problem or subject he wants to deal with directly, even if it is hard to express. This attitude may seem initially a bit sharp and hard, but within proper amount of time, it enables you to establish a communication line that is clear and safe.

Cengiz Özek, workshop in Beirut 2003.

It is also possible to catch the colorful, ethnic and exotic and at the same time unique character and palette of Özek within the internal and external design of the places that he lives in, in his figures, within his collection selected precisely among the antique works of art, in the way that they are exhibited and combined and of course in his dressing style. First of all, his relationship with colors is particularly brave and harmonizing. In a world where discrimination, prejudice and taboos are ossified, where baby girls wear pink and baby boys wear blue, Özek more than combining colors that we are not accustomed to bring together, also unites them in such an aesthetic concept, that you accept this rendezvous promptly and without questioning. He offers you a large spectrum palette and many alternatives as life did, when you coincide in the details of his life. Özek, is not using his scissors professionally only to cut his leather Karagöz figures, but also is very good at using it when cutting, blustering the textiles with dexterity that he has chosen attentively. Özek, who is aware of his aesthetic and physical form in a realistic way, does not fail to generate his own fashion with his aesthetic sense, knowledge and culture as well. And I won’t be able to squeeze his delicate touches to the places where he lives, in one or two paragraphs here. “Maison Française” magazine already worked on this detail in one of its issues. If you just try a bit hard, it is not impossible to find that magazine and enjoy the rest. Despite his intensive tempo, busy pace of his art, adding his self-respect and hard work to it, he also never neglects his family. He never cuts the communication with his mother, brother and nephews and he helps them as much as he can both morally and materially.

By the year 2019, Özek celebrated the 40th anniversary of his artistic life. Turkey’s one of the most essential Puppet Festival “International Istanbul Puppet Festival” left its 22nd edition behind even under the drastic economic situations of the country nowadays. Festival, that is living with its own sources and ticket revenues and having no institutional or state support, celebrated the 22nd edition with seventy percent participation of the audiences and puppet lovers. Last year has gone with countless numbers of national and international performances, contentful exhibitions, workshops realized at many locations of the world and with theatres opening their curtains with Özek’s plays at different countries.

Karagöz shadow show in a cafe in old Istanbul.

One of the most special moments among them was during this year’s “International Istanbul Puppet Festival”, when Özek’s Mexican student “Diego Ugalde”, was performing his local native American story called “Nos Volvimos Buffalos” that means “We became Buffaloes”, which is an adaptation of a local story to the Karagöz – Shadow Theatre Technique. While watching his student’s performance with a proper pride, he also followed all the movements of his students in details and he breathed together with them on his seat. It was not hard to observe his excitement from his body language.

Hmmm, than you may now say after all this success, effort and artistic adventure in forty years, let’s give Özek the “Lifetime Achievement Award” and let him enjoy his retirement. Well unfortunately, I have to announce here without giving so much details that Mr. Özek is in an endeavor of two new performances to be put on stage with his dynamism and young spirit. And to crown it all, he has concrete thinking and action on opening a Karagöz Museum, Archive and Documentation Center and a Karagöz Library and focusing on giving lectures at Universities’ about Karagöz Art that all shall be counted among the aims and targets of UNESCO as well within the frame of Intangible Cultural Heritage preservation and improvement. I believe and think that the following days, months and years specific to Cengiz Özek will be again full of surprises to bend our time perception and will write many more “Tales of unusual dedication that will be hard to believe”.

I wish him health, a long artistic and biological life that is full of further more success and creative opportunities…

Aziz Murat Aslan