Ayşin Yoltar-Yıldırım Interview

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Gavin Moulton
Director, External Affairs


For Women’s History Month, MEPC is highlighting the outstanding contributions of women in advancing cultural understanding between the United States and countries of the Middle East. Ayşin Yoltar-Yıldırım is the Hagop Kevorkian Associate Curator of Islamic Art at the Brooklyn Museum. She received her MA and PhD in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. Her interests include arts of the book from the Persian and Ottoman realms as well as the history of Islamic art collections. She recently edited Persian Manuscripts & Paintings from the Berenson Collection from Harvard University Press and is currently working towards the reinstallation of the Arts of the Islamic World gallery at the Brooklyn Museum. 

Could you tell us about your journey studying Islamic art? How did you become interested in museum work and art history?  

In high school, I was interested in painting but was unsure if I would follow studio arts in college. A mentor who was guiding me in painting at that time suggested art history as a degree based on my background and general interests. And he was right. As soon as I took my first art history class, in Turkey where I grew up, I knew I had made the right decision. I was interested in learning about paintings more than painting myself. The college program I chose was archaeology and art history and provided different pathways to each area. 

When I took various Islamic art classes, they really opened up a whole new way of looking into my surroundings. Going to mosques all of a sudden meant more than a religious activity. My education up until college had taught me to appreciate art and culture but not necessarily in the Islamic realm, as if the two were separate. My college education was a wonderful combination of the two. Traveling to numerous historical sites and museums as part of my art history classes was the best experience of my student life. Learning and connecting with the rich Islamic culture in Turkey and beyond was something I had not imagined when I began to study art history in college. 

In particular, when I became aware of the Islamic painting tradition in manuscripts, I was completely taken by the field. I still remember my classes with slides where we would be shown several paintings from a single manuscript as if we were turning the pages ourselves. These illustrated manuscripts were originally made for a very small audience such as rulers and their entourage. Thanks to the museums and libraries, and of course our professors who studied them, we could also see these manuscripts and learn about the cultures they were made for. I knew how lucky I was to see and learn about them. I also realized that I was familiar with many of the stories of these manuscript paintings. They were not unlike my own grandmother’s tales or some Turkish movies or plays I had seen. I think realizing my inherent familiarity despite being unaware of it was the main reason why I decided to study Islamic manuscripts and painting further. 

With the encouragement of my professors in Turkey, I applied for and was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to do a master’s degree in art history in the US. I chose New York University where I could study with a renowned professor in the history of Islamic art who specialized in manuscript painting. I ended up receiving my Ph.D. in the same program. During my graduate school years, I was awarded several fellowships at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I first experienced the museum as a workplace and it made a great impression on me. Researching the depths of the collection, looking at artworks very closely, preparing exhibitions, and giving gallery talks taught me the fundamentals of museum work which I still benefit from today. Focusing on artworks to learn about a culture is something I carry with me from my undergraduate years, and today I want to share the same excitement with all museum visitors who are willing to look at art from a familiar or different culture.

Do you have any advice for women pursuing a curatorial career?  

Curatorial positions in museums have become more of a norm for women in recent years which may have something to do with more women studying art history and related fields. Pursuing a curatorial career is only natural for those who are passionate about artworks, yet financially it is not an easy one. Many of the early-career jobs don’t pay well and going up the ladder is not a straight line. Finding internships and fellowships while you are in school is probably the best way to understand what this type of job entails and whether you are really suited for it. However, once you make that decision, perseverance and passion for your field will be very important to push yourself forward. 

What is the most rewarding aspect of working as a curator of Islamic Art at the Brooklyn Museum? 

The most rewarding aspect of being a curator of Islamic Art at the Brooklyn Museum has been the collaborative spirit of my colleagues and the prioritization of exhibitions that address social issues. I learn from their perspectives and I hope I am making a difference in their understanding and appreciation of Islamic art. For example, this creative and supportive environment spawned my 2018 exhibition “Syria, Then and Now: Stories from Refugees a Century Apart,” which focused on forced migration and displaced communities. 

This fall 2022, the Brooklyn Museum will reopen its Islamic Galleries. How do you hope to reimagine narratives around Islamic art?  

Although many of the Museum’s objects have been displayed before, especially for their aesthetic and technical excellence, I am interested in telling different stories which focus on their usage and function as well as making these stories relevant to visitors today. Instead of using a regional or periodic approach to organize the galleries, I chose a thematic display that introduces the art in terms of general concepts such as religion, fine dining, science and magic. The concepts could be familiar to viewers without any specialized knowledge of history or geography to appreciate and understand the artwork. I just think that most visitors would not be attuned to stylistic distinctions in artworks of the Umayyad versus Qajar periods, and therefore I have not prioritized such an arrangement, which is common in the permanent galleries of many museums. 

For the interested, labels provide further details as to where and when these objects were produced since I don’t want the viewers to think Islamic art is the same within its vast spread over time and geographies. I also want to show objects in the way that they would have been used in their original contexts. For example, in most museums, tiles and ceramic dishes are often shown together in the same case irrespective of their function to emphasize their technical and decorative qualities. However, I chose to place tiles on the walls of the gallery as they would have been used to decorate buildings, and ceramic dishes on a horizontal surface in a case, indicative of a dining experience.

What is your goal for visitors to take away from the gallery renovations?  

Since the Islamic galleries have been closed for so many years, I wanted to create a gallery that could engage with visitors even if they had minimal knowledge about Islam and about places the objects originate from. Contemporary artworks are juxtaposed with historical ones in the galleries when they share a common theme. Such combinations also help to convey that Islamic cultures continue into the present. I also hope that visitors will appreciate the variations among Islamic cultures and realize that knowing one aspect of it, such as the ban on figural representation in Islamic art, is limiting and does not define all of Islamic art. I would urge visitors to come with an open mind and see it themselves rather than expecting a certain kind of art.   

You recently edited a volume on Persian manuscripts from the Berenson collection at Villa I Tatti. Is there a folio in the publication that particularly struck your interest?  

This publication grew out of an exhibition I curated at the Harvard Art Museums in 2017 “A New Light on Bernard Berenson: Persian Paintings from Villa I Tatti.” The book brought together a wide range of experts in art history, literature, conservation, and even statistics to study the little-known Persian manuscripts and paintings in the collection of Bernard Berenson, the influential connoisseur of Italian Renaissance painting. My own essay in the book focused on Berenson’s reasons for collecting these items and his networks which included many known figures from the Boston area. Although I learned his collection very well, it was my collaborators who studied each object in detail. 

It is hard for me to choose one over the others; I am intrigued by many of them. However, the 1427 Anthology (Rasail) of the Timurid ruler Baysungur and the painting of “Two lovers feasting” from the chapter on the Quarters of Heavens connects me with the times I first studied Persian painting in Turkey and was mesmerized by the details in Timurid paintings. The text related to this painting describes a love encounter of a couple in a blossoming garden. The painting shows the couple seated under a tree near a small brook. They sit closely on a carpet as their knees touch, a detail also mentioned in the text. There are several female attendants around them; beautiful vessels are used to serve the couple. Music is played and meat is cooked nearby. There is utmost attention to all the details which make this scene really come alive for me.

How can museums further cross-cultural understanding? 

I believe museums can engage diverse audiences through art, provide opportunities for learning about past and present cultures, and bring tangible proof to lived experiences. New perspectives give us a chance to reinterpret and reframe artworks. I think if museum visitors can see something familiar in a culture they did not know much about or may have had negative thoughts on previously, they are more likely to be drawn into a constructive exploration of it. People are often dismissive or even afraid of what they don’t know. Descriptions of artworks can be difficult to comprehend if one is not familiar with the vocabulary or concepts. Usually, the museum visitor feels that an object they encounter was considered important enough to be collected by someone and has therefore been deemed worthy to display in the museum. 

Within the museum environment, a relationship usually begins between the viewer and the artwork in a respective manner, perhaps in an unconscious way. If the viewers can find similarities between themselves and the culture that may have initially been foreign to them, this relationship can move in a more positive direction of thoughtful engagement. Therefore, in my opinion, a display style that builds upon similarities rather than differences can serve as a bridge between visitors and works of art and cultures. In addition to visual material, various events, films, and music shows can also help build more bridges. Thus, the more they know about different cultures, the easier they can realize negative prejudices and overcome them.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top