Humans of the UIC School of Art & Art History: Ömür Harmanşah

Professor Harmanşah photographed by Lisa Yun Lee in Henry Hall, home of the Art History Dept.

Ömür Harmanşah is the latest human to be featured on our blog about the diverse human ecology of the UIC School of Art & Art History. We capture the unique style of members of our community somewhere on campus and ask them 7 questions.

1.) So, what’s up with all the punctuation marks in your name?

The “s with a tail” is called a cedilla, it sounds like [sh] as in schmooze. O with umlauts reads like [Oe] as in the French "Boeuf" and U with umlaut [Ue] as in German Tür (door). Turkish has 8 vowels a, e, ı, i, o, ö, u, ü, and that’s why Arabic script- which only has two vowels- was bad news for the Turks for many centuries.

2.) Thanks.  So, tell me what is your most interesting character trait?

This is a hugely difficult question to answer.  I didn't really grow up thinking about myself a lot. The self was always a hidden topic, something to be ashamed and kept behind closed doors. Growing up in Turkey, you were always made to believe that you wanted and you needed to be like others who were your idols. It was never important who you were, but more who you wanted to be. Now that I am asked this question in the States, I always find myself thinking about the future, what kind of a person I want to be. The present seems scary and banal, frustrating.

3.) Tell me about something fun you recently did in class and what you teach at UIC.

Most recently in class, I told my students about an archaeological site in Turkey, Catalhoyuk, which they can now visit virtually in Second Life and watch the burning of the village, or take a tour led by the avatars of archaeologists who work there. 

I teach about ancient societies in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, with emphasis on their art, material and visual culture, and their architecture. This includes the mysterious early "civilizations" (a word that I am increasingly annoyed at) of Mesopotamia --  the land between the two rivers, today's Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. 

It makes me very sad that the story of early human history tends to be told as good old political histories.  I challenge them by talking about environment, landscape, urban and architectural spaces, everyday life of its people, what they ate, how they lamented for their dead, how they used little magic dolls to curse someone, how they threw people into the river to judge if they were guilty, how they washed and anointed their stone statues and took them out for a picnic and fed them barley cakes. 

4.) How does your scholarship relate to something we should all urgently care about in these times?

When the Taliban government or ISIS destroys and advertises their destruction of antiquities in museums and archaeological sites through global media, archaeologists are at a loss about how to respond. Archaeology has the benefit of telling stories about the really long-term history of the environment and landscapes in which we live. But it also has a difficult, problematic history of serving colonial agendas of the nation-state and being drawn into their political projects. So I've started asking questions about why archaeology has predominantly worked in service of the state and not so much with local communities. 

In a world where ecological activism and human rights activism have been gaining power such as in the Arab Spring and the Gezi Movement, I ask what archaeologists can do for environmental justice and heritage protection?  How can they collaborate with artists and anthropologists who are more experienced on these fronts?  How can they collaborate with ecology activists and local communities on the ground? Can we develop an archaeology of care for real people?

5.) What has impressed you most about UIC students in your short time here ?

I have been very impressed how the UIC students have such a real and down-to-earth vision of life. In the places I taught before (5 different universities in Turkey and the US), my impression was always that the college students were always living in some kind of a dream world, illusioned about what real life is like. Perhaps it is Chicago, perhaps their background, but UIC students seem to have their feet on the ground! I have full trust in them. I learn a great deal from them. 

6.) Who has most influenced you in your life/career trajectory?

My third year studio professor Ali Cengizkan at the architecture school I went to came from a political background, is a poet, and had this enormous sensitivity towards deep histories of place, and just being human. He was one of my idols. My two closest friends Asli Tanrikulu and Ersan Ocak in Turkey. They shaped so much of me, through the projects we've done together, and the many exciting projects that were planned and never realized. One is an artist and the other a new media/film theorist. 

My advisor at the architectural history program at METU, Suna Guven. Still a close friend, she was the one who pushed me to go abroad and helped me to get a full fellowship at Penn for my PhD. Who else can be so vital in someone's life? My mother Guler, a library scientist, with whom I spent so any hours in the library all my childhood. She taught me the love of books and tenderness to life and people. And my spouse Peri Johnson, with whom I have been collaborating in the field in the last 6-7 years.  

Last question, If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about the field of Art History that would make it better, what would it be?

With a magic wand? You know we have been writing and speaking and pontificating about works of art, objects, artifacts,  and buildings for centuries as art historians/archaeologists. It would have been interesting if those objects came alive and talked back, and debated, resisted or challenged, or even collaborated with us. If we could just halt that power relationship between the knowing author and the silent object, and let it speak?  What would the Parthenon or the Pyramid of Khufu say?