The Personal is Political

Me, in a social context, through objects 1: Vitrin

Each object, no matter how mundane it may seem, carries a story, a piece of history, and a slice of life. And it’s these stories that make us who we are. They may not be grand or extravagant, but they are real, authentic, and utterly relatable. So, let’s celebrate the ordinary, let’s embrace the simplicity, and let’s uncover the extraordinary stories hidden within the everyday objects of our lives. Because it's in the ordinary that we find the true essence of life's richness and diversity. 

Let’s embark on a journey to give a voice to these silent witnesses of time. I’m eager to delve into the world of significant household items, starting with a very special piece: the vitrin, a treasured and irreplaceable element in Turkish homes for decades.

Take a moment to look at the photo below from 1991, likely snapped by my father, capturing a moment in our home in Seyrantepe/Istanbul. At first glance, it portrays a modest and charming living space, but upon closer examination, it unveils incredible insights into Turkey’s modernization journey.

Photo 1: Me, in front of a Vitrin

That little boy in the center? That’s me! But I’ll get back to my story later. First, I want to draw your attention to the display cabinet, the vitrin, standing proudly behind me. Since the 1960s, vitrins have been a popular addition to urban Turkish households, once considered luxurious items reserved for the upper classes. In those days, ordinary people would only catch glimpses of them in Yeşilçam movies, often in scenes showcasing wealth and opulence.

But as mass production grew, vitrins became more accessible, evolving into symbols of social mobility. They became particularly aspirational for families who had recently moved from rural areas to cities, dreaming of adorning their living rooms with these grand display cabinets.

This story mirrors my own family’s journey. Moving to Istanbul in the early 1980s, we lived in various shanty-houses or "gecekondu," literal “overnight builds” without proper planning or legal permission. These gecekondus representted one of Turkey's most pressing social issues, born from unguided urbanization and the government's pursuit of cheap labor for industries.

The state found itself in a dilemma: attempting to ban gecekondus due to legal and public health issues, while also needing to address the needs of millions living in these makeshift homes. And with gecekondu residents forming a significant voter base, politicians were wary of taking actions that might upset them.

Photo 2: A depiction of the gecekondu dwelling we called home in 1990. On the right, you can see me as a young boy, with my brother engaging in play in the backdrop. In the scene, my mother is busily stuffing wool into a fabric cover, a step in the process of crafting a handmade mattress. 

Fast forward to the early 1990s, and my family had begun to climb the social ladder, eventually renting a flat where we could proudly display our treasures in a vitrin. The items inside, from porcelain cases to encyclopedias, may seem ordinary or even outdated by today’s standards. However, back then, they were luxuries for a lower-middle-class family.

The encyclopedias, popular in the 1980s, were a status symbol in a country still grappling with widespread illiteracy. They were the Google of their time, proudly displayed in our vitrin.

The glass table in the photo is another classic piece, still popular in Turkey today, and it remains in my family home.

And a quick note about that little boy in the blue sweater: that’s me, wearing a hand-knitted piece, a testament to a time when hand-knitting was prevalent, and the clothing industry was not as massive as it is today.

Now, let’s jump to 1997, another snapshot of my family's home in Istanbul. Our display cabinet has grown, reflecting our upward mobility. Yet, some things remain constant: the glass table, the ever-growing collection of encyclopedias, and other cherished items.

Photo 3: Our updated display cabinet in 1997, a prominent feature of our apartment, proudly showcases a variety of intricate details. These include encyclopedias, liquor bottles, certificates of achievement, figurines, and elegantly arranged sets of cups and plates resting on delicate lace. Together, all these elements serve a significant purpose: they are a visual testament to our identity as a modern family on the rise in the social ladder. [Me on the right. Others are our guests, not my family]

Today, the vitrin tradition continues in Turkey, albeit with a transformed appearance and function. They’ve transitioned into smart TV cabinets with a minimalist design, but we still capture moments in front of our most cherished furniture. The old vitrin from the first photo is gone, repurposed as firewood. The second vitrin, saved from a similar fate, now serves as a vintage décor piece, hosting nostalgic items. The display cabinet at my family's house has now been replaced by the TV unit shown in the photograph below. Nevertheless, my family continues to cherish this type of furniture as the most valuable possession in our home. 

In conclusion, vitrins once showcased a family's most prized possessions. Today, they stand as living displays of Turkey's rapid modernization, evolving alongside families and the country itself, preserving stories of our collective journey through time.

Photo 4: The latest incarnation of the display cabinet saga, stretching from the 1990s to the present. In our journey of modernization, this piece of furniture, though transformed, remains a vital object for a family striving to showcase its success and retain its cherished traditions.