The compelling work of Turkish artist Uğur Gallenkuş has garnered much attention for its thought-provoking investigation of various injustices happening across the globe. Through dramatic collages, Gallenkuş merges photojournalistic imagery with visual references to the privileged yet peaceful essence of the West, resulting in poignant works that fascinate and disturb. Inspired by an unwavering commitment to social justice, Gallenkuş adroitly juxtaposed images of affluence with those of poverty, hardship and crisis to draw attention to matters often overlooked by mainstream discourse.
In support of the WHO Foundation‘s Emergency Earthquake Appeal, Gallenkuş has created a series of works to raise funds for the victims of the devastating earthquakes that struck both Türkiye and the Syrian Arab Republic, which claimed almost 50,000 lives. These works are an interplay of imagery depicting the disparity between lives untouched by the disaster and those irrevocably changed, highlighting the urgent need for support and relief efforts.
Through my artwork, I draw attention to these life-threatening issues and raise awareness of their impact
Gallenkuş has promoted numerous causes through artistic expression throughout his career, including healthcare appeals in Ukraine and the greater Horn of Africa and Sahel. In 2019, the United Nations Development Program employed his influential collages to publicise its Global Goals campaign. In 2020, Gallenkuş was called on again for the UN Sustainable Development Goals Action Campaign that underscored the connection between global economic inequalities and climate change; in the same year, releasing his first book, Parallel Universes of Children, in honour of World Children’s Day.
Gallenkuş‘s emphatic visuals serve as an agency for advocacy and evolution, exposing society’s stark imbalances and injustices, challenging us to confront the uncomfortable truth, and consider our collective responsibility to effect change.
Q: Uğur! How are you doing? Thank you for taking the time to speak with us during this crucial time. Can you please introduce yourself to those who do not know you?
Uğur Gallenkuş: Hello! It is my pleasure to be speaking with you and your readers. Of course, my name is Uğur Gallenkuş, and I am a digital artist based in Istanbul, Türkiye. As part of my work, I create split-style digital collages that draw attention to the contrasts we see globally by bringing two photos from different contexts together side by side. By doing this, I am trying to contrast the way in which we understand the lives of others, especially during times of crisis.
Q: Could you recount your path as an artist, the pivotal moments and experiences that led you to embrace art as a profession, and how your artistic pursuits have shaped and impacted your life?
Uğur Gallenkuş: In 2014, I was a business-school graduate living an ordinary life, and photomontage was merely a hobby for me. However, when the tragedy in the Syrian Arab Republic struck, I saw digital art as a way to respond to what I witnessed. My work started as a spontaneous reaction to the disturbing image of Alan Kurdi – a Syrian boy whose body washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea – and it has continued ever since.
The country where I live, Türkiye, is also a destination country for millions of refugees every year. Seeing the fear and helplessness that these refugees, especially refugee children, experience has also pushed me to raise awareness about the challenges they are facing through my work. This is why I started Parallel Universesin 2016 and published my first book, Parallel Universes of Children, in 2020 in honour of World Children’s Day.
Q: Your work delves into the multifaceted themes surrounding politics and society, weaving together potent imagery depicting misery and joy, wealth and poverty, and love and despair. Can we delve deeper into your practice, influences, sources of inspiration and how these entities inform your work?
Uğur Gallenkuş: I see visual art as a language of its own. Many of us have the privilege of having never been exposed to life-threatening issues such as conflicts, acts of terrorism, economic hardship and environmental disasters. Through visual art, we can better understand these and other challenges that may initially seem very distant to us; we can empathise and become compelled to support the actors that help address these issues.
Through my artwork, I draw attention to these life-threatening issues and raise awareness of their impact. Initially, my work has focused mainly on the topics of war and conflict, refugees and immigration. However, as part of my wider work, I have realised that there is more I want to shine a light on, including socio-economic injustices, women’s and children’s rights, freedom and justice issues, environmental disasters and animal rights – issues that exist in developed and developing countries alike.
One message I want to get across through my work is that, in today’s world, we are all connected, and these problems are not limited to low- and middle- income countries or settings, they concern all of us. Therefore, we should all be informed and do what we can to help address them.
Q: Continuing from this, how do you balance the desire to raise awareness with the potential for triggering difficult emotions in your audience?
Uğur Gallenkuş: Art has a significant awareness-raising power, and it can help those who are oppressed voice their challenges in an impactful, universally understood language. As such, it can benefit the whole of our humanity. However, this impact is only possible to achieve by triggering an emotional response in your audience, as our emotions motivate us to act and contribute to much-needed change.
Q: You collaborated with the WHO Foundation to create a stunning series of artworks to support the organisation’s earthquake relief campaign in Turkey. Can you tell us more about the collaboration and why it was important for you to be involved in this critical campaign?
Uğur Gallenkuş: As a result of the devastating earthquakes in Türkiye and the Syrian Arab Republic, over 50,000 people have lost their lives, and millions of others are now effectively homeless. With the aftershocks, freezing conditions, and multiple hospitals and health centres destroyed, this number is only expected to go up.
In the Syrian Arab Republic, the civil war has already affected the health system and needs our continued support and attention. This is why it is crucial to continue supporting the survivors as well as the health systems in both Türkiye and the Syrian Arab Republic so they can cope with the long-term impacts of the earthquakes.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and its partners are already on the ground providing medical services and supplies, but they cannot do this alone. This is why I am proud to be partnering with the WHO Foundation to raise awareness of health needs in both countries and encourage people to donate what they can to the Emergency Earthquake Appeal supporting WHO’s life-saving work.
Access to health services and supplies should be a basic human right, no matter the circumstances one lives in. This is why my work with the WHO Foundation is not limited to raising awareness of the health impacts related to earthquakes in Türkiye and the Syrian Arab Republic. I have also worked with the Foundation to create collages depicting the health crisis caused by the conflict in Ukraine and the humanitarian crisis caused by widespread droughts and flooding in the greater Horn of Africa and the Sahel regions.
You’ve been involved with the WHO Foundation for a while, working on different healthcare appeals, such as the ones in Ukraine and the greater Horn of Africa and Sahel. Why did you want to get involved with the Foundation, and does it mean something different to you now that it is an appeal focused on the country where you live?
Uğur Gallenkuş: Health is a fundamental human right and that, unless it’s addressed promptly, health issues can pose challenges for the wider world and humanity. This is why I am happy to be working with the WHO Foundation to raise awareness of WHO’s life-saving health work and what we can all do to support it. Working on an Emergency Health Appeal focusing specifically on my own country was a particularly humbling experience – living in Türkiye, it is impossible not to follow the news about the earthquakes and their impacts, and I was happy to do whatever I can to support WHO’s work.
Health equity sits at the heart of the WHO Foundation – what does this mean to you, and how does this relate to your art?
Uğur Gallenkuş: Working with the WHO Foundation, especially in light of the earthquake disasters in Türkiye, where I live, I have come to understand that while we may not expect a huge health crisis to affect our country, this can change overnight. This is why we all need equitable access to health services and supplies at all times, and we must continue to support organisations such as WHO that can help provide this. Supporting their work means supporting the people who need us, and I am proud to be doing this through my partnership with the WHO Foundation.
Q: The studio is the sacred temple of creativity. What are three things you can’t live without in your studio?
Uğur Gallenkuş: As a digital artist, I am not bound by a studio or any supplies present within it. As long as I have my computer and access to internet, I will continue creating artwork that raises awareness of global issues and helps mobilise people to act and advocate for change.
Q: What’s next for Uğur Gallenkuş?
Uğur Gallenkuş: While we can never know where the next crisis will take place, one thing that is certain is that art will always have an important role to play in raising awareness about its impacts and compelling people to act. This is what I hope to continue doing with my collages for as long as I can.
Q: Lastly, what does art mean to you?
Uğur Gallenkuş:I see art as a powerful method to connect people, bring them closer to stories they otherwise would not know much about and start meaningful conversations – this makes it a special tool to raise awareness of global issues, especially in times of crisis.