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Volume 24, Number 3May/June 1973

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The Cloud Art

In a damp Istanbul basement the last master preserves a rare subtly beautiful—and dying-art.

Written and photographed by Robert Arndt

No one knows who invented ebru , the cloud-art of Central Asia. But if genius lies in synthesizing the unrelated, then it was a genius of 13th-century Turkistan who first tried to capture on paper the floating colors of oil-covered water. From that beginning, ebru grew to be an honored art all over Persia and the Seljuk and Ottoman Empires, as well as a craft without which the diplomacy and administration of the time could not have functioned.

Ebru is marbled paper, made by floating paints on water in one of several specific designs, and transferring it, unaltered, to the paper's surface. As late as the 1920's, whole streets of Beyazit, Istanbul's printing and paper quarter, were lined with ebrucus' workshops, and their production was used as the endpapers of books, as mats for decorative calligraphy, and as decorative panels on fine woodwork. In 19th-century Britain and America, machine-made ebru-like patterns were used to decorate page edges and endpapers of fine editions also, but the largest part of the Middle Eastern ebrucus' output was beautiful sheets of pale patterns on which were written those important government documents and official communications which must be unforgeable and unalterable. Which ebru was, as any erasure of the writing would be betrayed by the break in the color pattern of the ebru background.

Besides these many artisans, though, there were the great ebru masters, whose names are remembered even centuries after they lived. They produced the purely decorative ebru, meant for display in the homes of the rich, or as a gift from a king to a king. Those who were also master calligraphers made yazili-ebru, in which the graceful lines of the Persian or Ottoman or Arabic script showed white against the rich ebru background, or akkase -ebru, the invention of a king of Kurasan, where the calligraphy was centered on a white field bordered with ebru color. It is to this line of masters that Mustafa Duzgunman belongs: he is the student of Nejmeddin Okyay, who was the student of the Dervish sheik and reputed magician Edhem—the line of succession can be traced back almost unbroken for centuries, and the methods Mustafa Bey uses are those handed down since the beginning.

Mustafa Duzgunman is 51, sleek-haired, smooth-faced; he has a successful paunch. His hands, a little fat, are deft. With his brother he owns a drug and spice shop on Istanbul's Asian shore. He has a wife, a house, a son, a daughter, all comfortably upholstered. At home, he relaxes in slippers and pajamas, like most middle-class Turks; he is proud of a fine collection of old Muslim prayer beads. And in his spare time, and when he feels like it, he is the last active practitioner of a 600-year-old art.

Invited to watch the making of ebru last year, we followed Mustafa Duzgunman into a small basement room, a little chilly, and more than a little smelly—the bad-meat smell of the beef bile used in making ebru. Against one unfinished concrete wall is a low workbench roughly made of weathered planks, above it a light bulb shaded by a scrap of color-clouded paper. The light falls harshly on a three-inch-deep rectangular brass tray and on a forest of twig-handled brushes standing around the tray in porcelain pots of color. Mustafa Bey sits down on a footstool and the little jolt he gives the table barely disturbs the surface of the murky, still liquid in the tray. Beside him in a rack is a ream of large sheets of thin, matte-surfaced paper.

Mustafa Bey chooses one of four pots of an identical shade of blue, and stirs the contents with the brush. He squeezes the excess paint from it, and then, tapping the brush handle against his finger, he spatters color onto the water in the tray. It floats on the surface and spreads until most of the surface is covered with billows of a muddy tint. Another color follows, applied with a slightly drier brush, so the drops are smaller. But this color—it will be a deep blue, he assures us—does not mix with the earlier, lighter shade: it migrates on the water's surface to the spaces between the lighter areas, pushing aside the other color as it goes! This we could not believe: that the colors might not mix we could accept, but that they could arrange themselves on the surface was hard to credit. "What does it?" we ask. Mustafa Bey chuckles as he chooses the next pot and bids us wait.

Now the tray's surface is covered with paint, visible only as differences in the murky tone of the thick-surfaced water. Mustafa Bey dips a wood-handled fine metal spike into a pot of green color, and touches the point with its drop of paint to the water. Immediately, a one-inch circle of green appears. He disapproves, shaking his head and explaining to us that the water is "too strong." Our puzzlement prompts further explanation: the water is mixed with kitra (gum tragacanth), a resin that 'resists' the paint, and tonight is the first night he has worked with this batch, made only three days ago.

"What can you do?" Again the command, "Wait. I am still learning after 30 years." He reaches for a bottle of translucent brown liquid, and with an eye-dropper adds two drops of the contents to the paint. He considers a moment, and a third drop follows. He stirs, and places a new drop of color onto the water's surface. The new green circle is nearly twice the size of the first, and, pleased, Mustafa Bey makes two vertical rows of three spots of green. "Sigir kolesterin —beef bile," he says, and adds that he uses up to four different strengths of bile for each shade, so that the colors' interactions can be controlled, as we saw in the blue background.

Then with metal points of different sizes, he draws the drops of color around on the turgid, near-elastic surface of the water-kitra emulsion. A special tool, with a dozen points arranged in a circle, puts a dense pattern of small blobs of white above the green flower-stem that he has produced, and these in turn are teased into swirls: the multiple blossoms of a double hyacinth. When he is satisfied with the design, hard to distinguish in its pale shades, Mustafa Bey takes a sheet of paper just the size of the brass tray and lowers it onto the water's surface, starting with one corner and rolling the rest of the sheet down, so that no bubbles are trapped under the sheet, and no random motion distorts the color pattern. There the paper lies long enough for the artist to drink three swallows of tea, and then Mustafa Bey lifts one corner of the sheet to see if all the color has been taken up.

It has, and we wince as he lifts a long edge of the paper to drag the entire sheet out of the tray over one brass lip—the pattern must have been hopelessly smeared. He holds the sheet up to the light, and we gasp: far from ruined, the pattern is perfect and whole, the colors are unbelievably bright, and the lovely white hyacinth on the two-blue ground is as vivid and charming as the real ones in the flower market.

"Ishte! There it is!" he says, with an unmistakable note of pride in his voice, "Nejmeddin ebrusu." This is the name given to flower-pattern ebru—the name of its inventor and Mustafa Bey's teacher, Nejmeddin Okyay. There are only six or seven different patterns, Mustafa Bey tells us, though the possible variations on each are infinite. He makes them all for us, from the simplest battal (the pattern of large blobs that made the background for our hyacinth) through somaki (a finer version of battal), git-gel (a fine multi-colored chevron pattern), and tarakli (made by drawing a comb-like tool the length of the tray), to Hatip-Bey-ebru, named after the hatip , or preacher of the Hagia Sophia mosque who invented the pattern in the last half of the 18th century.

Mustafa Bey would make a fine teacher: his face grows animated as he tells us what a daring departure the hatip made in distinguishing background and foreground in an ebru: the bold, distorted concentric rings of his design are a subject on a background and not simply an all-over pattern. And Nejmeddin Okyay's contribution is more important still: his is the first representational ebru, and thus adds to the repertoire not just another pattern, but a whole field. Mustafa Bey shows us charming and lifelike daisies, pansies, and rosebuds, as well as the carnations and tulips that are well-known Turkish motifs in other arts. What will be the next step is our question: Will Mustafa Bey extend the limits of the ebrucus' craft? Will there be a pattern called Mustafa -ebru?

"This is my hobby," he answers us. "I do it for my own pleasure when it gets too cold to sit and drink tea in the garden. My son has a theoretical interest in ebru, but he's not willing to make the effort involved: finding the right paper on the black market, arranging for importing the pigments I can't get here, digging the clay I found that sets some of the colors permanently or grinding and mixing the dry colors with the roller pestle on the marble slab. And my daughter is interested, true, but she is only ten ... Nejmeddin Bey taught at the Fine Arts Academy in Istanbul, but they don't teach ebru there any more. And his two sons don't practice their father's art; I am the only practicing master."

"But who will follow you? Who will carry on Nejmeddin's advances? A unique art like this, with a 600-year history, can't simply stop, can it?"

The drug-and-spice merchant shrugs and spreads his hands, and smiles gently. "Ishte ... It's just my hobby."

Robert Arndt started out to be a diplomat but after getting a master's degree in that field switched to journalism. He now free-lances from Turkey.

This article appeared on pages 26-32 of the May/June 1973 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1973 images.