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City of dreams: Uzbek painter brings nondescript Istanbul district to life

For Mahsuma Tastanova, it was during the mid-1970s that her artistic creativity began to shape in her family’s dimly-lit living room in Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent.

As her father places one of his favourite records on his gramophone and lowers the stylus, the sound of Turkish music fills the atmosphere. Four-year-old Mahsuma is soon called to dance, handkerchief in hand, her parents cheering her on.

Moments like this from her childhood shaped Mahsuma’s aspirations.

“I’ve had a love for Türkiye for as long as I can remember,” Mahsuma told TRT World in an interview, adding that even then, she dreamt of going to Türkiye and painting the country her family spoke so highly of.

Her dream of living in Istanbul took form when she started watching the Turkish TV series ‘Calikusu’ in the late ‘80s. So mesmerised was she by Istanbul’s beauty that Mahsuma, then in her teenage years, couldn’t unglue her eyes from the screen.

“I watched that show over and over again. It was clear to me then and there that I was meant to live in Istanbul,” Mahsuma said.

Colouring a neighbourhood

Walking down a slope in the Kadirga district of Istanbul’s Fatih, I found Mahsuma sitting at a small hotel’s cafe chatting with a couple of locals.

I had trouble getting her attention as she was absorbed in a conversation about which attraction she would be painting next: the Basilica Cistern or the Dolmabahce Palace?

Once she realised that I was the person she was supposed to meet, she enthusiastically gestured me into the hotel and said: “Come, I’ll show you all my paintings.”

Mahsuma had arrived in Istanbul in 2012 with nothing to her name. Having left her whole life and family behind in Tashkent, she couldn’t find a job as a painter and had to start working as a nanny to make a living.

“I was finally in Istanbul, the city of my dreams, so I didn’t mind that I couldn’t find a painting job. But the city never stopped inspiring me. I was constantly looking for an opportunity to start painting,” Mahsuma recalls.

That opportunity presented itself a decade later in 2020, thanks to a chance encounter with Cuma Bey, the owner of Isil Hotel in Kadirga, who was renovating his establishment.

Noticing that the building’s walls could use some colour, Mahsuma volunteered to paint the hotel and began working the next day as Cuma Bey immediately accepted her offer.

She painted Istanbul’s famous sights — including the Ayasofya Grand Mosque, Rumeli Fortress, Maiden’s Tower, and Galata Tower — onto the outer walls of the hotel. She even depicted the Conquest of Constantinople on one wall, depicting Mehmed the Conqueror on horseback in front of the Walls of Constantinople.

“Istanbul became my muse. Living in this magnificent city, surrounded by history, provided me with an endless spring of inspiration and motivation,” Mahsuma said as she took me through Kadirga under the scorching sun, showing me each one of her murals with a delighted smile on her face.

The murals of Isil Hotel were only the beginning for Mahsuma, who began attracting more and more attention from locals and tourists. Her art was so admired that in no time, Mahsuma had her murals decorating the walls of several other hotels around the district, with more queuing up to summon the strokes of her paintbrush.

Today, some call her by the name “Kadirga gulu,” meaning “the rose of Kadirga,” as she is recognised for adorning the district.

“It wasn’t easy getting here though; there were sacrifices,” Mahsuma said with a broken smile as she stood adoring her work. She wasn’t just talking about the 10 years that passed in Istanbul before she got to start painting, but also the two decades that had passed back home in Tashkent.

Around the time she began dreaming of coming to Istanbul to pursue a painting career here, Mahsuma was studying pedagogy and became a painting teacher. Meanwhile, she also got married and had two children.

Her marriage failed, however, and Mahsuma was left alone with her children. So when her aunt offered to help her move to Istanbul, she was unable to accept. 

“But I remember very well that I told her I would go later, because the love I had for Istanbul never died. I couldn’t give up,” Mahsuma said.

When her children were old enough, Mahsuma decided to leave them in the care of her parents and set out to Istanbul.

When I asked her about how she felt on her first day here, Mahsuma told me that “even the air felt magical.”

“Looking back, I was euphoric the moment I got off the plane. And I’m still thrilled that I get to be here,” she added.

She has been visiting her family back home in Tashkent as frequently as possible. Her children, who now have kids of their own, visit her in Istanbul as well. Mahsuma says they are all very happy to see her fulfil her lifelong dream.

“To me, painting is not an occupation. My whole life is dedicated to it, and getting to do that in Istanbul is a dream come true,” she said.

Adding beauty

Mahsuma had a passion for painting for as long as she can remember. Her parents actively supported her calling, providing her with all the necessary tools.

Her father, in particular, was one of her biggest supporters and was so eager for Mahsuma to be a painter that he sacrificed the walls of his garage: They were repurposed to function as her canvas, as he would paint over the walls again and again whenever Mahsuma ran out of space.

The experience was what got Mahsuma hooked on painting murals. As she continued to practice her art, she felt that the limits of a traditional canvas restricted her — she needed the vastness of a wall to work freely and enjoyed adding beauty to a space that was once empty and bland.

Even while working as a teacher in Tashkent, Mahsuma would paint the school walls in her free time. From maths symbols to life-sized animals, she would decorate the walls to make going to school more enjoyable for the students.

“I find joy in adding beauty to people’s worlds by adorning their surroundings. That’s what I like to think I’m doing in Istanbul: adding to the city’s mesmerising beauty,” Mahsuma said.

She is now hoping to travel to Türkiye’s coastal towns and cities — including Kas, Fethiye and Izmir — to continue painting murals along the way. She has already promised to work with a hotel in Fethiye and offers from several other cities keep coming in.

“I want to experience the full beauty of Türkiye, though my heart is with Istanbul,” she said, confident that her dream life has just begun.

As she walked with me to the metro station where we bid each other farewell, I heard her say under her breath: “Things somehow work out when you get moving. No matter how long the journey takes, you just have to keep striving.”

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