Zoe Spawton is a 30 year old Australian working in a Berlin café. Ali Akdeniz is an 85 year old Turkish tailor, who also lives in Berlin. Since 2012, Zoe has been photographing Ali on his regular walks past her workplace and posting the portraits a blog called What Ali Wore. When it was named 2013 Blog of the Year by Germany’s Lead Award, Zoe and Ali went together to Hamburg to accept the prize.
It was probably around then that I first saw Zoe’s blog, and its extraordinary photographs have lingered in the back of my mind ever since – one sign, I think, that this is a good art work. But whose art work is it?
No one looking at Ali’s pitch-perfect dress sense or his performer’s stance could miss the artist in him. It’s no surprise to discover – in the excellent NPR interview with Zoe and Ali – that he was once a circus artiste. But he is a recently-retired tailor. Zoe, on the other hand, is a food and documentary photographer, though she also works as a waitress. She saw in Ali something that countless other passers-by didn’t, because she looks at things as an artist. And yet, without him, What Ali Wore could not exist.
It seems to me that, as in all good participatory art, both enact the artist’s role, albeit in different ways. Indeed it is the difference that makes the creation of new work possible, because each person brings something the other cannot contribute. Neither Zoe nor Ali could make alone what they have made together. That is the importance of the product and the importance of the process. Of course they had to accept the Lead Award together.
Zoe is now planning a book of the photographs; it will be another chapter in the rich, intriguing story of her friendship with Ali and their shared creativity. I’ll be ordering a copy.