art world

How a blind artist in Turkey is challenging the understanding of colour

Esref Armagan paints and draws using not only colour but also shadow, light and perspective in his unique imaginative scenes.

For centuries, people who were born blind have been the intellectual curios of philosophers studying consciousness. This is particularly true for those exploring the way our consciousness is effected by our bodies, especially our eyes, which Leonardo da Vinci described as the “window of the soul”.

One interesting fallacy is the belief that people born blind have no real idea of colour. In the 17th century, for instance, the philosopher John Locke thought parts of the world were peculiar to the individual senses. These parts could be seen in the lack of understanding of people who were blind or deaf. Similarly, David Hume believed that when the senses weren’t stimulated by individual energies, such as light or sound, then no ideas could ever be formed.

Even in the 20th century, it was commonly believed that people born blind were unable to have a true understanding of the world around them. For instance, in 1950 the psychologist Geza Revesz wrote: “[No] one born blind is able to become aware of the diversity of nature and to apprehend all the rich and various appearances of objects.” Philosopher Thomas Nagel felt that blind people had only the most shallow understanding of colour in comparison to those with sight.

Up until the 21st century, we had little idea about how we could test our beliefs about visual concepts. But then scientists became aware of a Turkish artist named Esref Armagan. Born totally blind, Armagan has no direct visual experience. Yet he paints and draws using not only colour, but also shadow, light and perspective in his unique imaginative scenes.

So how did Armagan learn about colour? The answer seems to be through a creative understanding of visual elements through language and his remaining perceptions.

The artist has strong memories of what he was told about the visual world by his father. Armagan was often taken to this father’s engineering workshop as a child, and would ask questions about his surrounding environment.

Crucially, he also had opportunities to use this knowledge. Being an engineer, his father owned a scribe – a sharp tool for scratching, cutting and drilling points on metal – and Armagan used it to etch images on a card board.

Armagan’s father would guide his blind son’s hand over the engraved lines and describe what he saw. The young artist then practised making lines to represent visual edges and shading, which he showed to family members who provided feedback and more verbal descriptions.

Having mastered visual ideas such as edges and shade, the teenage Armagan began drawing in colour, and continued to seek comments and feedback from those around him. He described this process to my former student Ruth Cole as one of learning by repetition: “By asking and showing – over and over again.”

Play

Eventually, he switched his medium of choice to paint, recalling: “I started with coloured pencils and then switched to oil paints. But they took a long time to dry so I finally discovered acrylics.”

Interestingly, Armagan does not paint with watercolours, because he builds layers of paint on board and paper with his fingers, letting each layer dry before he adds another. This technique allows Armagan to sense the various colours and shades he’s creating as a substitute for seeing his new image.

A new artistic perspective

He has achieved a visual understanding through constant examination and discussion, supplemented through touch (he likens the colour red with the feel of something hot) and hearing (he compares the dimming of sound as it becomes distant with his use of visual perspective). He says: “I have created my painting in my head, including colours, before I ever start to paint. It is strictly memorisation.”

Armagan’s case challenges centuries of beliefs about colour. What’s more, given the accurate descriptions provided by sighted family and friends, his work shows that it is possible for people born blind to understand, describe and create visual pieces of art.

Perhaps researchers should now be finding examples to demonstrate how people can achieve what is thought to be unachievable, rather than focusing on theorising disability. If we can manage this, we may well further our understanding of what the human imagination is truly capable of – instead of having a poor idea of its limitations.

Simon Hayhoe, Lecturer in Education, University of Bath.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.