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Life after Life

A tribute to Suna Kıraç

We are all the poorer for the loss of Suna Kıraç, but her enlightened bequests in the face of adversity will enrich Turkey for generations to come

  • Suna Kıraç, by Ara Güler (copyright: Ara Güler Doğuş Sanat ve Müzecilik A.Ş.)

Among Suna Kıraç’s gifts to posterity were the establishment of a foundation active in education, health, culture and the arts, a museum that would bring their family collection to the public, and an institute that undertook scientific research on Istanbul, the city she loved. My job was to bring her aspirations in the fields of culture and arts to fruition, and I was given great support and broad authority to do so. Thus were born the Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation, the Pera Museum and the Istanbul Research Institute. Had we not been impeded by bureaucracy, the Kıraçs would have given Istanbul a world-class cultural centre designed by Frank Gehry, but that was not to be.

In the 20 years that I knew Suna Kıraç, and the 16 years I worked for her, I came to know her, both as a boss and as a person, and to understand her vision. For others wishing to grasp her ethic and what she did for her country, her memoir is required reading. Started in 1998, when she was already manifesting symptoms of ALS, a form of motor neurone disease, it is entitled Ömrümden Uzun İdeallerim Var (My Ideals Will Outlive Me), an expression of her wish that her endeavours should continue for posterity.

I first met Suna Kıraç in 1999. She and Bilge Emeç, my mother-in-law-to-be, had been friends since their days at the American College for Girls. Their husbands, İnan Kıraç and Çetin Emeç, were graduates of Galatasaray High School, and had worked together to establish the Galatasaray Education Foundation before Emeç, a newspaper editor, was heinously assassinated in March 1990.

Nine years later, when Mehveş Emeç and I became engaged, our party was held at the Kıraç yalı on the Bosphorus. That night Suna Hanım, the perfect hostess, did everything to ease my nervousness. It was the start of a relationship of love and respect. Our wedding in July 2000 was, I believe, the last social event Suna Kıraç attended before she was hospitalised.

I was then in charge of Yapı Kredi Culture and Art, and the Kıraç family had founded the Mediterranean Research Centre in Antalya. In 2003 Suna and İnan Kıraç, and their daughter, İpek, honoured me by asking me to become the founding director of the Pera Museum, and so our collaboration began. The museum opened in 2005, and staged some groundbreaking exhibitions. Two overlapping shows in 2011, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and Scenes From Tsarist Russia, together attracted over 140,000 visitors.

Suna Hanım would come to the museum almost weekly in the run-up to the opening. As her illness progressed, I would visit her in the yalı to discuss coming events. She was still able to guide us on debatable issues using just her eyes to indicate her approval or disapproval.

Her favourites at the Pera were the Kütahya pottery and the Orientalist paintings. She also had a particular fondness for the voluminous figures of the modern Colombian artist Fernando Botero, whose work we exhibited in 2010. The cultural highlight of her year was an annual visit to the Louvre, where her husband took her every year until 2015.

It was her mother, Sadberk Hanım, who had nurtured her children’s love of art and antiques. Suna Kıraç and her siblings, Rahmi Koç and Sevgi Gönül, have all created landmark museums.

Suna Hanım’s 35 years of training at the “university” of her father, Vehbi Koç, were tough, but she won his trust and became hugely successful, altering preconceptions both at work and at home. It must have been hard in the maledominated working world of 1970s Turkey for a young woman – even Vehbi Koç’s daughter – to be accepted and to drive through innovations. From the 1970s to the 1990s her stellar success provided hope and a role model for all Turkish women. Many were inspired to enter business and to strive to reach the higher levels.

Suna Kıraç’s business and philanthropic responsibilities always took priority, which meant she spent less time with her family than she might have, until, eventually, she was forced to fight ALS. It was a fight that would last over two decades, during which she could only communicate with her eyes, guiding her family, her employees and all who loved her, like the North Star. She was a warrior, never giving up on her aims and ambitions.

Paying posthumous tribute, İnan and İpek Kıraç said of Suna Hanım: “During these years, we came to realise how much of an iceberg she truly was. We were witnesses to how awake she was mentally… and how, despite all the difficulties involved, she managed to bring out her amazing gifts. Our love and respect for her grew daily.” We bade farewell to this “Queen of the Amazons” on September 15, 2020, but she will eternally continue to shed light on our people and our country with her ideals, and to live in our hearts.

Özalp Birol is Director of the Pera Museum and on the board of the Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation;

To read the full article, purchase Issue 62

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Issue 62, 2021 Travellers’ Tales
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Buy the issue
Issue 62, 2021 Travellers’ Tales
£12.00 / $15.24 / 490.98 TL
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