The power of sweat

by Kitty Drake in February 2021
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Art & design

Hamam, a magazine about the art and culture of bathing, opens with a quote from Carl Jung: “No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell”. Heat is a theme that runs through the issue, and the shimmering iridescent cover of the magazine evokes a heat haze, or a steamed-up window.

The magazine begins by emphasising something you don’t usually associate with bath-time: the violence of hot water; the way “heat both transforms and destroys, cleanses and punishes”, as co-founder Ekin Balcıoğlu puts it in the opening letter. The first piece in the issue is about sweat, and again, what struck me reading it is the way writer Mikkel Aaland emphasises not the cleanliness of the bathing ritual but the dirt — the hellish roots of Jung’s tree — and how that dirt has been conceived, through the ages, as quickening into life. Aaland explores the way that the sweat from bathing gods has been associated with creation in Russian Native American folklore, with Adam and Eve created out of drops of falling sweat. In Bengali culture, too, sweat is the beginning of life: “The Hindu god Shiva sweated and he washed the sweat away with a piece of cloth. He threw the cloth away. Out of this a girl was born.”

The magazine is printed in Istanbul, and the central feature in the issue is a photographic series of belly dancers and bathhouse staff by Ahmet Sel. The series is called ‘Oriental Illusions’, and Sel deliberately reincarnates his subjects as Oriental archetypes straight out of Middle Eastern history. It’s a pastiche of the stereotype, but at the same time, there is magic and dignity to the images of these women.

One of the final pieces in the issue tells the story of the ‘Common Sweat Sauna’: a mobile sauna assembled in various town squares around Europe. The idea of mask-less, naked strangers voluntarily sharing sweat without fear is inconceivable now, and at the same time, reading about it makes me feel hopeful.

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