Kedistan first encountered Gianluca Costantini on social media; an activist illustrator whose website channeldraw was blocked in Turkey by court decision as early as 2016. Since then, Gianluca has not ceased using his pen to denounce injustice and to support the victims of repression in Turkey, but also everywhere across the world.
What could have been more logical then than to invite him as a speaker, when it came to supporting freedom of expression at the exhibition of Zehra Doğan’s works in Brittany, a bit over a year ago. Elettra Stamboulis came with him on this occasion and that is how we met, while she discovered a part of Zehra’s work. In November 2018 already, she wrote an article: Zehra’s broken pencils.
Since then, we were happy to meet again when, a year later, she put together in Brescia, Italy, a magnificent exhibition in Zehra’s presence now that the latter is free to come and go as she pleases. As we wrote in a recent Kedistan article, this represented the final act in a campaign of support that lasted over three years.
Elettra Stamboulis provides here a very detailed interview concerning “Zehra’s art of resistance” in which she provides with great accuracy an analysis of the works that will be on exhibition until March 1st at the Santa Guilia Museum in Brescia
Elena Bordignon’s interview with Elettra Stamboulis was published in Italian on December 6 2019 on ATP Diary.
Zehra Doğan, hope in a spirit of resistance
Meeting with Elettra Stamboulis, exhibition curator
Even though her experiences are dramatic, even if her previous condition as a prisoner followed by exile is certainly profoundly painful and unfair, to quote Gramsci, her attitude toward the world is one of willful optimism.
Until March 1st 2020, the Santa Giulia Museum is hosting a fascinating exhibition by the Kurdish artist and journalist from Southeastern Turkey, Zehra Doğan, titled “We shall also know better days”- Zehra Doğan. Works done in Turkish prisons.
The works on exhibition represent the synthesis of a long and moving experience in the prisons of Mardin, Diyarbakır and Tarsus, in close contact with women detainees with whom she shared not only the suffering but also a “special” form of redemption: art on a daily basis.
Because of the letter from a young girl ten years of age and a drawing – evidence of the bloody conflicts occurring under curfew – published on Twitter, Zehra Doğan had to spend two years and nine months in jail: a period that turned into a kind of suspended time during which to “resist” through art.
Drawing, painting, but mostly listening and sharing her experiences with other prisoners became for the artist a form of freedom, an action to “resist” injustice and intolerance.
Using as our opportunity the exhibition in Brescia that brings together some sixty original works never seen before, including drawings, paintings and mixed media, we asked a few questions to the exhibition’s curator, Elettra Stamboulis, in order to examine a number of aspects of the artist’s works, the question she raised, her formal choices, the result of her encounters in prison, the reasons for the choice of unusual materials used as paint; coffee, saffron, ashes, pomegranate, menstrual blood, bleach – and last but not least, the reasons for the exhibition’s title; “We will also know better days.”
Elena Bordignon: You have touched upon a very moving and fascinating story: the life of artist and journalist Zehra Doğan. Her activism has deep roots and, apart from the painful events she has documented, she has received a number of prizes for her work as a journalist. Can you tell me how you discovered her work and what were your first impressions? How did you begin to work on this exhibition?
Elettra Stamboulis: From the outset let me say it was not difficult to discover Zehra’s story, especially since she was followed by many artists, intellectuals and activists across the world. Not only because Banksy and Ai Weiwei were interested in her case but also because, for me, the history of the transformation of the Turkish Republic into an authoritarian State needed to be followed with great attention. The country is a candidate for admission to the European Union, an admission that has been delayed for motives of political opportunism (in the post-September 11 climate, there is unease in admitting a country, deemed resolutely secular, but where the population follows Islam): the stiffening that followed, and the country’s recent shift into heavy periods of imprisonment, and where the rights of free expression and free opinion are trampled daily, certainly hold our attention. Last year, while Zehra was in prison, my partner, artist and activist Gianluca Costantini and I were invited to Brittany in order to participate in meetings around a travelling exhibition of Zehra’s works that had luckily managed to be transferred out of prison to France. As I said, I knew her story, had joined in the campaign against her imprisonment, as in that of many others I must say, but of course, I had not seen her work directly. Even in less than ideal conditions for the exhibition, I was struck immediately by the power of the works: I told myself these works needed to be known, needed to receive the full artistic dignity they deserved, no matter what the specific conditions might have been for their production.
I then wrote an article for East West in which I attempted to relate not only her story in more detail but also something of her artistic process. This article was seen by Mimmo Cortese, an activist in Brescia who also works for the city, and who asked me if I could organize an exhibition in this town, during the Peace Festival. And so it was done.
EB: The exhibition at the Santa Giulia Museum has an eloquent title: “We will also know better days” – Zehra Doğan – Works done in Turkish prisons. In many ways, this is an invitation to keep hope, to persevere. Can you tell me why you chose this title? What did the artist want to express?
ES: You are right, you have hit upon a very pertinent aspect of her poetics and of her position in the world. Even if her experience is dramatic, even if her previous condition as a prisoner followed by exile, is certainly profoundly painful and injust, her attitude toward the world is one of willful optimism, to quote Gramsci; in keeping with the positive way of looking on the world also pointed out by the poet Hikmet when he writes “The finest of our days, we have not yet lived”; “the world vision of the Turkish poet, born in Salonica in the previous century, serves as a spiritual guide for her. What she shares with Hikmet, is precisely this great hope put in the spirit of resistance. As Zehra says “being in prison was a privilege. I was able to prove that resistance can never be jailed.”
The title is meant to draw us not into the domain of victimization, of pity, but to place the artist’s works in exactly the opposite perspective. It was also meant as a tribute to the book that was being published simultaneously in France and which reproduces the intense correspondence between the jailed artist and Naz Oke, a French activist of Turkish origin who maintained the contact between Zehra and the outside world during her detention.
EB: In the deeply documented text in the catalogue, one finds stories on the way art became an instrument for the artist as ” as way to relate with the other prisoners: building relationships, resisting against the repression, experimenting collective ways to make art.” Although it was very difficult for Zehra Doğan to obtain colors, pigments, materials on which to draw during her imprisonment, she never ceased doing so, just as she never ceased confronting others, sharing in the pain but also in the hope. What contributions, including practical ones, did the other detainees she met provide her with?
ES: The relational aspect is inherent in Zehra’s work as she is first and foremost a feminist. This is an aspect that is often subtly mentionned as if it were superfluous, whereas it is a key to understanding even her art of making art. For Zehra, art exists and takes on importance only because of this relationship. Detention thus provided an extraordinary opportunity to listen, to compare, to create with others. Not to be a professor, nor an educator; for Zehra, the artist is simply the holder of an aesthetic discipline. By listening to the comments, the visions, but mostly to the dreams and fears of the others, that is how the works we see in Brescia were created. The prisoners were political, both young and aged. Yet, in this mini-community that sprang up each time in the three prisons where she was transfered, a bit of magic was created inside places meant to suppress freedom and action, where all means of creation were forbidden, thanks to the contributions from all who had become rebellious. Even in those works that have cause the greatest sensations, those using menstrual blood, there is not only Zehra’s blood involved.
EB: Many of the topics in her drawings come out of stains and shadows. Can you tell me how these motifs are linked to “dreams”?
ES: The dream element is very present because not only are dreams impossible to imprison, but in an experience such as imprisonment where images are taken away (not only television and moving images in general, but also books and magazines), dreams become the only source from which to draw images. The sharing of dreams was a very important moment for the group of detainees. And when a stain was produced, in a process somewhat akin to that of Rorscharch, the projections that led to the creation of the work were also shared, and often inspired by dream experiences. Sometimes, the process can be reversed: which is to say that the drawing created the previous day has turned into dream material for someone, taking on a new life. The difference between this artistic creation and similar known experiences in contemporary art (for instance, the surrealists’ processes or drops as compared to stains) is that here the action is determined by a specific context, by a specif and particular community, it is the result of a repressive force shaken from within.
EB: Coffee, turmeric, menstrual blood, pomegranate juice, tea, cigarette ashes, bleach: substances used by the artist in order to draw. How did she choose these unusual “colors”? Do they have some symbolic value?
ES: There was no choice, they were imposed by the conditions under which they were found. This is an inherent aspect of her work, she can do it even for free…I have seen her draw with wine, at a table in a trattoria…But in the the works at Brescia, they have a particular value because, as I said, the materials were determined by that space, that of prison. Some materials are particularly important for her, such as the earth she used in her work, recuperated while washing lettuces, because she was looking for something that would refer back to what was the most absent between the walls of a jail cell, that of a relationship with nature. But at the same time, by her own admission, yes, the materials are important but what matters is the work which you see.
EB: The female figure that emerges from the artist’s imagination is often represented twisted, deformed, caught in masses of matter; sometimes the body is drawn in fragments, sometimes it is diminished or disfigured. What is your perspective on this “tormented and offended” body?
ES: I think there is an ambivalent aspect to this female body. The presence of the body in Zehra’s works is not voyeuristic. There is no search for the eternal feminine, to quote the words of Goethe’s Faust. This body is not interesting, not the one justifying masculine desire. Women’s bodies are powerful, ambivalent, they impose themselves with no fear of showing their own difformities or aggressivity. Often, for instance, there is a bird of prey or a harpy that refers back precisely to that ambiguous aspect: the predatory aspect, but also that of great power. The aspect of the female body that receives the most insistence are the eyes that may be totally open, obsessional or closed, and the feet that often take the shape of those of birds. In most cases, on the contrary, the other elements belong to a whole, never singular, always plural relative to other organs. Perhaps something escapes us, referring back to strongly individualistic and self-referential life experiences.
Performance given by Zehra Doğan at the Santa Giulia Museum on November 25 2019 during the International Day against Violence on Women. A Women’s tribute to Havrin Khalaf