“We shall also know finer days”. Zehra Doğan and the art of Kurdish women. An exhibition in Brescia of the artist, a former political prisoner in Turkey. Adaptation in English of the French translation of the article by Eliana Como published in Italian on Pop Off Quotidiano.
There exists a region in the Middle-East, located on a vast plateau in the Northern and Northeastern part of ancient Mesopotamia. It is called Kurdistan. It is not an independent State and for about one century, its population has been subjected to numerous harassments and violent episodes, because it demands its autonomy in the midst of the States of Iran, Irak, Syria and Turkey. Thanks mostly to the resistance of its women, only Rojava has acquired political autonomy relative to Syria since November 2013, an autonomy once again gravely threatened now by the occupation of Erdoğan’s Turkish army.
Zehra Doğan is a young Kurdish artist, born in 1989 in Diyarbakır, the largest city with a Kurdish majority in Turkey. In 2016 she was arrested by the Erdoğan regime for having published on Twitter a drawing of the town of Nusaybin, under siege for months by the Turkish army. At that time, Zehra was in Nusaybin in order to testify through her drawings to what was happening in a territory where neither journalists nor the UN were authorized to enter.
Her fault was nothing other than reworking a photograph, published a few days earlier on Twitter by the Turkish special police. The initial photo shows the town destroyed by the bombings and the armored vehicles that had finally conquered the ruins.
Zehra modified the point of view to that of the stunned population looking onto a town ravaged by fire, and she drew scorpions instead of armored vehicles.
The Turkish army is the one who destroyed the town and published the initial photograph hailing the massacre, but she is the one who was arrested for “terrorist propaganda”. When asked why she had done it, she answered that she had done nothing, that the soldiers were the ones who destroyed the entire town, leaving hundreds of innocent vitims buried under the rubble, particularly women and children. Another motive of indictment leading to her sentencing was the photo of a little girl showing a letter written for her Western peers.
Zehra published it on Twitter and the the disarming smile of the little blackeyed girl went around the world:
“I’m speaking here to the children in the West. In Nusaybin, the schools are burned down, there are no classes (…) but you, continue studying and creating a magnificent world. Never forget us (…)” Despite international indignation, Zehra will spend close to two years in various Turkish prisons. In her name Banksy drew a mural in New York.
By Banksy, for Zehra Doğan in New York.
There was no real accusation against Zehra but, following the botched coup in 2016, Erdoğan imposed the state of emergency and Turkey is now de facto a country governed by a fascistic regime which, like all authoritarian regimes, considers artistic freedom and freedom of the press as one of the worst crimes against power. Erdoğan having Zehra arrested is nothing other in my eyes than Hitler condemning degenerate art and shutting down the Bauhaus. Only General Franco shot down Federico Garcia Lorca. Stalin imposed socialist realism as State art and pushed Mayakovsky towards suicide.
Zehra’s arrest is not an isolated case. Thousands of men and women were expelled from unitversities and schools while journalists, deputies and intellectuals were arrested. In jail, Zehra said she could only see the sky for a few hours every month: “I lost myself in the blue infinity of the sky. I climbed on a cloud in order to run toward the sea” (excerpt from the book Prison Writings). But she held a powerful weapon, the same one for which she was arrested. Her art.
She found herself in overcrowded cells, full of women and children who, often, just like her, committed no other fault than expressing an idea. In the cell where 50 of them lived, there should have been no more than 30. They had only one means of resisting to imprisonment and the degrading condition to which they were sentenced: fraternity. Years earlier, Zehra founded the first exclusively female news agency, Jinha, to talk about the war in the border zones between Turkey, Irak and Syria from a woman’s perpective which is to say those who live the war in the most atrocious of all ways, in their body. The agency was shut down in 2016 with the proclamation of the state of emergency, even prior to Zehra’s arrest. But one way or another, this idea survived in jail.
She placed her Art and her skills at the service of all her comrades in the cell. Learning to draw in the only remaining available space, hunched under the bed. When they were also deprived of colors and paintbrushes, she continued with a ballpoint pen and with whatever she found: coffee, tea, pomegranate peels, other remaining food, even her hair. And even menstrual blood which finally also became an element of life, not a pestilential shame to be hidden and experienced in shame and horror. She painted everywhere she could, on wrapping paper, on sheets, towels, newspaper. Her companions even organized an exhibition in jail, suspending her works with clothes pins on wires where clothes were set out to dry.
They managed in all likelihood to export works by hiding them in clothes sent out for washing. Zehra and her companions could not escape, but they could organize the “evasion” of their art.
In her works, Zehra tells of her agony and of that of the other women, of their quest for freedom through their dreams,
attempts at closeness as protection.
She renders her women with wide open eyes, like immortal icons.
Or in closed ones, entrusted like a request for salvation to Fatima’s hand.
In her works, she relates the drama of an entire people and in particular of its women.
A people subjugated by poisonous scorpions, the same ones who destroyed Nusaybin in the tweet that sent her to jail. She relates the capture of Afrin.
The death of Muğdat Ay, who died at age 12.
And the tortured bodies of Kurdish women.
She relates the atrocious truth of naked bodies deprived of all pleasing and disturbing sensuality
These are the real bodies of women, not men’s objects of desire. They are the blood of their own blood (14), the pain of their pain, the dreams of their dreams. They are bodies only a woman could paint that way.
In her language and in her poetics, the great names of Western art are present: from the explicit reference to Picasso’s Guernica to the volume of Cézanne’s bodies to the dreamlike atmospheres of Odilon Redon and of the surrealists. But on these sheets and on these fabrics, there is also a flavor of oriental art, the transcendental and airy grace of Byzantine art (the work titled “Dorsin”), the fixedness of the look in Greek icons, the colors of popular Middle-Eastern art. It contains all of this, but at the same time, Zehra Doğan’s art cannot be traced back to any of these languages, any of these artists, any artistic trend, or avant-garde.
Essentially, it is her, with her powerful expressive quality and the pain of her people’s women and cell companions, the ones with whom she says she has “built a great country of goddesses”.
Zehra Doğan is now free. She is temporarily living in London, has exhibited at the Tate Modern and also in Italy (at the Santa Giulia Museum in Brescia, until March 6). She is free but her people are still in chains.
Let us consider it a duty to tell her story, through her works and through her universal language denouncing patriarchal oppression in all parts of the world, art that speaks to the Kurdish people as to all other oppressed people. If we know finer days, it will also depend on the resistance of women such as Zehra.
Post scriptum – A few hundred steps away from Zehra Doğan’s brave exhibition at Santa Giulia Museum, organized by Elettra Stramboulis, Brescia is hosting another exhibition “dedicated” (as its curators say) to “women in the history of art”. The exhibition consists solely of works by men. Women consist of nothing other than defenseless objects of this art. If you go to Brescia, visit the Zehra Doğan exhibition and consider it as the only one celebrating women’s art. In comparison, the other exhibition is deserted because, no matter how lovely the works of these painters may be, we really have had enough of critics, exhibitors and curators who claim to ignore – save for annulling exhibitions, museums and books – the many women painters who, throughout history, have created extraordinary works. Unjust victims of a collective displacement it is more than time to denounce and vanquish.
She is a CGIL unionist and the animator of a FB page dedicated to women painters. You can find her on facebook at @chegenerediarte