Zehra Doğan’s exhi­bi­tion from May 21st to 25th at the Tate Mod­ern in Lon­don caused many tongues to wag, wore out many a key­board and caused con­tro­ver­sy where it was least expect­ed… The exhi­bi­tion is over, and I also have a few things to say…

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I don’t think there’s a sin­gle live being that has­n’t come across vio­lence at least once, be it in nature, in the ani­mal or in the human world…

We are all sub­ject­ed to vio­lence, that takes its source in reli­gious inte­grisms, State pris­ons and tor­ture, in the imposed insti­tu­tion of patri­archy, in the fam­i­ly, and that flows from every social space in which we live or in which we find our iden­ti­ty and cul­ture. No mat­ter how dif­fi­cult it may be to escape the spi­ral of vio­lence, yet it is nec­es­sary to do so.

If, in this notion of vio­lence, we were to turn our eyes to a piece of con­crete geog­ra­phy such as Kur­dis­tan, what would we see? Lands occu­pied by four dif­fer­ent states, trans­formed into colonies, and the strug­gle of resis­tance of a peo­ple sub­ject­ed  for years to vio­lence and massacres…

How then can an exhi­bi­tion by Zehra Doğan on this top­ic be inter­pret­ed as “a pornog­ra­phy of violence”?

 Inter­pret­ing as “pornog­ra­phy of vio­lence” or “of death” an exhi­bi­tion show­ing objects that pro­tect­ed pop­u­la­tions at times and were part of their resis­tance or serve as a tes­ti­mo­ni­al for it shows a lack of knowl­edge and of under­stand­ing of the real­i­ty in Kur­dis­tan. With­out know­ing this real­i­ty in Kur­dis­tan, it is dif­fi­cult to under­stand the cul­ture of resis­tance that attach­es to it as a strug­gle against State vio­lence and massacres.

There are dif­fer­ent ways of resist­ing against vio­lence. Vio­lence against vio­lence, killing in order not to die and, of course, pas­sive resis­tance, civ­il dis­obe­di­ence… In Kur­dis­tan, from way back and to this day, all these meth­ods inter­min­gle and exist simultaneously.

Mas­sacres are many in the his­to­ry of Kur­dis­tan. But in the very recent past, par­tic­u­lar­ly in 2015 and 2016, sev­er­al towns in Kur­dis­tan were burned down, destroyed by Erdoğan’s fas­cism, dur­ing air or ground strikes, peo­ple were killed in great num­bers. By claim­ing “they dug ditch­es over there,” the State and its medias attempt­ed to legit­imize their exac­tions. Months before these events, peo­ple liv­ing in these towns knew the State would send its army and com­mit the worst of mas­sacres. Refus­ing the State’s entrance in their towns, the peo­ple had declared their auton­o­my. As was the case with the mas­sacre in Der­sim in 1938, the State was not about to allow the Kurds to live in an autonomous zone.

The town of Nusay­bin was bombed three times by Turk­ish fight­er planes. Cizre, Silopi, Sur, Idil, Sil­van, Gev­er and sev­er­al oth­er towns saw con­fronta­tions. In those towns youth had tak­en up arms in self-defence and con­sti­tut­ed units of civil­ian pro­tec­tion, the YPS. Self-defence was the only solu­tion to keep the army from over­run­ning the neigh­bor­hoods. In order not to die, thou­sands of civil­ians were forced to leave their homes. But there were also those who did not want to leave and who adopt­ed meth­ods of pas­sive resis­tance. Oth­ers also came to the region from the cities, in sol­i­dar­i­ty. At times, those who came could not enter the towns…

Some pre­ferred to stay in order to resist. They knew the impor­tance of resis­tance and did so in full aware­ness of the risk to their lives. To con­sid­er Sul­tan’s voice call­ing out for water dur­ing live record­ings, or the sight of moth­er Tay­bet’s life­less body left in the street for 7 days, to con­sid­er these as “death pornog­ra­phy” means NOT know­ing what State vio­lence is about. Instead of crit­i­ciz­ing those who pro­voked or com­mit­ted the mas­sacres, and point­ing a fin­ger instead at those who risked their lives in order to doc­u­ment and trans­mit this to pub­lic opin­ion by every means avail­able, is to under­stand noth­ing about violence.

Intellectuals’ pornographic variations on Zehra Doğan’s exhibition

Among those observ­ing Zehra Doğan’s Lon­don exhi­bi­tion from afar, and pro­duc­ing “art crit­i­cism” from their arm­chair, one said: “For some­thing to be artis­tic, there must be a cre­ative process. Yet this is not a cre­ation, but only a trans­porta­tion.” There are also those who pro­vide advice of the type: “Miss Zehra, you would be well advised to go into these towns while they were being destroyed and burnt in order to write, to inform…”

It is obvi­ous that, in order to arrive in Lon­don, the “trans­port­ed” items did not come on foot… Miss Zehra was there, pre­cise­ly at that time, in those very towns. Of course, it’s quite pos­si­ble that, slumped on your couch, you did not read all the arti­cles she pub­lished at the time, or frankly did not see a thing about what was going on. While civil­ians were being killed in these towns, the Co-Pres­i­dent of the Peo­ple’s Coun­cil of Cizre, Mehmet Tunç launched a live appeal: “Our peo­ple must flow toward Cizre.” Then, he added: “After we die, do not come to gath­er our bod­ies.” We should ask those who now play the art crit­ics: “While Zehra was there, where were you?” “What did you do at that time?” For our crit­i­cism to take on some legit­i­ma­cy, should we not look straight into one anoth­er’s eyes and ask: “What did we do while Cizre and Nusay­bin burned?” 

This is some­thing that any­one can do, and with­out cre­ativ­i­ty, there can­not be art”, says anoth­er “spe­cial­ist”… First of all, not every­one can gath­er these objects in a war zone. I would ask “Why then did you not do it?” But why should I ask, since this demands courage… Sec­ond­ly, art is not only an objec­tive pro­duc­tion. Giv­ing mean­ing to objects from real life is also an artis­tic per­for­mance offered to the public.

And the fact of pro­duc­ing so-called “art crit­i­cisms” in a mind­less way, and of talk­ing of “pornog­ra­phy of vio­lence” or “of death” with the air of spe­cial­ists, is to show noth­ing but igno­rance of the art of resistance.

Doc­u­ment­ing mas­sacres com­mit­ted on lands trans­formed into zones of vio­lence and war, and offer­ing them up for every­one to see is not pornog­ra­phy. If you wish to crit­i­cize, to ask for accounts to be ren­dered, don’t ask those who make an effort at doc­u­ment­ing, sen­si­tiz­ing and inform­ing, go ask those who com­mit­ted the violence!

The sto­ry of a blan­ket’s resistance

I think our knowl­edge­able crit­ics prob­a­bly do not know either that a blan­ket can be a ele­ment of resis­tance.  There are peo­ple so far removed from the real­i­ty of vio­lence and resis­tance that they do not know that an ordi­nary blan­ket can save lives. Thus, this blan­ket, like the one stretched out in the exhi­bi­tion, is not an ordi­nary blan­ket. It became an ele­ment of pas­sive resistance…It was a tool of defence so that peo­ple could pro­tect them­selves from snipers.  Even if it comes to us straight from where the vio­lence took place, this blan­ket is not a tool of vio­lence. Quite the con­trary, it is a wit­ness from with­in of the vio­lence and of those massacres…

We thre­fore under­stand that there are peo­ple who do not know what it means to resist with a blan­ket, to pro­tect one’s self with the most rudi­men­ta­ry means, and to fight for sur­vival. One of the rare young peo­ple who man­aged to come out of Cizre alive, one who knows and who was pos­si­bly saved by this very blan­ket on exhi­bi­tion, told me this: “There were no more bul­lets with which to load the weapons. The mil­i­tary vehi­cles had entered the town. From the upper storeys, peo­ple threw down blan­kets so that the tanks would lose vis­i­bil­i­ty, so they could not circulate…”

Which means you can­not say “it’s just a blan­ket“and walk by. In these destroyed towns, each object has a story.

Zehra could have held an exhi­bi­tion of her works and relat­ed what she has lived through. She can do so, and she will, because what she pro­duces is also the expres­sion of a tes­ti­mo­ni­al and an archiveal his­to­ry through art. As an artist, Zehra Doğan could also have cho­sen an eas­i­er and more per­son­al road, by exhibit­ing her works and mak­ing a prof­it out of her expe­ri­ences. But that is not her con­cern. She has expressed her approach, in her own words over and over again in count­less arti­cles and inter­views. She has explained that what moti­vates her as an artist is not ambi­tion mea­sured in mon­ey, celebri­ty or the art mar­kets, but rather the wish to be a vehi­cle for the cul­ture, for the strug­gle that sus­tains her, for bear­ing the mes­sages of those whose voic­es can­not be heard, every­where her feet, her words, her art can reach… It would be so great if you had read her words. So great…

The history of the resistance, documented somewhere at last

This time, Zehra Doğan held her exhi­bi­tion in Lon­don, in order to pro­vide an account­ing of that peri­od. She brought the tes­ti­mo­ny of a war reality…In this exhi­bi­tion, she doc­u­ments crimes against human­i­ty and war crimes, through art. Each and every object on dis­play has a sto­ry. Zehra tells them oral­ly and in writ­ing. This exhi­bi­tion is not one of the usu­al con­tem­po­rary art exhi­bi­tions pro­claim­ing “art for art’s sake”. The exhi­bi­tion is not lim­it­ed to objects. There are also videos show­ing the peo­ple’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the resis­tance and their ideas about demo­c­ra­t­ic autonomy.

The arti­cles Zehra Doğan wrote and pub­lished dur­ing the cur­few (the arti­cles that some of you clear­ly have not read), were read here in Eng­lish. And post­cards addressed to jour­nal­ists, artists, and many oth­ers fill­ing Turk­ish pris­ons, were sent on this occasion…

Once they had con­fis­cat­ed her cam­era, her pen­cils and her paint­brush­es, Zehra did not stop either. She con­veyed to us in Europe and across the world what she had seen, what she was liv­ing through,  the crimes against human­i­ty, pro­duc­ing through oth­er artis­tic meth­ods, in impos­si­ble prison con­di­tions, cre­at­ing from nothing.

Nur­tured by the strug­gle of the Kur­dish wom­en’s move­ment, she told us, and very well too, the dom­i­na­tion against wom­en’s bod­ies. She cre­at­ed count­less works, on wrap­ping paper, on news­pa­pers,  on tow­els, on pieces of torn cloth­ing and bed­sheets, trans­form­ing every­thing she could lay her hands on,  impro­vis­ing col­ors. She told and told, she documented…

Yes­ter­day, I spoke with Zehra.

She told me: ” Peo­ple are free to crit­i­cize my work, my meth­ods. But the fact they try to reach me by using terms such as pornog­ra­phy of vio­lence and of war I find very hurt­ful. I col­lect­ed these objects secret­ly start­ing in 2015 in the war zones. The peo­ple struck the pans in protest in the streets. Being arrest­ed with these objects in my bag made me sub­ject to impris­on­ment for trans­port­ing mate­r­i­al from the resis­tance. I was expect­ing reac­tions from my oppo­nents, from the State, from those who com­mit­ted mas­sacres. But I can’t under­stand such a reac­tion from peo­ple inter­est­ed in this exhi­bi­tion, artists, and intellectuals…”

As some­one com­ing straight from an envi­ron­ment of war and vio­lence, Zehra also told me that she felt a duty to bring her tes­ti­mo­ny to the atten­tion of pub­lic opin­ion.  “I am not prac­tic­ing war and vio­lence pornog­ra­phy. I am telling how peo­ple resist­ed the mas­sacres and I bring here the his­to­ry of the resis­tance. We, who were sub­ject­ed to the mas­sacres, who were wit­ness­es to them, can trans­mit these things, and not those “whites” from intel­lec­tu­al cir­cles, who know noth­ing about the real­i­ty of Kur­dis­tan. His­to­ry must be record­ed in the words of those who were wit­ness­es to the facts.”

With a twist­ed smile, I would like to end with the words our friend Fat­ma sent to Zehra Doğan… “Say, in the end, for once in Turkey, peo­ple are dis­cussing art with great vig­or… That is also a conquest.”

Final­ly, all is as usu­al on the West­ern Front.

With the hope of a life with­out vio­lence, filled with art and love.

zehra dogan

Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges

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Rosida Koyuncu on Twitter
Rosida Koyuncu
Activiste LGBTIQ+, jour­nal­iste et cinéaste, en exil à Genève. LGBTIQ+ aktivist, gazete­ci ve sinemacı. Cenevre’de sürgünde bulunuyor.