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

Italiano | Français | English

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.

Elettra Stamboulis

Zehra Doğan. View of the instal­la­tion
With kind autho­riza­tion from the Foun­da­tion of Bres­cia Museums.

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.

Zehra Doğan. Muğ­dat Ay, killed at the age of 12 in Nusay­bin, Feb­ru­ary 2016.
May 2018, Diyarbakır prison, 144 x 92 cm, ball­point, tea, on bath tow­el.
Pho­to cred­it: Jef Rabillon

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.

Elettra Stamboulis presents Zehra Doğan

Zehra Doğan. “Parçalanmış bir­lik­te­lik” (Bro­ken union).
2018. Diyarbakır prison. 23 x 28 cm, ball­point on a page from an atlas.
Pho­to cred­it: Jef Rabillon

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.

Elettra Stamboulis

Zehra Doğan. A view of the instal­la­tion
With kind autho­riza­tion by the Foun­da­tion of Bres­cia Museums.

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.

Zehra Doğan.

Zehra Doğan. Pales­tine.
June 8 2019, Lon­don. 92 x07 cm, nat­ur­al mix­es on can­vas.
Pho­to cred­it: Jef Rabillon

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

  • Zehra Dogan

Vous pouvez utiliser, partager les articles et les traductions de Kedistan en précisant la source et en ajoutant un lien afin de respecter le travail des auteur(e)s et traductrices/teurs. Merci.
Kedistan’ın tüm yayınlarını, yazar ve çevirmenlerin emeğine saygı göstererek, kaynak ve link vererek paylaşabilirisiniz. Teşekkürler.
Ji kerema xwere dema hun nivîsên Kedistanê parve dikin, ji bo rêzgirtina maf û keda nivîskar û wergêr, lînk û navê malperê wek çavkanî diyar bikin. Spas.
You may use and share Kedistan’s articles and translations, specifying the source and adding a link in order to respect the writer(s) and translator(s) work. Thank you.
Por respeto hacia la labor de las autoras y traductoras, puedes utilizar y compartir los artículos y las traducciones de Kedistan citando la fuente y añadiendo el enlace. Gracias
KEDISTAN on EmailKEDISTAN on FacebookKEDISTAN on TwitterKEDISTAN on Youtube
Le petit mag­a­zine qui ne se laisse pas caress­er dans le sens du poil.