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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.

zehra dogan nusaybin

Nusay­bin, by Zehra Doğan. Dig­i­tal work.


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.

Banksy Zehra Dogan

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,

Zehra Doğan. Lefle­fo­ken ramanêmin (The ivy of my dreams)
40x60 cm, water­col­or on wrap­ping paper. 2016, Mardin prison.
(pho­to: Jef Rabillon)

attempts at close­ness as protection.

Zehra Doğan. Kuş kadın­lar (Bird women)
150 x 142 cm, ball­point on fab­ric. 2019 Tar­sus prison
(pho­to Jef Rabillon)

She ren­ders her women with wide open eyes, like immor­tal icons.

zehra dogan

Zehra Doğan. Özd­i­namik (Self­dy­nam­ic)
67 x 56 cm. Ball­point, cof­fee, turmer­ic, pars­ley juice on news­pa­per. 2017 Diyarbakır prison.
(Pho­to: Jef Rabillon)

Or in closed ones, entrust­ed like a request for sal­va­tion to Fati­ma’s hand.

pen français 15 novembre

Fatı­ma’nin Eli” (Fat­ma’s Hand)
58 x 34 cm. Tea, cof­fee, ball­point, embroi­dery on pil­low case. 2018, Diyarbakır prison.
(Pho­to: Jef Rabillon)

In her works, she relates the dra­ma of an entire peo­ple and in par­tic­u­lar of its women.

Zehra Doğan. Gev­er.
146 x 97 cm. Ball­point, tea on a tow­el. Feb­ru­ary 26 2018, Diyarbakır prison.
(Pho­to: Jef Rabillon)

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.

zehra dogan afrin

Zehra Doğan. Efrin (Afrin)
130 x 90 cm. Ball­point, cof­fee, bleach, rose­hip juice on fab­ric from a skirt. Feb­ru­ary 26 2018, Diyarbakır prison.
(Pho­to: Jef Rabillon)

The death of Muğ­dat Ay, who died at age 12.

Zehra Doğan. Muğ­dat Ay.
144 x92 cm. Ball­point, tea on a tow­el. 2018, Diyarbakır prison.
(Pho­to: Jef Rabillon)

And the tor­tured bod­ies of Kur­dish women.

zehra dogan

Zehra Doğan. Düş­lerin dan­sı 2 (The dance of dreams 2)
21 x 30 cm. Pome­gran­ate peel, clan­des­tine blue pain, comestible oil on paper. 2017 Diyarbakır prison.
(Pho­to: Jef Rabillon)

She relates the atro­cious truth of naked bod­ies deprived of all pleas­ing and dis­turb­ing sensuality

zehra dogan

Zehra Doğan. Zin­ciri­eri Kır­mak (Break­ing the chains)
21 x 29,5 cm. Pen­cile, iodine on paper. 2018 Tar­sus prison.
(Pho­to: Jef Rabillon)

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.

zehra dogan

Zehra Doğan. Kan­lı Bir Gün 2 (A bloody day)
21 x29,5 cm. Men­stru­al blood, arugu­la juice, pen­cil on the back of a let­ter. 2018 Diyarbakır prison.
(Pho­to: Jef Rabillon)

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.

Zehra Doğan. “Dorşin”. Dig­i­tal work.

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.

Eliana Como 

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.

Zehra Doğan

Zehra Doğan. Pales­tine.
97 x 99 cm. Mix­ture of nat­ur­al mate­ri­als on can­vas. 2019 Lon­don
Pho­to : Jef Rabillon

eliana como


Eliana Como 
She is a CGIL unionist and the animator of a FB page dedicated to women painters. You can find her on facebook at @chegenerediarte


Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
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