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Yes, I know… when you do a search in French on the web wih a search engine, inevitably, you come across the fol­low­ing title: “I am less hap­py than I was in prison” (“je suis moins heureuse qu’en prison”). So, singing about the “birds of free­dom”, call­ing on Braque to the res­cue, is that paint­ing beside the can­vas for you?

I insist, Zehra, it will soon be a full year that you are free. Even if our rec­i­p­ro­cal free­doms are all rel­a­tive, as we both know.

I sim­ply read a bit of your prison writ­ings, look­ing over your shoul­der as I tran­scribed them in French. Con­cern­ing free­dom, you wrote:

Octo­ber 7 2017

…The oth­er day, I went out to the hos­pi­tal. I looked through the tiny win­dow in the blue Ring (vehi­cle trans­port­ing pris­on­ers). I looked at the peo­ple. They were rush­ing around. Life goes on. But, odd­ly, I did not feel nos­tal­gic. I was even sor­ry for them and became even sad­der. I told myself “these peo­ple aren’t aware of the fact they are pris­on­ers.” The only dif­fer­ence was that inside the blue Ring, my hands were in hand­cuffs. I did not wish to be in the place of any­one walk­ing along in the street at that moment. They also wore hand­cuffs around their wrists but they did not feel them. I felt fun­ny. Mov­ing slow­ly under the grey sky, through the frozen and sti­fling streets, through a crowd of peo­ple with frozen expres­sions and emp­tied skulls, at that very moment, I wished to get back to prison as quick­ly as possible…

There is no place in the world that is total­ly free. Can you state that where you are is real­ly free?…

There would be so many excerpts to quote out of your Prison Writ­ings

You even add on many occa­sions that the jail has become your work­shop, so to speak and that your co-detainees as well as need have made you cre­ate, freely under the sur­veil­lance exer­cised by cen­sor­ship, the pro­hi­bi­tions and the depri­va­tion of mate­ri­als. There indeed resides the sin­gu­lar sto­ry that calls out to those who wish to under­stand where the strength in your art comes from and how grey walls could dis­play it. Your works are those years of life which they depict, spent in trans­form­ing days into beau­ty, while free­dom was on a low­ered mast…

But Feb­ru­ary 24 2019 saw the high walls dis­solve for you, per­haps by recre­at­ing oth­ers less vis­i­ble, as you stepped out of jail, car­ry­ing out in you as you said “half of my com­pan­ions to the out­side”.

And you have nev­er for­got­ten the threads link­ing you to those who, in many cas­es, are still locked inside Turkey’s pris­ons. And the por­traits of women on news­pa­per, which you so like, bring them to the atten­tion of the pub­lic now in your exhibitions.

Those days are long gone when in Feb­ru­ary 2017 (yet anoth­er month of Feb­ru­ary) between two denials of free­dom, between the jail in Mardin and that of Amed, you hung up your works in Diyarbakir. As if thumb­ing your nose at author­i­ties, the exhi­bi­tion was called 141, like the num­ber of days with­out “free­dom” you had just expe­ri­enced and dur­ing which you had devot­ed your­self to resis­tance through Art. In 2015/16, you had lived through “siege con­di­tions” in the part of Kur­dis­tan locat­ed in the East­ern part of Turkey. That peri­od dur­ing which, quite against your will, you learned to rec­og­nize the smell of blood led to your impris­on­ment for “ter­ror­ist pro­pa­gan­da”. It was short­ly there­after that the idea arose to have your works “escape” out of Turkey.

zehra dogan

Zehra Doğan. 2019, Lon­don. Acrylic on canvas.

Would you say that they then became “free” to travel?
In your book again, when you write, filled with irony,

…As my work­shop is under the stairs, so is my production…That’s exact­ly right. In any event, I am exploit­ed! Because I am a woman, I am seen as cheap labor in the world of art. I am not even declared…Naz and Daniel are the ones who exploit me. In each of their let­ters, they says “work more, work more!”. They don’t pro­vide me with paints or canvas…Work, work…all right, but until when? I want a raise!

If not, I will denounce you by declar­ing you are exploit­ing an unde­clared work­er! Hey, I will make your life a liv­ing hell, beware!…

In fact, you were mak­ing fun of those works that were “freely” exhib­it­ed all over and were telling in your place about your life, your strug­gles, your com­pan­ions, your sto­ry and that of the Kur­dish woman…

What has changed Zehra, admit it, is that for one year now, you have accom­pa­nied these works “free to trav­el” escaped from prison before you.

And you have even accept­ed that fif­teen of them be kept in per­pe­tu­ity between the four walls of French nation­al Muse­ums, in order to tell their sto­ry, your sin­gu­lar sto­ry.1

For the past year, you have exhib­it­ed as so many con­tem­po­rary artists would like to do, from one muse­um to anoth­er, from one Art Cen­ter to anoth­er, on two con­ti­nents. And your words are free there, same as your Art. This whole year allowed you to show, and explain, as few activists could have done even with the best of good will, and beyond friend­ship, I can say that you nev­er cheat­ed, out of love for art.

So, what free­dom are you still lacking?

That of con­tin­u­ing to cre­ate free of con­straints, no doubt. And you know that the con­straints now come from your­self also. In prison, you had par­tial­ly destroyed some of the absence of inner free­dom, in order to dis­solve the walls. You wrote in your let­ters that this was where your strength came from. And now, alone, with no oth­er walls but those on which to cre­ate, you ques­tion the right to cre­ate in freedom.

And when you do, it pro­duces sear­ing inten­si­ties, con­ti­nu­ities, returns, a “sig­na­ture” so recognizable…For you are now free to dip into the well of those past years, not in order to copy them ad infini­tum but to drink from them with­out hav­ing to ren­der accounts.

One year of the free­dom you lived as con­di­tion­al ends in Feb­ru­ary 2020. Make room now for your nomadic Art.

New works, new bedaz­zle­ments. A word to col­lec­tors, Zehra’s works are on sale!

In order to live free, love and cool water are not enough.

Head­line image: Braque revis­it­ed by students.

Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
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Daniel Fleury
Let­tres mod­ernes à l’Université de Tours. Gros mots poli­tiques… Coups d’oeil politiques…