Translation of the conversation with Zehra Doğan, on the occasion of the exhibition at the Prometeo Gallery of Milan, by Silvia Conta and published on September 22 2020 on Exibart.
In Milan at the Prometeo Galery: 18 new works and a new performance by Kurdish artist and activist Zehra Dogan, works born of the situation of Kurdish people and the artist’s imprisonment, to which is added a reflection on women’s condition (until November 15). The artist talked to us about all this at length in an interview.
Today, September 22, at Ida Pisani’s Prometeo Galery in Milan, is the opening of « Beyond », the first solo exhibition for Zehra Doğan (1989, Diyarbakır, Turkey) in the Milanese space located at 6 Via Ventura, with the showing of 18 works – 13 of which are new – from the period following the artist’s liberation and 5 from the « Clandestine days ». The artist also created a performance for this exhibition (« Dress »).
« Feisty, active and observant, Zehra Dogan relates and informs about the history of the Kurdish people through her actions and her drawings. Accused of propaganda in favor of a terrorist organization, she was arrested and finally sentenced to 2 years, 9 months and 22 days in prison, where she never threw in the towel and, despite all attempts to stop her, continued producing art inside the prison. The world of culture – and not only – protested and supported her as a woman and as an artist: English Pen, Amnesty International, Ai Wei-Wei, Banksy, Tate Modern in London, Museo di Santa Guilia Brescia, to name but a few, » explained the galery.
Photographies Naz Oke
The exhibition and the (new) performance at the Prometeo Gallery
« Carpets, fabric and Kurdish maps, menstrual blood, urine and natural mixtures: with these media and materials Zehra painted consciously and under none of the constraints of traditional Occidental artistic canons, in order to speak about the body and feminine identity. « How did the body become a prison for women, when it should be a part of what we are, and not only as a form of possession? How was it possible to transform biology into ideology? How did human beings, by defining through their bodies, lock themselves into sexist norms? Dogan asks, protesting and opposing a policy of self-disconnection which subjugates the body by transforming it into an object », the galery continues.
« Beyond » foregoes conventional symbols of feminity and seduction, expressing its position against standard imagery of the female figure, without omitting the use of allegorical references. This is how, through the succession of works expressing it, we can enter a specific historical reality referring to violence as a constant feature in Kurdistan where it’s recognition as an independent State is denied and which demands its freedom through nuances demonstrating wounds both physical and psychological.
« For this exhibition, Zehra Doğan has conceived a performance (Dress) for which she created a white dress, similar to a wedding gown, on the long cut tails of which emerge calligraphic symbols with constant associations to the female body, words and violence. The public’s role will be essential for it will serve to unmask the possessive instinct, the ambition of ownership and the notion of denial present in individual and collective memories, constantly urging on to acts of pillaging, of possession and to policies of negotiation. Like an invitation to denounce unceasingly the realitiy to be fought against, too often ethno-centered, racist and discriminatory, even if it sometimes strikes us as « a bit of a complicated story », as the Prometeo Gallery anticipates.
Conversation with Zehra Doğan
How did you find the strength to continue producing art despite the prison?
I found this strength in my conviction. My conviction is grounded in the long struggle led by women, and in the historical struggle of my people for the liberation from occupation of its lands.
Since childhood, I have been committed to the struggle for identity. When I was only eleven years old, I was already following art classes at the Kurdish Culture and Arts Center. At that time, those were the only places maintaining Kurdish culture alive, but they were prohibited and subjected to pressure by the State. This is where we produced forbidden Kurdish art, in our forbidden maternal tongue, with forbidden instruments. I learned there that art must be practice in a persistent and continuous way.
In prison, I did not submit to the circumstances and I did not attempt to draw more power from them, I already had this conviction and this strength to which I have clung since I was a child.
During the close to three years you were forced to stay in prison, you continued to paint by every means possible. Can you tell us how you managed to find the means to do so and how you saved your work?
Unfortunately, not everyone benefits from the same opportunities, the same possibilities and the same comfort…Contrary to those who grew up in comfort, there are people who are born already facing inequality in life, but who, at the same time, show an existential resistance to adversity unknown to those who live in comfort. I am not trying to develop a fascination, a victimization for the life of the oppressed, but I’m trying to say that the oppressed carry within themselves a particular creativity which gives them the power to reveal their existence in art and literature, in the absence of other means.
In prison, I had no means with which to produce art. But I had a conviction. I was an artist who had been arrested for one of her paintings, so nothing was more obvious inside than to continue producing art and fighting against them with my art.
Art is my way of life. One way or another, I have always found the way to create. The Nusaybin picture for which I was accused and imprisoned was done in a town in ruins: not on the outside, from afar, but from the inside, in the war wreckage, with a stylus on a cell phone.
What do you think an artist will do in prison? A person who did not use traditional media and supplies in order to paint the picture for which she was arrested and punished? She again finds new media and materials!
Scraps of food, menstrual blood, paints made of bird droppings, feathers and hair for paintbrushes, sheets, tables, towels, newspapers, underwear, shirts became my materials, my colors, my canvases.
Of course, it was very difficult to create and to protect my works: they were constantly being confiscated. But I found a clandestine way to get them out of prison.
Some were discovered by prison guards and close to 30 of my paintings were burned by them when they were discovered. So I tried and found new ways, a kind of performing protest, during which I told myself « I can’t give up just because they’ve confiscated my work, I must find a way to make it secret in a more professional way. »
I started painting on the bodies of my friends in prison who were going to be released. Once outside, they photographed the picture I had produced on their backs, then they archived them, and I own them now. In this way I managed to get over 300 of my works out through means the guards could not imagine.
Did you receive support as a Kurd, a woman and an artist in your fight against an ethnocentric and discriminatory reality in which fundamental rights are not guaranteed?
I received this support, but not only for myself. The fact I received so much support from all corners of the world goes to show how just the Kurdish question is, that of a people fighting and resisting against oppressive governments.
You talk about the Kurdish situation in your work. Are there some aspects of this situation that, in your opinion, are not sufficiently covered by Western media?
Western media do not cover the problem enough. Today, unfortunately, even the media are in the hands of wealthy monopolies which agitate their pens depending on a balance between governments and the markets. The truth about the Middle-East must not be limited to the daily and superficial declarations from a Macron, a Trump, a Putin or anyone else.
There was a major war on the Kurdistan lands inside Turkey between 2015 and 2016, the Turkish State killed hundreds of people, among them, dozens of children. Towns were bombed. A number of neighborhoods were wiped off the map. But Western media did not pay sufficient attention to this situation, treating it as ordinary daily information. Still today, in the Kurdish region in the Western part of Turkey, Kurds are killed in racist attacks. It isn’t a question of the color of their skin, of being black. Black is the color of the fate of the oppressed.
Every month in Turkey, a child is killed in a racist attack simply because he is a Kurd but the Western media treat this tragedy in a superficial manner. What kind of journalism is that? The journalist must not let general perceptions influence him or her, he or she must observe, analyze and tell the public what it cannot see but he or she does.
Think of the question of immigration, for example. Today, everyone talks about the problem of immigration and a world hostile to migrants is being created. No one wants them, and everywhere they go, everywhere we go, they are arrested by the police. Personally, every time I travel, I am stopped and treated like a potential criminal, simply because I am « Middle-Eastern ». This makes me hate trips. They look at us with a discriminatory eye and consider us as undesirables, without even asking if we really wanted to live here? How can they think that we left our families behind us willingly, knowing we would never see them again? They don’t know that immigration is, from a certain point of view, the result of a lack of sensitivity on their part to what is going on in the world. The media as well as the rest of society stick their head in the sand so as not to hear and not to see, so each and every one is responsible for the fact the world has become what it is.
In order to solve the problem, we must unite in a stronger fight instead of simply reporting or keeping quiet. We need high level journalism with a powerful pen.
To what extent to you think art and politics are intimately linked in Kurdistan nowadays? Are there artistic expressions that keep their distance from politics?
As an artist who lived in Kurdistan where one the worst wars in the world is ongoing, I could not place artistic research on plastic arts in the foregront and tackle esthetic practice without thinking about the reality surrounding me.
Even if I was persecuted in my country because of an identity I did not choose myself, I believe that not being interested in politics could mean having a personality devoid of conscience.
In a country with a great number of persecutions, of raped women and murdered children, where people are killed simply for having wanted to speak in their maternal language or for having declared their sexual identity, I think profoundly that it was impossible to step outside politics and not reflect this aspect of life in Turkey in my art, already knowing that art is the only weapon I have for this struggle.
Of course there are artists who negate this discourse and live inside their mental glass bubble while ignoring reality. They continue to produce art without dirtying their hands. But, as soon as the voice of society rises and makes itself heard, even these merchants attempt to present themselves as the most virtuous artists in society. Worse still are those artists who claim to have a political mission for themselves and declare themselves political artists, without doing a thing. I can only comment, but an in-depth discussion on this topic is a task for historians and art critics.
In your exhibition at the Prometteo Galery, the themes of women’s identity and the body are very striking. In what dimensions are these linked to the Kurdish question?
In my artistic practice, I work a lot on the body. I prefer developing my expression through the body. This is why my comments concerning women’s struggles, in which I participate, is expressed in women’s figures. We cannot separate the situation in Kurdistan from the policies perpetrated on women’s bodies. The war policy, the macho mentality, has been practiced through the body of women for millenia. I express myself in my work, thwarting the system that transforms biology into ideology by merchandising the body. I respond to the panoptical macho mentality ordering woman to submission, to walking with lowered eyes, to being ashamed and apologizing for everything they do, with images of women who look straight into the eyes, fearlessly, who are not only those in Kurdistan, but the whole world over.
In this exhibition particularly, I also used the image of the weapon. Thus, I wished to work on the metaphore of women taking arms in the Middle-East, against radical Islamist organizations. In Europe, the term « militaristic » can be used for all those who take up arms. What can we say then, about those who are forced to take up arms? Is this the right perception? How could we stop war? I would like those people who visit this exhibition to conceive some empathy for what is going on in the Midde-East.
On what dimension of the topic, and of women’s identity, are you working specifically?
Through the relationship bodies-lands, and through the war policies created by a macho vision, I examine borders, racialization, gender norms, identity, the concept of the Nation-State, fascism, discrimination. I question the transformation of our bodies into ideology, into a political instrument, and the world transformed into a panoptic prison built around us, imprisoning women particularly.
What does belonging to the Kurdish people mean today?
It means being in a deep mess.
What happened after imprisonment? How did you move? What human and artistic relations have you maintained with Kurdistan?
I did not move to Europe, I was forced to come here. With the thought of going home some day, I have not requested asylum. For this reason, every few months, I spend hours in queues in front of consulates. And, as if this were not enough, in airports, I’m subjected to absurd questions such as « who are you? Why are you here?« , I am detained by the police. For example, the United States still refuse to give me a visa. I cannot attend my own exhibitions that take place there continually. No matter, I will not bore you by turning into literature what I am subjected to here, as being « other ». For these reasons, I maintain relations with my country. All my work here is linked to my country, my lands. I can never turn my back on my own reality. Currently, as part of an association titled « Mesela » which we founded with a group of artists living in Europe, we pursue work on the opening of a « memorial museum » in Kobanê, one of the places in Rojava where the war was experienced in the heaviest of ways. For a people to submit, before all else, one erases its memory, this is why the memorial museum in Kobanê has great importance for us.
Illustration : Zehra Doğan painting… July 2020 ©Naz Oke