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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
  • Zehra Dogan

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.

Zehra Dogan Beyond

Zehra Doğan, “Beyond”. Pho­to: Ludovi­ca Mangi­ni. With kind autho­riza­tion of the artist and of galery Prom­e­teo Ida Pisani Milan/Lucca

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.

Zehra Dogan Beyond

Zehra Doğan, “Beyond”. Pho­to: Ludovi­ca Mangi­ni. With kind autho­riza­tion of the artist and of galery Prom­e­teo Ida Pisani Milan/Lucca

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.

Zehra Dogan Beyond

Zehra Doğan, “Beyond”. Pho­to: Ludovi­ca Mangi­ni. With kind autho­riza­tion of the artist and of galery Prom­e­teo Ida Pisani Milan/Lucca

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.

Zehra Dogan Beyond Bigihej

Zehra Doğan, “Bigi­hêj” (Reach), 2020. On can­vas, acrylic, cofee, urine, felt pen 218 x 250 cm. Pho­to : Ludovi­ca Mangi­ni. With kind autho­riza­tion of the artist and of galery Prom­e­teo Ida Pisani Milan/Lucca

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.

Zehra Dogan, “Dress” per­for­mance. With kind autho­riza­tion of the artist and of galery Prom­e­teo Ida Pisani Milan/Lucca

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.

Zehra Dogan Beyond Yekbun

Zehra Doğan, “Yek­bûn” (Uni­ty), 2020. On car­pet, acrylic, gold paper, 126 x 200 cm. Pho­to : Ludovi­ca Mangi­ni. With kind autho­riza­tion of the artist and of galery Prom­e­teo Ida Pisani Milan/Lucca

Illus­tra­tion : Zehra Doğan paint­ing… July 2020 ©Naz Oke

Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges 
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Le petit mag­a­zine qui ne se laisse pas caress­er dans le sens du poil.