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Zehra is finally on exhibit in Istanbul. Her last exhibition in Turkey, on Kurdish lands in February 2017 in Diyarbakır, during a first time outside prison, attracted the attention of the authorities who immediately started searching for her. As everyone knows, she was then sentenced to over two years of incarceration.

Liberated now, a nomad in Europe but always under threat if she returns to Turkey, she fully appreciates in her own way the fact that a few of her prison works are finally exhibited in Istanbul. She is deeply moved by this.

Next week, she will receive the Hypatia prize at the Genoa Festival in Italy to which country she will travel once again. But if this nomadism resembles freedom, Zehra Doğan also expresses in this interview the extent to which, for her, this freedom is not real.

As she did for her exhibition in Milan, she returns over her struggles, her fight and how she projects them in her Art.

zehra dogan istanbul exposition

Interview conducted by Evrim Kepenek, published on Bianet October 9 2020

Zehra Doğan: I cannot be there, but my art is in Turkey

One of the works I made on a prison bed will be exhibited. I made it using a sheet and a pillow case. On the pillow case, there is a sentence I wrote using my hair: “I am Zehra, I have no regrets”.

I added a collage using a scarf my mother gave me, on which I poured menstrual blood. I also drew women’s profiles

What I’m expressing here, rather than something related to politics is the fact that I am not in rependance mode as a woman. I can no longer stand social gender roles constantly generating regret for events that happen to us. Sexist society has us saying things like “if I hadn’t gone out at night, I wouldn’t have been raped”, “if I had listened to my father, what is happening to me would never have occurred”, “if I hadn’t believed this man and had sexual relations, I would still be a virgin”, “I am no longer a virgin, what will become of me now?”

Regret, always. In creating this work in prison, on a prison bed, I wanted to create a metaphor. This bed also exists once we are outside. They have always imprisoned us with this bed. Women on the outside also lie down every day on this bed. The prison bed is everywhere. The worst part being that this bed is also part of every woman’s wedding night. We lie on it, frightened, with trembling knees. This is why I put this blood in the middle of the sheet. This blood is my own menstrual blood. I placed in the middle of the sheet as a reminder of the blood on the wedding night.

We women, when we have our period, we do not even want to see our own menstrual blood. When someone, even a woman, sees that a blood stain has appeared inadvertently on our pants, we are embarrassed and we apologize. These damned gender norms have made us find our own body secretions disgusting. In every religion, this liquid is considered haram1. A menstruating woman cannot enter religious premises, cannot cook and if she does, it is considered “unhealthy”. Because it is haram. How is it that this liquid linked to humanity’s procreation is considered so disgusting?

While in prison, I told myself “yes, truthfully, outside also I was sentenced to this bed. If I don’t rid myself of this perception, once liberated, this bed will pursue me. I will be a prisoner of this bed, like one who is bed-ridden for life.” When I was incarcerated, I saw myself and my friends as witches blowing on knots. As if we were cursed and thrown there… Accursed women objecting and struggling for women, being forced to regret their actions. I remove myself from this bed by refusing to be their incubator, I stand letting my blood drip down and saying “I am Zehra, I leave this bed without any regret.”

Zehra Dogan Ne Posmanim

Artist and journalist Zehra Doğan’s meets art amateurs in Turkey again with an exhibition titled “Nehatîye Dîtin”, “Unapproved” in Kurdish [an allusion to the stamp “Approved”, (“seen” in Turkish) applied by the censorship commission on all prison correspondence]. The exhibition begins on October 9 at Kıraathane İstanbul Edebiyat Evi and will be on show for a month.

We spoke with Zehra Doğan on the occasion of this exhibition. It had been a while. Here are glimmers of our conversation that unfolded at times in tears, but also with many bursts of laughter…

How are you?

I’m well but a bit tired. I’m on my way to Geneva. I’ll have a performance there next November 23. I’m on my way to see the premises and for a meeting. On November 27, still in Geneva, with Ai Weiwei, I will participate in a conference on “Human rights and resistance through art”.

“I’m in a state of perpetual nomadism”

You have been gone from Turkey for a long time, how do you feel about it?

The sensation of separating from a place is quite a heavy matter. If you leave in conscience, because of your will to leave, that is one thing, if you do it by obligation, it’s quite another. I left by obligation. Had I stayed, I would have been arrested again for other files opened against me.

For this reason, having left without being able to go back is hard for me. From now on, I live like a nomad…It has been two years now, when I think of it. At first, I settled in London but then, with my journalisme and my art-related activities, I went back to living as a nomad.

It is a perpetual state of nomadism and its ending is uncertain. It may go on for long years still. I’m certain that had this been a matter of personal choice, this period could be very amusing for me. But there are days when I live with the hope of waking up in the morning to the sound of the spoon in my early rising mother’s glass of tea.

Since I have left Turkey, I have been on the road. I only remember the first five months, during which I travelled to 15 different locations, when my exhibitions opened, I don’t remember what came after.

What differences are there between your art in prison, and your creations outside?

In terms of context, there isn’t much difference. I was in prison, and I still am, outside, a person building her existence and expressing herself through drawing. In terms of professionalism, if I examine the question from the angle of my trade and of what I produce, I consider myself more professional. I see myself as a Zehra who knows what she is doing and how she must do it. But in terms of thoughts and artistic technique, it’s the same Zehra…

“My life is political, so my art is also”

Zehra Dogan

September 2020, Milano, Prometeo Gallery.

So, what is the state of Turkey, seen from abroad?

Unfortunately, in terms of image, it’s very bad. Some things are shown by media allied to those in power. Erdoğan and the people supporting him, appear like a majority. The people seem to be submissive to Erdoğan’s ideas. Opponents behave as if all the oppressions had appeared after Erdoğan. I’m constantly rectifying this perception. When I’m presented, I’m introduced as “the woman who ran away from Erdoğan’s Turkey”. And yet, the question is not only linked to the 15 years of Erdoğan’s policies…

Yes, there is an entire segment of the population that is truly Erdoğan’s victim. But he has been active in the last 15 years. The Kurds and those leading a socialist struggle in Turkey have lived through hardships also, before Erdoğan. As the Republic was not built on equal citizenship for all and as Turkey is a country with a democratic problem, some peoples have been subjected to heavy damage from the beginning. I think reducing the problem to the last 15 years gives a very incomplete vision of the problem.

You speak in conferences, of your art, of your daily life. Can you summarize this for us?

Being a journalist who has been in prison, I am considered like a political figure. Yet when I express myself, relating what I have lived through, what I have witnessed, another political nature emerges. I do not want to consider my art as political. I mean, what I do is art while being a politicized person.

Political art and being political are not the same thing.

I think it is different. Consequently, I consider myself like a politicized person producing art and who finds a form of expression resting on protest, which is reflected in my work. But it isn’t as if I settled myself in a white armchair and said “say, I ‘ll do a political drawing today”. What I draw, what I paint in order to express myself, gives rise to, and reflects the political. Isn’t this normal for a woman who grew up in Kurdish lands, whose childhood was spent in Bağlar, the most strongly protesting neighborhood of Diyarbakır, and who lived in Sur?

I’ve received critiques on this subject, such as “her works are too political”

I am a woman who spent her childhood working, who was tried at the age of 16 for throwing stones on the police; I am a journalist who was imprisoned, who saw and lived through all the confrontations in Nusaybin; how could what I produce not be political?! I have a political identity, I am not a politician. Having been persecuted, and gone through the experience of prison, I could not be any other way…

If I was an artist evolving from knowledge to knowledge, with an art progressing solely for itself… But that is not who I am.

Nor do I understand those who criticize me from Turkey by describing me as a “political person”. My entire life has been political, isn’t it only natural that my art should be so too?

“Approved” on the way in, “Unapproved” on the way out

Getting back to your exhibition in Turkey…

My exhibition begins on October 9 at Kıraathane in Istanbul. Mahmut Wenda Koyuncu and Seval Dakman are the curators. I cannot go to Turkey, but my art is there. We are all hoping that our exhibition can be repeated in Amed.

We titled this exhibition ““Görülmemiş” (Unseen). It displays some of my prison works. If truth be told, they are not only my own work but the results of collective work done with my co-detainee friends. It includes dresses, scarves, sheets that my mother made and sent me. They are creations, each one finding its meaning and recreating their existence as a form of expression…

There are items sent by my mother but also by my sister, my lawyers, my friends and others given to me by my prisoner friends. What comes from the outside cannot enter the prison without authorization provided by the stamp “Görülmüştür” (Seen). And any object leaves in a clandestine way. There is a whole philosophy involved here. A “seen” object leaves the prison “unseen”, through clandestine means. This is a whole form of expression.

Zehra Doğan

Zehra at work… “Nêrîn” (Look). 230 x 155 cm. On carpet, acrylic, felt point, soft pastel. July 2020, Angers, France. Work currently exhibited in Milan at the Prometeo Gallery. Photo by Naz Oke

When did you think that menstrual blood could be a form of expression?

In the 70s in the United States, some women artists created works this way. They did it to shatter the macho vision. I did not do this consciously, as a matter of choice, but as an obligation. The idea came from the absence of supplies and the conditions in prison. It appeared with the impossibility of expression through the ordinary artistic voice. It was not a preference, but a forced choice. Part of the dynamic of creating an existence in a context of absence…

“I experienced freedom in prison and in Nusaybin”

I think that in the axis of “art, authenticity and freedom”, your creations are both authentic and symbolic of freedom. What do you think?

Both authentic and free… By nature they are forms of protest. I give a lot of importance to the concept, I want it to be powerful. Each of my creations is a sincere fruit, carrying the emotion born from a work of reading and research. I have forms of research, methods in order to find this authenticity. Each person is authentic, but freedom is something else…

Zehra Doğan by Hoshin Issa

October 9, 2020, Switzerland. Photo by Hoshin Issa.

As a woman, I am deeply convinced that freedom is not doing what one wants.

I felt free in prison, in Nusaybin2, even more so. Why did I feel this way? They were hard places after all, with confrontations… But I always felt that I was free. I thought a lot about this later. When I arrived in Europe, I did not feel free. I had the feeling of lacking something. As if my body was surrounded by barbed wire, that when I moved, their spikes dug into my guts. I realized much later that in Nusaybin, even under fire, I felt good because I could say “no”. I felt good in the prison where I was being punished for having produced my art, because there also I could say “no, what I did was not a crime”.

I started feeling better in Europe when I starded saying “no”.

Freedom is not doing what we do not want to do… My works don’t do what is expected of them. In art schools, you are taught models and conventions. Except, precisely, by opposing all that, this is when art appears… You can be authentic and free when you oppose macho perceptions, conventional notions and produce in this way.

“It annoys me that they criminalize me”

You make the voice of the Kurdish lands heard. What do you want to say?

This mission strikes me as too heavy, I cannot accept it. I am not alone: we are an entire people. I am only one person among this collective. I don’t give myself this kind of mission. I can simply say this: I stay apart from political activism, but I am a politicized person. I would like this to be known and understood. I am politicized and this is reflected in my work. What annoys me is not the fact of being recognized as politicized, but being reduced to a terrorist.

Where will be the next exhibitions after Istanbul?

I have extremely important and formative exhibitions and conferences ahead of me in the coming months. But the United-States have qualified me as a “terrorist” and I cannot obtain a visa to go there. Apart for which Itlay, German, Switzerland and England are the next exhibitions I can think of at this moment…

Headline photo: © Marilla Sicilia

Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges 
*A word to English-speaking readers: in all instances where the original text is in Turkish or Kurdish, the English version is derived from French translations. Inevitably, some shift in meaning occurs with each translation. Hopefully, the intent of the original is preserved in all cases. While an ideal situation would call for a direct translation from the original, access to information remains our main objective in this exercise and, we hope, makes more sense than would a translation provided by AI…
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