Türkçe Bianet | Français | English | Italiano

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…
You may use and share Kedistan’s articles and translations, specifying the source and adding a link in order to respect the writer(s) and translator(s) work. Thank you
KEDISTAN on EmailKEDISTAN on FacebookKEDISTAN on TwitterKEDISTAN on Youtube
Le petit mag­a­zine qui ne se laisse pas caress­er dans le sens du poil.