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A very important and “thorny” exhibition opened under the curatorship of Wenda Koyuncu and Sevla Dakman in the context of a program titled “Discussions on Nationalism” at the Kıraathane: that of Zehra Doğan’s first individual exhibition in Turkey, titled “Görülmemiştir” (Unseen – Not Approved)

The exhibition consists of works and diaries Zehra Doğan realized in prison, along with audio recordings and other prison ‘recordings’. One must first begin by going back on Zehra Doğan’s life, for her life (or rather, the life she was kept from “living”) constitutes both the direct material for her creations and indicates the road to follow in understanding them. I take this excerpt from the presentation for the exhibition:

“Kurdish journalist and artist. Because she shared on social networks drawings she had done during the curfews and security operations led by security forces in Nusaybin, Mardin district, and for having published an article containing notes from a ten-year old child, a trial was held against her under the accusation of belonging to an illegal organization…She was then sentenced to 33 months in prison for “propaganda”…

This exhibition offers us the viewing of works done by Zehra Doğan during her imprisonment. Done with both persistence and resistence, using everything she could find in the prison, using all manners of medium, all that kinds of materials (including brushes made out of hair, and menstrual blood – a true body-related policy) and showing the alternative space she constructed this way. You can also see this exhibition like a book of stories, of dreams, executed in an environment of radical scarcity, like a visual, sound and text outfit done by someone reduced to the “naked vision” (in the meaning given this expression by Agamben), in the space in which she is locked up, transforming into possibilities whatever means were confiscated from her.

The fact the exhibition is titled “Görülmemiştir” is significant in this regard; for each item that enters “inside” stamped “görülmüştür” (seen – approved), is transformed into a tool with which to show things “unseen” or that one refuses to see, or again that are rendered invisible because they are considered “reprehensible”, then sent back outside through clandestine means. A fabulous counter-attack! A counter-manifesto written from the inside toward the outside, on materials provided by the outside itself. 1

Zehra Doğan had a first exhibition following her liberation, at the Tate Modern. In that exhibition titled E Li Duman (Left behind), she used objects founds in certain “sensitive” destroyed zones such as Cizre, Nusaybin. She displayed the traces of the destruction that cannot be shown “here” (for obvious political reasons). Concerning that exhibition, I had written an article with Wenda Koyuncu, one of the curators of the current exhibition, and we had asked why evidence from the destruction (burned carpets, pieces of shoes and other “damaged” objects collected by Zehra Doğan) could not be exhibited in Istanbul, for example. That exhibition was also important politically as an “exhibition” that could not be held “here”. Exhibitions that cannot be held also inscribe themselves as non-realized events, as an “absence”. In that article we had written that this exbhition by Zehra Dogan was not an “exhibition” but an action, and even a “situationist action”. In it, the artist had accumulated as the author of a collection, the traces of a violence and called on the visiting public “here and now” to face reality with a call to action.

There is a similar impetus in this latter exhibition: it calls those who look to a place filled with violence and yet one that does not imprison its own counter-proposition in victimhood. Every object, text, visual within the exhibition space contains an impulse to pierce through the wall. The obvious wall, the wall used as a confining instrument by the official forces. In a way, walking through the exhibition gives a sense of being “inside” and of touching the intellect of an imprisoned person. The climate contains violence and gloom, yes, but the challenge to transform this is perceptible, something like a “politics of emotion” perhaps. The fact that Zehra Dogan, as an imprisoned woman uses objects or conditions linked to feminity as political tools or carriers adds a feminist vein to the exhibition. Finally, the power that imprisons is generally “masculine” be it in the real or in the metaphorical sense; and the man’s eye watches those locked inside. These works show this eye what it does not want to see, and in this sense, what bell hooks calls the “oppositional gaze” takes root here.

What this exhibition achieves very well is the fact of developing a counter-discourse, by taking ownership of everything, each item and visual considered as abject. As do Tracy Emin and other transgressive artists, in a way. As you know, one of the means that those in power use is to create a catalog of elements considered “abject” both in a physical and in an intellectual sense, and to proceed in such a way that they become cursed or “terrorizing” symbols. For this reason, taking ownership of the abject and transforming it into an tool for expression, rendering it “presentable”, is a political impulse.

One of the best expressions I have come across while thinking about representation and negation belongs to Butler: ontological insurrection. In her book in which she reflects on grieving and violence 2, Butler says that those who are not authorized to express their existence and who are rendered “nullus nomen” eventually attempt an ontological insurrection: an existential revolt, fed by the desire to persist in being. The ones thus ignored can be any of those that fall outside the official ideological patterns of representation or those excluded from them: migrants, gays, minorities, drifters, radical political thinkers, “criminals” of opinion, or the poor. As soon as they attempt to render their existence visible and audible, they tear the veil of invisibility and record their existence; through, writing, action, performance, visuals or yet again by some “subversive” action or other. From this, we can reflect on what Zehra Doğan wishes to achieve as an artist: everything else excluded, she wishes to record her existence and to create a vibration in the order of things. A political, esthetic, symbolical or physical vibration.

Zehra Dogan

Cigarette break in the courtyard. Zehra Doğan. “My mother and my sister kept finding new ways for me to make art in prison. This was one of the most efficient ways for me. My mother would bring some dresses in at the visit as “clean clothes”. I would draw on them, sew them back together and hand them over as laundry to the guard who handed them back to my mother on her following weekly visit. And the next time, my mother brought another dress as clean clothes. The following week after drawing on it, I would hand it back as laundry through the guard.”
Photo: Emre M. for Kedistan

The question I placed as the headline to this note “What does Zehra Doğan want?” was raised a few years ago as the title of an interview with Şener Özmen3: What does Şener Özmen want? The fine side of that interview consisted in the following: what would the person facing us want as a figure existing on earth, as an artistic and political entity, at the risk of being reduced to this topic? To what location does all the work and the interventions invite us or show us? During the interview, this exchange carries through Şener Özmen’s video, titled “What does the artist want?”

In this video the artist is alone on a piece of arid land and speaks with passion. But his voice cannot be heard because he is flown over by fighter airplanes and the anonymous voice of the military mechanism covers the personal voice of the subject expressing himself. The critical issue is the following: this machinery annihilates the voice expressing itself, both metaphorically and in reality. And the artist, no matter what he does cannot explain “what he wants”. This is the not the description of a cultural or “relational” crisis but of an ontological one, which is to say that the “artist” is absent, his voice annihilated. But in this video, the fact of being kept from narrating becomes the narration in itself. A political impulse, ironical, leads to what cannot be expressed, expressing itself.

Zehra Doğan also calls on similar ontological meaning to “make her voice heard”, she does not do this with irony but in utter seriousness, face to face, nose to nose. She wants to raise to a maximum the sound of “her lowered voice”. And to do this, she uses the equivalent of megaphones, her own existence, her body and all those “non-artistic” materials she uses as an artist of arte povera. Harsh and grave sounds emerge from this metaphorical megaphone: “In order to hear me, you must also feel this harshness and this gravity.”

One item in the exhibition demonstrates this very well: with a publiphone installed in the exhibition, you can listen to the conversations Zehra Doğan had in prison, as if you were “calling her”. Without irony, with no go-betweens, and perhaps even without needed esthetics excuses…The sound is on and a person rendered invisible or inaudible takes on a body. This is why these works by Zehra Doğan can be seen as a recording of existence, an “ontological insurrection” and the exhibition as an ontological exhibition (and also political, of course) leading the restitution of one’s honor.

This is what Zehra Doğan wants: to add her own voice to the representational scene and through it to show political violence in all of its virulence, and if she can breathe within the spiral of violence, also narrate her “personal tale”. And, if necessary, by transforming her own body into an instrument…

One last thing. During an interview, speaking of the sense of freedom provided by her exhibition at the Tate Modern and to express the bitterness she felt at not being able to exhibit in Turkey Zehra Doğan sais that henceforth that freedom was not yet complete. “Here there is freedom, but its taste is bitter”.

I believe that thanks to this exhibition, this bitterness is somewhat tempere.

A carnation, from one hand to another…4

Ahmet Ergenç

Top photo: “When I was in prison, my mother made tow dolls out of old branches she had gathered in the garden. She cut out cloth for her own clothes and dressed them. One is with me, the other with her. When I wasn’t there, she sewed on the one representing me hair I had cut and which she had kept. My little niece Hevin also made a doll and used some of my hair. Thus did they make Zehra dolls for themselves. In a way, they liberated the imprisoned Zehra. They did not accept the fact I was locked up, they settled the dolls in a corner of the room, as if I was at home. As if nothing had happened, that I was free and close to them…”
Zehra Doğan


Ahmet Ergenç
With a diploma in English language and literature from Istanbul University, he has pursued Masters and Ph.D. studies on American culture and literature. He has published a number of critical texts on literature, cinema, contemporary art and translated a number of books on these topics. A member of the AICA ‘International Association of Art Critics, he currently lives in Istanbul and continues to write on art, literature and the cinema.

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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