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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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