Article originally published in Left, on October 16 2020
Exhibition in the Lambrate neighborhood in Milan, “Beyond”, a personal exhibition by Zehra Doğan, at the Prometeo Gallery until November 15.
Zehra Doğan is a young Kurdish artist, born in Diyarbakır, the largest town in Turkey with a Kurdish majority. In 2016, she was arrested because of a tweet: a drawing of the town of Nusaybin destroyed by the Turkish army’s scorpions. There was no accusation but Zehra was pronounced guilty of “terrorism”. The regime is terrified by this petite young woman with long black hair as smooth as ebony, armed to the teeth with some of the things that most frighten those holding authoritarian power: art, imagination and truth.
Zehra is forced to live in prison for over two years, where she paints, and when her paints and her paper are taken from her, she continues with whatever she finds; coffee, tea, left-over food, hair and even menstrual blood and urine. She paints on everything she can find, on wrapping paper, sheets, towels, newspaper. And her art for which she was arrested finds a way to escape beyond the prison walls.
Today, Zehra is “free” but few of her prison friends are, and her country, Kurdistan or Turkey, are not free either. And forced into exile in Europe, she cannot return to her homeland. But her art, as heavy as the earth, continues to fly lightly on the wings of a butterfly, above the mean-spiritedness of those in power and of repression, defying Erdogan’s fascistic and authoritarian regime and denouncing to Europe the massacre of the Kurdish people.
The works exhibited in Milan, all recent, are absolutely powerful, at once both violent and fragile. Hanging on the walls, they are the ones nailing us to the truth and to the Western world’s responsibility for choosing not to look, despite us. Mostly, the wide open eyes of these women with the fixedness of immobile and hieratical Byzantine icons of a far-away past, rise up like a cry of denunciation, both powerful and painful.
Even more that the real weapons they carry on their naked and mutilated bodies, their eyes are their most powerful ones. “Look at me, my people are dominated, my land is razed, I am not free to live in peace, my body is humiliated, invaded, conquered, possessed. But my eyes are free. Free to tell and to denounce to the world the tragedy of my people, through the pain of my mothers, my sisters, my daughters.”
Now, Europe must open its eyes…
*P.S.: in 1937, André Breton wrote that Frida Kahlo’s art was like “a ribbon surrounding a bomb”. In a very different way, Zehra Doğan’s art has something of the same spirit: a weapon wrapped in a ribbon of oriental silk.