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As we informed you ear­li­er, Zehra Dogan has just been award­ed the first edi­tion of the prix Car­ol Rama, à Milan, comme nous vous en informions. At that time, she was also answer­ing ques­tions from a Greek inter­view­er for whom we served as relays. The Eng­lish ver­sion follows.

Trans­la­tion of the arti­cle pub­lished in Greek, Novem­ber 17, 2020, on το συναπάντημα.
This inter­view was real­ized by Mara Char­man­ta, founder of  of the Greek web­site


Does being split between two poles  that treat the truth dif­fer­ent­ly mean one only does things halfway? To this ques­tion, Zehra Doğan from Kur­dis­tan answers with a resound­ing “no”.

This prize win­ning jour­nal­ist and painter was impris­oned for two years and ten months for hav­ing paint­ed Turk­ish flags on destroyed build­ings. But, as she lat­er explained, she had done noth­ing oth­er than to repro­duce and imag­ine on her tablet what the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment had done in real­i­ty. Her impris­on­ment caused a world-wide reac­tion among many artists and there fol­lowed let­ters of protest, street murals and works of art.

As her press agency JINHA was closed down in 2016 by the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment  (as were a num­ber of oth­er media fol­low­ing the failed attempt at a coup d’é­tat) she pur­sued her own strug­gle through paint­ings and oth­er news­pa­pers. Is it easy to rise from the ash­es of war, to print words and draw images that do not repro­duce war’s hor­ror? A fas­ci­nat­ing con­ver­sa­tion fol­lows with a spir­it­ed young woman who believes in the impor­tance of self-dis­cov­ery, so that we may all live more freely…

Many thanks to Naz Oke and Lucie Bourges for their precious help in the translation.
Zehra Doğan

Zehra Doğan. “Spi­ral Cycle” (detail). 165 x 196 cm. Laces, cof­fee, men­stru­al blood, deter­gent, acrylic. July 2020, Angers.

• You express your­self through two occu­pa­tions (jour­nal­ism, draw­ing), both of which urge you to seek free­dom and truth. Is it easy to send a mes­sage out to the world through Art or jour­nal­ism? Are peo­ple will­ing to hear it all and sup­port peo­ple who say it?

I’ve learned the fol­low­ing through all the expe­ri­ences I’ve lived through so far in my life: peo­ple have a lot of trou­ble com­bin­ing these two dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines. Art is one of my two activ­i­ties and the oth­er is jour­nal­ism which treats real­i­ty objec­tive­ly from a dis­tance. Gen­er­al­ly, when we speak of art, every­one thinks of an esthet­ic mode of expres­sion with round­ed angles. Where­as, for me, Art – at least my own – is not like that: it is blunt and direct. My art prefers a nar­ra­tive, not like an ad for some per­fume, but as some­thing direct. This is why there are always traces of jour­nal­ism in my cre­ations. As jour­nal­ism uses words, my works express them­selves in a straigh­for­ward way. My jour­nal­ism is polit­i­cal, it nour­ish­es my art.

But if you ask me if the world sup­ports this approach, I have to say it does­n’t yet, in my opin­ion. Quite the con­trary, I would say that con­fronting eyes with real­i­ty, through art this time, is dis­turb­ing. Nowa­days, peo­ple go to muse­ums and exhi­bi­tions look­ing for cul­ture, relax­ation, escape from stress or yet again as a reward with a pleas­ant pause inter­rupt­ing their pro­fes­sion­al rou­tine. They want to look at gen­tle, unstress­ful works. This strikes me as a kind of med­i­ta­tion. But my art is dis­turb­ing and can­not be con­tained in white jars. It dis­rupts the cul­tur­al ini­tia­tive for some, dis­turbs a cul­tur­al hol­i­day for oth­ers… This is why it does not eas­i­ly find sup­port. Peo­ple do not want to be dis­turbed in spaces devot­ed to cul­tur­al activ­i­ties, but they are dis­turbed by my works since they con­vey so many things when they are looked at, and cre­ate the feel­ing there is a neces­si­ty to act. And that is cer­tain­ly some­thing many peo­ple flee.

• Art con­veys a mes­sage indi­rect­ly, where­as jour­nal­ism should tell it direct­ly in an unemo­tion­al way. Through which of these two do you find it eas­i­er to express some things and which of the two is the… safest?

I am not gift­ed for soft­en­ing blunt angles or turn­ing my tongue in my mouth before speak­ing, nor for say­ing things indi­rect­ly. I always pre­fer the direct approach, exact­ly as in jour­nal­ism. For me, it is a mis­take to attempt express­ing these things indi­rect­ly. Even if it is art, this is a mis­take. My works are polit­i­cal. Talk­ing about polit­i­cal top­ics indi­rect­ly means chang­ing the top­ic into an esthet­ic expe­ri­ence and that is a grave error, uneth­i­cal. Themes such as these must be expressed coldly.

• The “Metin Gök­te­pe” prize you were award­ed has more val­ue than oth­ers for you, since it was named for a pho­to­jour­nal­ist who was mur­dered in police cus­tody. Does this prize weigh “heav­i­ly” on your hands since it also means you must find the strength to car­ry on the strug­gle on behalf of all the Metins around the world?

The respon­si­bil­i­ty and the weight of this prize are impres­sive. For me, all the awards have mean­ing. Each one adds extra respon­si­bil­i­ties on my shoul­ders. This is why, every time I receive a prize, my nights are heavy and filled with night­mares, I can­not go back to sleep, I don’t feel well. Because indeed, it is a respon­si­bil­i­ty you can­not escape. The Metin Gök­te­pe prize is one such as this. Once you receive it, you must run after real­i­ty, no mat­ter where it leads…

• You were impris­oned because you drew Turk­ish flags on ruins. Was there ever a time when you regret­ted doing this and thought you should have found anoth­er way to express what you want­ed to say? Were you fright­ened when you were arrest­ed and imprisoned?

I did not expe­ri­ence any regrets. Had I expe­ri­enced them, I would have been lib­er­at­ed one year soon­er. Already, at the sen­tenc­ing, the judge added an addi­tion­al sen­tence for “the absence of observ­able regrets”. There was also anoth­er way to reduce my sen­tence lat­er. All I need­ed to do was to write a request from prison, with the words: “I regret”. Thus, I might have been grant­ed a reduced sen­tence and lib­er­at­ed. But I did not do this and received a heav­ier sen­tence from the tri­bunal, and remained impris­oned for an addi­tion­al year.

Of course I was fright­ened when I was impris­oned. I thought I would nev­er come out again. Does there exist a sin­gle human being locked in prison and who does not expe­ri­ence night­mares? If such a one exist­ed, I would have doubts about his or her human­i­ty… To be fright­ened, to fear, to be sad­dened are human motions. What mat­ters is, despite these feel­ings, to refuse all con­ces­sions for one’s self and one’s struggles.

• What was the hard­est day in prison? What gave you the courage to car­ry on?

To car­ry on in prison, I found a source of strength in my belief in the strug­gle for a non-gen­dered soci­ety. The hard­est times in prison were those days and nights when babies incar­cer­at­ed with their moth­ers were sick and we could not do any­thing to help them.

zehra dogan

Zehra Doğan. “Hunt­ing and deliv­ery”. 98 x 78 cm. Acrylic, col­lage fab­ric on can­vas. 2019, London.

• In prison, I sup­pose you received sev­er­al mes­sages from peo­ple offer­ing their encour­age­ments. Do you recall the most mov­ing of these?

I received a card from an elder­ly woman. She wrote: “Dear Zehra, I am an 80 year old woman. I vis­it­ed your exhi­bi­tion acci­den­tal­ly and dis­cov­ered to what your peo­ple have been sub­ject­ed, and con­tin­ue to be sub­ject­ed. I was appalled at how cru­el this world can be. Up until this day, I had no idea about the Kurds. I offer you my apolo­gies for not hav­ing heard about you until this day.”

• All over the world, many artists demon­strat­ed their sol­i­dar­i­ty in many ways. This means that Art unites peo­ple. Are there oth­er things that unite us all?

Even I who pro­duce art was sur­prised to see the pow­er it has. This is why my anger keeps grow­ing toward those art mer­chants that place it in a glass cage. Art is not what they have always said it is… It has tremen­dous pow­er. But they hold us back by trans­form­ing artists into invest­ment prod­ucts. Where­as art and the artist occu­py a total­ly dif­fer­ent realm. White is not the col­or of art and of the artists; black is. It does not belong in a glass cage, but under­ground. For me, the most impor­tant objec­tives unit­ing us are art and an envi­ron­men­tal­ly sound world, free of gen­der iden­ti­ties and nation-states.

• Is it dif­fi­cult for a woman in Turkey to stand up, to live and to talk freely?

Yes it is dif­fi­cult. But not only in Turkey, it is dif­fi­cult every­where in the world.

• In a world marked by finan­cial cri­sis and the coro­n­avirus, how tru­ly free and hap­py can we be?

For me, a human being can be hap­py inas­much as he or she is him­self or her­self. A self-direct­ed per­son who can say “no”, can be hap­py even in the midst of war, because this per­son is free. Such a human being is nat­u­ral­ly some­one who can pull out of the sys­tem’s monot­o­nous rou­tine. That per­son does not act accord­ing to the dik­tats of eco­nom­ic mar­kets. This per­son knows well the rea­sons why we are pushed into hunger, into mis­ery… Some­one who is con­scious of the fact that the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic is but one of the con­se­quences of the cursed poli­cies of macho states. And a per­son who is con­scious fights against all that. How can one believe that a com­bat­ive per­son could be unhap­py or kept a pris­on­er, even in prison?

• You were one of the authors at JINHA, an out­spo­ken fem­i­nist news agency. Do you think women are mis­treat­ed all over the world? Can we eas­i­ly obtain the place we deserve finan­cial­ly and in the pro­fes­sion­al field?

I think women are vic­tims every­where in the world. But with one impor­tant dis­tinc­tion: we are vic­tims who refuse to vic­tim­ize our­selves. This is why we are so strong. We are sub­ject­ed to the macho world, its admin­is­tra­tive cogs, its econ­o­my, its rad­i­cal reli­gions, its mul­ti­ple means of ostracism and all its wars. In none of the domains do we occu­py the place that should belong to us. Still today, we must sub­mit to selec­tions in our choice of pro­fes­sion, harass­ment in the work we do for inequitable salaries. And there are con­stant attempts at reduc­ing us to the sta­tus of brood­ing machines. When we give birth, our tasks mul­ti­ply. With restrict­ed legal rights, they tell us more or less “if you can’t take it, stop work­ing”. Aware of these pres­sures when we stub­born­ly con­tin­ue to work, to fight, we start resem­bling our­selves. The more we hard­en our­selves, the more mas­cu­line we become. It is like an uncon­scious muta­tion. This is a com­pli­cat­ed and dif­fi­cult top­ic, and the work is hard and part of a long process. For this rea­son, it is very impor­tant that we orga­nize togeth­er in a struc­tured way. It is very hard to walk alone on such a path. We must move for­ward shoul­der to shoul­der, so we can pick up those who fall, and help one anoth­er. We must nev­er give up! By fight­ing with­out com­plain­ing to obtain our rights, we must nev­er for­get that we are those attempt­ing to cre­ate a new, very dif­fer­ent world.

• You are a very young woman with hopes and dreams. Tell me about them.

Yes, this is true, I am a hope­ful per­son. But, I don’t know why, every time I hear the word “hope” I see before my eyes the image of Polyan­na’s smil­ing face… Per­haps we need to find a new descrip­tion, a new word, to describe the will to remain stand­ing despite every­thing for those who have emerged from war zones, as I have. But, for the time being, let’s call it “the con­vic­tion”… Per­son­al­ly, I do not want to be an idiot filled with hope who, despite every­thing, waits and hopes and does not even man­age to get out of her arm­chair to change any­thing. For me, hope is a feel­ing that appears when you fight for some­thing. And those who achieve their dreams are always win­ners. Oh, let’s be per­fect­ly clear, of course I’m not talk­ing about those pho­ny and absurd Amer­i­can best-sell­ers, the type that claim “focus on your objec­tive, fight and you will win”. I am talk­ing about being one’s self and the true con­vic­tion that is part of real life and nour­ish­es us. You know, the macho patri­ar­chal sys­tem does not like peo­ple who are them­selves… Com­ing back to hope: I am one of those peo­ple who strug­gle to be them­selves and whose heart is filled with “hope”.

• What is the first thing you will teach your children ?

I’ve always stayed clear of “teach­ing oth­ers”. I do not like to teach or to be the one doing the teach­ing, even to my own child…I do not want chil­dren, but let’s speak of a hypo­thet­i­cal one. I think that on the road to self-dis­cov­ery, I would avoid being a moth­er who acts like a nar­row-mind­ed edu­ca­tor, impos­ing and pass­ing on those short-cuts dis­cov­ered on her own path to self-discovery.

• Zehra Doğan: When peo­ple hear your name, what would you like them to think?

I don’t know. I’ve nev­er giv­en this a momen­t’s thought.

Illus­tra­tion: Zehra Doğan by Hoshin Issa

Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
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