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 sinapantima.gr
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.
• 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.
• 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