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And that is how one becomes a “ter­ror­ist to be locked up”. A judge, self-pro­claim­ing him­self as an art crit­ic, thus decid­ed in 2016 what almost three years of Zehra Doğan’s life would con­sist of: an incar­cer­a­tion… because of a draw­ing.


This “injus­tice” mas­querad­ing as cen­sor­ship was in fact the polit­i­cal result of what appeared as a “denun­ci­a­tion” of crimes com­mit­ted by the Turk­ish army, through the divert­ing of a pho­to. The vir­tu­al draw­ing was done on a graph­ics tablet and, thus, will nev­er exist except as a dig­i­tal file.

As we know, the sen­tenc­ing opened up for the jour­nal­ist and artist Zehra Doğan a peri­od in her life she will find as hard to leave behind as one does the peri­od of one’s twen­ties. And those years, most def­i­nite­ly, real, we can find them in her tes­ti­mo­ni­als but also as hun­dreds of “prison works” as well as in her now-pub­lished prison let­ters. Added to these now, a graph­ic nov­el, also done in clan­des­tin­i­ty, escaped sheet after sheet, next to works done on fab­rics and oth­er mate­ri­als passed on furtively.

Day after day, Zehra will insist on pur­su­ing what is both a diary and a homage to those before her who spent dark hours, and worse, in the Amed gaol, prison N° 5. Those who will read both the prison writ­ings pub­lished under the title of Nous aurons aus­si de beaux jours and this graph­ic nov­el to be pub­lished by Del­court in March, will under­stand what the words “resis­tance” and “com­mon” mean. For, in this gaol, what were crossed were not “the lim­its of art” but those of human­i­ty. And faced with this, an artist knows that she can only trans­mit a “reflec­tion” of this vio­lence, but one that can­not leave us indifferent.

But is it tru­ly the role of an artist, even if she is direct­ly con­cerned, to “trou­ble” us this way in our dai­ly life? Does­n’t she have oth­er things to do instead of show­ing us a dis­turb­ing vio­lence? Was the judge, that impro­vised crit­ic, right back in 2016? Isn’t going beyond the “lim­its” con­trary to every propriety. 

I’m not rais­ing these ques­tions in the void. Because Zehra, free today, sees her­self rebuked in opin­ions that almost bring us back to the judg­ment in 2016, this time for pub­lic per­for­mances express­ing recent or past vio­lence tear­ing the Mid­dle East apart.

She had just been lib­er­at­ed and tak­en refuge in Lon­don in 2018 when the pres­ti­gious “Tate Mod­ern” pro­posed that she do an instal­la­tion. Jump­ing on the oppor­tu­ni­ty she exhib­it­ed what was also a long thought-out artis­tic project which con­sist­ed of objects in dai­ly use she had col­lect­ed in destroyed neigh­bor­hoods in Kur­dis­tan where she had been as a Kur­dish jour­nal­ist, in order to pro­vide traces of the vio­lence and the oppres­sion exer­cised against the pop­u­la­tions. She titled this “Ê Li Dû Man” (What Remains). Only objects and texts evok­ing the suf­fer­ing, like the piles of shoes in a con­cen­tra­tion camp that would catch us in the throat as these objects were meant to make us under­stand, such was Zehra’s intent. She accom­pa­nied this with sounds and a video tes­ti­fy­ing of life on a bar­ri­cad­ed street, under fire from the Turk­ish army, and a brochure.

While it would have been easy to take excep­tion with the form of this instal­la­tion assem­bled quick­ly, the crit­i­cism of “trans­gress­ing the lim­its” soon showed up. She was then accused of a “porno­graph­ic” stage set­ting of vio­lence. Noth­ing less! Some took to the social net­works with this argu­men­ta­tion, also imply­ing of course that this was in the ser­vice of a sought-for ” noto­ri­ety”. The polemics soon died down, fol­low­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of sup­port­ive “crit­i­cism” from per­sons well known in the Kur­dish move­ment. Well, let’s not exag­ger­ate, social media are not judges.

This accu­sa­tion of “pornog­ra­phy” res­onates in an odd way with the one aimed at her in prison, when she used her men­stru­al blood and that of her co-detainees. Here also, the “dis­gust­ing” went beyond the lim­its of art and of a cer­tain red line. But while Zehra had respond­ed strong­ly, as a woman, to her accus­ing jail­ers, in Lon­don, lib­er­at­ed from prison and still under the influ­ence of the three pre­vi­ous years, this accu­sa­tion reached her like a poi­so­nous thorn.

As an artist, even a Kur­dish one, was it legit­i­mate to denounce these atroc­i­ties? Was there need to lib­er­ate these dai­ly objects of the demons and the vio­lence haunt­ing them? Could art and pol­i­tics co-exist? And how?

This impor­tant at the Tate Mod­ern was impor­tant in more ways than one. First of all, of course, the fact of reach­ing a “cel­e­brat­ed” space for Con­tem­po­rary Art, fol­low­ing the sup­port she had received from Banksy and Ai Wei­wei, opened up for Zehra Doğan, as an artist, doors usu­al­ly reserved for “estab­lished val­ues”. Such is the world of Con­tem­po­rary Art and open­ing a breach in it, as woman more­o­ev­er, was essen­tial for the rest of her artis­tic nomadism through­out Europe. The numer­ous oth­er exhi­bi­tions can­not be ignored either, because they brought sol­i­dar­i­ty and her art, thus acknowl­edged in more con­ven­tion­al artis­tic venues, allowed Zehra’s work to be seen while leav­ing her a total free­dom of expression.

This free­dom of expres­sion, or rather, this free­dom of cre­ation con­tin­ues to be the one she speaks, exhibits, pub­lish­es, stages, in the same col­lec­tive spir­it as the one she had in prison.


2019 Angers, France. Pho­to ©Jef Rabillon

I am an artist who is polit­i­cal”, she says. Because, of course, the ques­tion is always at the fore­front. And she adds “I am such because a woman, and born Kurdish”.

And she proved it dur­ing the 2020 exhi­bi­tion in Istan­bul. A hoped for exhi­bi­tion she only thought pos­si­ble in her dreams. Brave orga­niz­ers con­front­ed the poten­tial ire of the regime. And despite the pan­dem­ic, and the impos­si­bil­i­ty of a large open­ing, it was a suc­cess. Here at last, those who only saw in her, at best a “pro­pa­gan­dist” or at worse “an artist using the Kur­dish vein” had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cov­er through her exhib­it­ed works the full expres­sion of the artist, the woman, the Kurd free to speak, forged into pol­i­tics by the repres­sion of her peo­ple. The social net­works did not emit a peep against her and even the regime was silent.

Her jour­ney in these almost three years, from the Tate to Istan­bul finds her being clas­si­fied among the “100 con­tem­po­rary artists that mat­ter” by Con­tem­po­rary Arts milieux, with­out her hav­ing ever renounced any­thing, “cod­ed” any­thing, and after going beyond so many times “the lim­its of art”. “What’s the point of putting us in prison. We come out stronger.” 

But think­ing that Zehra Doğan does not con­stant­ly ques­tion her artis­tic prac­tice and the way polit­i­cal con­tent keeps spilling out of it would be to miss the point and not even see it.

For Guer­ni­ca, Pic­cas­so did not paint planes and bombs. And yet, a judge, a crit­ic or a pros­e­cu­tor could have told him he had “gone beyond the lim­its of art”.

Hey Picas­so, tell me, what are those scat­tered limbs doing, those women implor­ing the sky, that fren­zied cat­tle, in an evo­ca­tion of the Span­ish rev­o­lu­tion? Why did­n’t you out­line the “inter­na­tion­al brigades”? Why, instead, this suf­fer­ing in the horse’s flar­ing nostrils?”

That is one way to envis­age art and pol­i­tics: real­i­ty, noth­ing but real­i­ty in the ser­vice of the cause. It reached its peak recent­ly in Chi­na after long being a fea­ture under Stal­in. But this art is also cod­ed in its way, since it “rep­re­sents” the mar­tyr rather than the body, hero­ism rather than the vic­tim. And that is prob­a­bly the turn­ing point at which a few “crit­ics” in Istan­bul were wait­ing for her.

Zehra has freed her­self from these “mil­i­tant” codes and of those of the “com­mit­ted but not reck­less” artists either, those who sym­bol­ize oppres­sion with a half-erect­ed brick wall in the mid­dle of an emp­ty hall dur­ing one Bien­ni­al or another.


In this respect, I would like to return to an artis­tic per­for­mance Zehra Doğan has just done in Sulay­maniyah and show how, real­ly, I would prob­a­bly have been a good “judge”.

On a large piece of white fab­ric, Zehra has a film in black and white pro­ject­ed. It is not fic­tion, but a doc­u­men­tary where she is seen among small anony­mous and scat­tered tomb­stones on a bar­ren ground. Under a heavy and threat­en­ing sky, she walks through this space and lays braids of wom­en’s hair in homage on the white stones. This filmed doc­u­men­tary tells the sto­ry of assas­si­nat­ed women whose anony­mous remains were buried there, as if thrown into obliv­ion on an uncer­tain date.

In fact, this doc­u­men­tary is also staged although it is the reflec­tion of a real­i­ty any­one could also dis­cov­er, two steps away. This real­i­ty is pro­ject­ed in black and white. Is it tru­ly a real­i­ty? For hav­ing adapt­ed into French the pub­li­ca­tion of Zehra’s prison let­ters, I know only too well this theme of the reflec­tion which she uses so well. She has inte­grat­ed it into her prac­tice as a plas­ti­cian, to express the gap between art and real­i­ty, a sort of alle­go­ry of Pla­to’s cave, all her own. And what could be more cre­ative for an artist than to recon­struct this real­i­ty from its reflection

And in this artis­tic per­for­mance, she gives rise to the pain, through col­or, of the life pro­jec­tion from the blood of the liv­ing and of the dead. She paints her body, paints on the screen, recalls the vio­lence expe­ri­enced by these women whose very name has been for­got­ten. But she does not praise this suf­fer­ing, does not take plea­sure in it. 

No part of this artis­tic per­for­mance can be sep­a­rat­ed from it, not even those moments where Zehra cov­ers her­self with the col­or of the explod­ed pome­gran­ates, while the film screen comes to life. The extreme­ly terse text link­ing the film and the cre­ation is also indispensable.

She talks about it here also.

This “grief of the land”, these fem­i­ni­cides are vio­lent­ly recon­struct­ed in the light, in public.

Nei­ther heav­i­ly sym­bol­ic, nei­ther denun­ci­a­tion in which polit­i­cal words would exhaust them­selves. That is all of Zehra’s art, and of her wom­an’s cry against for­get­ting that invites to search for the rea­son why, now, and in the his­to­ry of the scene.

zehra dogan delcourt bd prison no 5 diyatrbakir amed graphic book

Pub­li­ca­tion: March 2021 Edi­tions Delcourt

Zehra Doğan will soon be exhibit­ing in Berlin at the Maxime Gor­ki the­ater: a num­ber of works, from the peri­od of her impris­on­ment and, again, the orig­i­nal art­work of her graph­ic nov­el. This ongo­ing pan­dem­ic will have slowed down her nomadism but not her cre­ativ­i­ty. Where prison did not suc­ceed, a con­fine­ment seems laughable.

She will return from Kur­dis­tan with the fero­cious will to always go beyond the lim­its of art, and to let it be known, since she has not found such lim­its yet. | Instagram 

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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Daniel Fleury
Let­tres mod­ernes à l’Université de Tours. Gros mots poli­tiques… Coups d’oeil politiques…