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A critical article by Victor Sattler, published in German on Monopol, concerning the meeting “Undoing Prison” between Zehra Doğan, Aslı Erdoğan and Can Dündar, a debate animated by Nil Mutluer (video below).

Cre­ativ­i­ty takes on a rad­i­cal­ly new mean­ing behind bars. Prison art is attract­ing a lot of atten­tion these days and is often seen as evi­dence of an indomitable spir­it. But some find this read­ing problematic.

Zehra Doğan — Ez Zehra (I, Zehra). 97 x 140 cm. Bird feath­ers fall­en in the walk, hair, men­stru­al blood. 2019, start­ed in Diyarbakır prison, end­ed in Tar­sus prison.

By hold­ing a news­pa­per in the humid­i­ty of a win­dow in a Turk­ish prison, you can lift the ink from the pages and use it as paint.” Kur­dish artist Zehra Doğan is the one telling us this. Print­er’s ink was one of the rub­bish items, one of the cursed mate­ri­als thanks to which she was able to go on paint­ing dur­ing her almost three years of impris­on­ment in Turkey.

The bent over fig­ure of f woman, “I, Zehra” exhib­it­ed by the Max­im Gor­ki The­ater in Berlin along with oth­er paint­ings and draw­ings from Dogan’s peri­od of impris­on­ment in the exhi­bi­tion “Prison n° 5”, fol­low­ing the reopen­ing of the Kul­turhäuser, for exam­ple, com­bines a back­ground of black writ­ing with yel­lowed men­stru­al blood. A voley of sharp feath­ers, found by Doğan in the prison yard, bursts out of the fig­ure’s back. Their sharp­ness gleams through her skin, on which Doğan glued some of her own hair.

Jour­nal­ist Can Dün­dar who was incar­cer­at­ed in Turkey for 92 days for his crit­i­cal cov­er­age, sees in Zehra Doğan’s cre­ativ­i­ty a “flesh and blood resis­tance” a life elixir that brings pro­tec­tion to pris­on­ers and allows them to com­mu­ni­cate and to show sol­i­dar­i­ty. With great con­vic­tion, and per­haps against his bet­ter judg­ment, Can Dün­dar says: “One can­not sup­press cre­ative minds”.

Art as risk

Sev­er­al impres­sive illus­tra­tions of Dün­dar’s say­ing are emerg­ing cur­rent­ly: resis­tance art behind bars, which should no longer be exclud­ed from the dis­cus­sion, as writes the MoMA PS1 in NewYork. There, “Mark­ing Time” is the first group show­ing of more than 35 artists cur­rent­ly serv­ing their prison sen­tence or who have already served it.

Iso­lat­ed from the pub­lic, a dis­tinc­tive esthet­ic has devel­oped in pris­ons – through which some, such as artist Hal­im Flow­ers, learnt some­thing at least about Jean-Michel Basquiat through the lyrics in a song. Like Zehra Doğan, the Amer­i­can pris­on­ers used their doc­u­ments, news­pa­pers, clothes and food left­overs to work secrete­ly on col­lages, hand­prints or dio­ra­mas. Dur­ing these exper­i­ments, they not only took “con­cep­tu­al risks” as one of the artists says about his prac­tice, but they even stole pieces of wood to stretch can­vas or intro­duced mate­ri­als clan­des­tine­ly in their body cav­i­ties. And lat­er, he says, after art had served as an out­let for their frus­tra­tion, it helped in their rehabilitation.

The polit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion of dis­si­dents and minori­ties in Turkey and the dis­pro­por­tion­ate, prof­it-moti­vat­ed jail­ing of black Amer­i­cans are not the same thing, obviously.

Zehra Doğan and Can Dün­dar con­sid­er them­selves inno­cent where­as the artists in the MoMA exhi­bi­tion admit their actions, many of them com­mit­ted when they were 16 or 17 years old. They sim­ply crit­i­cize the sen­tence and the con­di­tions of their deten­tion, point­ing a fin­ger at the psy­cho­log­i­cal or eco­nom­ic fac­tors in their delin­quen­cy. Nonethe­less, the artists in both judi­cia­ry sys­tems, Turk­ish and Amer­i­can, some­times com­pare it to slav­ery. Here, along with Fou­cault, the oppo­si­tion is to the dis­ci­pli­nary mea­sures of an author­i­tar­i­an Erdo­gan gov­ern­ment, there against a blind con­cept of ret­ri­bu­tion that is of no util­i­ty to Amer­i­can soci­ety. “Even with­out prison, peo­ple could be held respon­si­ble,” says Hal­im Flowers.

Is everyone allowed to produce art in prison?

This being said, not all crim­i­nals can claim to be aware of carcer­al art. Since the Amer­i­can mag­a­zine “Poet­ry” pro­vid­ed a plat­form to jailed poets in its Feb­ru­ary edi­tion and thus also pub­lished the poem of a pro­fes­sor sen­tenced for own­ing child pornog­ra­phy, the edi­tors have had to explain and jus­ti­fy them­selves a num­ber of times. The writer Johannes Franzen wrote in “FAZ” that the entire action was an exag­ger­a­tion of poet­ry and of its publication.

Writer Aslı Erdoğan who was detained in Turkey in 2016 and was invit­ed by the Gor­ki The­ater, could pos­si­bly agree with him. At any rate, she does not see in her lit­er­ary texts the same adap­tive per­for­mance that Can Dün­dar prais­es so high­ly. “Is this how we should speak about tor­ture?” she asks in a self-crit­i­cal tone. “Per­haps the best part of us dies in prison also.”

Both Zehra Doğan and Aslı Erdoğan pre­fer to abstain in the future from these group exhi­bi­tions or com­mer­cial pub­li­ca­tions. Doğan had almost “lost faith in art” she says – iron­i­cal­ly – not dur­ing her impris­on­ment, but after. What was being com­mer­cial­ized was not her work but her name in the “most zeal­ous way imag­in­able”, she says. “They are sat­is­fied with men­tion­ing the strik­ing fea­tures in your biog­ra­phy, then close the event”, she says, “there is noth­ing intel­lec­tu­al in all that.” The writer jokes over the the fact she is known in Ger­many as a jour­nal­ist because of her arrest with­out ever hav­ing worked as a jour­nal­istm “I hope real jour­nal­ists don’t resent me.”

Although the Gor­ki The­ater also grouped the two women plus Can Dün­dar under the label of “polit­i­cal exile” and also referred to Erdo­gan as “a jour­nal­ist”, among oth­er things, nonethe­less Zehra Doğan praised the the­ater as being a “trans­par­ent house” that allowed them to final­ly go beyond these definition.

Video in Eng­lish. For the Turk­ish ver­sion, click here

Image à la Une : Head­line illus­tra­tion: from the col­lec­tion of Ellen Driscoll, Tame­co Cole “Locked in a Dark Calm,” 2016, part of the exhi­bi­tion “Mark­ing Time – Art in the Age of Mass Incar­cer­a­tion”, MoMA PS1, New York

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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Le petit mag­a­zine qui ne se laisse pas caress­er dans le sens du poil.