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Zehra Doğan: “As a child I was already fighting politically”

Born in Diyarbakır in 1989, the Kurdish Zehra Doğan is a brave investigative  journalist and an authentic artist. Very politically aware, she was imprisoned twice.

In March, she published a graphic novel Prison n° 5,  resonating with the trauma of imprisonment. This offered the opportunity for an interview from shore to shore.

You are a courageous investigative journalist and an authentic artist. What are your strongest memories from your childhood and early teenage years, whether related to people, moments or places?

I lived my whole childhood in Diyarbakır, a political hot spot. The families living in Diyarbakır and in the Kurdish regions are, in general, very politically aware, and involved in the struggle. My family, compared to some other Kurdish families, seemed to be a little less political.

All children born in this city are politicized. From a young age I was politically active, as are all children in this land. When I was 17, I was arrested for throwing stones. I was taken into custody, tried, sentenced to 6 months in prison [suspended].

This is how I was fashioned.

In primary school, I had a teacher who came from the Black Sea region, and who only spoke Turkish, which was imposed as the official language. We didn’t understand a word she said, and she didn’t understand us either. She considered us to be idiots… We were forced to recite the oath, which makes all school children say that they devote their lives to Turkey, to sing the national anthem, to promote the cult of the flag… My school years were spent learning the Turkish language, discovering injustice and discrimination.

I did street vending in the streets of Diyarbakır. I sold water, desserts, parsley, candy apples, fruit flavoured popsicles. I shined shoes. I also sold books. All this made me happy, because I had a livelihood. But working in the western part of the country, in the fields, under the orders of particularly racist Turks, was a real torture. There you feel the unbearable pain of despair to the core. For example, we went with our family to the Black Sea region to pick hazelnuts. I have never forgotten the “dogs’ place” sign in the middle of the field where our cobbled-together tents were located.

These are things that have marked me.

When I was little, we slept on the roof. My mother, like all Kurdish mothers, used to tell us stories and legends from Mesopotamia, like the one about Shahmeran1, for example, but also many others. These are very precious moments of my childhood. I was lulled by these thousand-year-old stories and this is still reflected in my artistic work today.

zehra dogan

“Ivies of my captivity”. Zehra Doğan 2018, Diyarbakır. Photo : Jef Rabillon

When did you first become conscious of both your inclinations and to what extent has your family environment encouraged you to fully develop them?

I started to draw at a very young age. At the age of 11 I attended the art classes at Dicle Fırat Cultural Centre. Then I graduated in fashion design at the University of Munzur, and at the University of Dicle where I taught fine arts. While I was still a student, in 2012, I helped found JINHA, a feminist agency where all contributors were women only. A world first. Its editorial line, focused on women, used a specific language, different from the traditional language of media rooted in the moulds of patriarchy. JINHA was closed down by decree in 2016, like more than a hundred other media outlets. It was resurrected under a different name, closed down again; it continues to rise regularly from the ashes. My two trades complemented each other spontaneously.

My family has always been supportive. Even if they were sometimes frightened by my activities.

As far as art is concerned, for example, when I was released from prison and got home, they would spread each piece of artt out on the floor, to observe, discuss, try to understand and interpret it.

Concerning journalism, my mother was afraid in the early days. But in the end, for example when I was incarcerated, my mother was almost ‘relieved’, because ‘I was not dead, just imprisoned’.

Are, to your mind, journalism and painting different ways of addressing, experiencing and expressing the same issues and needs – personal as well as collective? How do they interact and complement each other in your case?

What I have learned from all my experiences so far is that people find it very difficult to combine these two different disciplines. One of my two activities is art, and the other is journalism, which deals with reality from a distance and accurately. When we talk about art, we usually think of an aesthetic mode of expression in which sharp angles are rounded off. But for me, art, at least mine, is not like that: it is very direct and hard. My art prefers a narration, not like offering some perfume, but direct. For this reason, in my creation, there are always traces of journalism. As journalism uses words, my works express themselves without detours. My journalism is political, it feeds my art.

I am not good at rounding off angles, turning my tongue seven times before speaking, or expressing things in an indirect way. I always prefer direct expression, like in journalism. For me it is a mistake to express things in a roundabout way. Even in the case of art, it’s a mistake. I make political works. Talking about political issues in a roundabout way means aesthetizing the subject and that is a big mistake, and unethical. These kinds of themes must be expressed with all their harshness.

How defining is the Kurdish dimension of your identity in your everyday life, art and journalism?

As an artist who has lived in Kurdistan, where one of the worst wars in the world is taking place, I could not consider my artistic research on plastic forms, nor approach my aesthetic practice, without thinking about the reality around me. Even though I am persecuted in my country for an identity that I did not choose, I believe that not being interested in politics would have meant being devoid of conscience.

In my land, this memory has been destroyed for centuries. By suppressing our historical archive, they are trying to plunge us into amnesia, oblivion, non-existence. A people deprived of its memory is brought to its knees. This is certainly why, for my people, the most powerful things are the dances, the songs, and the oral literature. Our tales and legends are passed on from generation to generation. That is why in most of my works, documentation is very important. By painting, drawing on or from documents, I try to make them permanent.

There’s a recurring sense of anguish, darkness -sometimes even terror- in your paintings. Is art also a way of exorcising “demons”? Do you identify with any current or past artistic movement or style?

Zehra Doğan

“Kemal Kurkut”. Zehra Doğan, 2017 Istanbul. Photo : Jef Rabillon

For me it’s a means of expression. In prison, it was a means of resistance, a collective one at that, with my fellow inmates. It allowed me to push back the walls, to make them disappear, even if everything was forbidden to me. Making a comic book escape, for example, panel after panel, clandestinely, was my revenge on the demons. When I was in hiding in Istanbul, before my second imprisonment, art allowed me to archive everything that the whole world was hiding about the exactions and massacres in the Kurdish regions, committed by the Turkish soldiers. Yes, I wanted to get rid of the smell of blood sticking to the tip of my nose, and I did so by using old newspapers and throwing in the violence I had seen and experienced in those neighbourhoods under siege. The terror was in the eyes and lives of the people, not in mine or on the canvas. But I have always said and thought that by scratching under the black of the canvas, the colour, the colours of Kurdistan, could come back.

I told you above that I always prefer direct expression, like in journalism. But if you ask me if the world supports this approach, in my opinion, not yet. On the contrary, I would say that putting reality in front of people’s eyes, this time through art, is disturbing. Today, people go to museums and exhibitions to learn, to relax, to relieve stress, or to reward themselves with a pleasant break from their professional routine. Many of them want to see soft, relaxing works. This seems to me to be a kind of meditation. But my art is disturbing, and of a nature that is not contained in white jars. It upsets the cultural initiative of some, upsets the cultural holidays of others… It invites the visitor, perhaps, to use your term, to exorcise his demons, especially in relation to the state of the world and his own positions. That’s why my art doesn’t easily find support. People don’t want to be disturbed in spaces of cultural activity, but they are disturbed by my works, because when they are seen, they awaken a feeling of need to take action. And that is certainly something from which many people run away.

I have no identification. When I was tried, I was accused of “overstepping the limits of art”. And when the judge asked me why I drew the picture I was accused of, I told them that if I drew their destruction, the destruction was their doing. I heard that Picasso had said that about Guernica. But there is no identification here, just a way of answering a judge who is not an art expert.

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The town of Nusaybin, destroyed and photographed by the army, then drawn by Zehra Doğan

The rise of a generalized authoritarianism worldwide, which uses the ongoing pandemic as an excuse, an alibi and an opportunity, threatens establishing a “new” anthropological paradigm. What’s your response -creative and otherwise- to this imminent danger?

There is a long list of challenges facing humanity… Ecological problems, preying on nature and all the living, racism, violence, especially against women and children, the suffering of minorities and oppressed peoples, the wars burning down the planet, the exploitation of humans… The ambition for power is a disease. It is what has brought the world to this condition. This disease is an ideology: that of power. It began to spread thousands of years ago by wiping out women in the patriarchal system.

This virus, long before the Covid pandemic, infected all areas of the world. Art, science, confiscated by the dominant ones, have lost their true mission. We humans are transformed into machines, in a life that resembles a simulation, we work, we consume, and we serve.

The pandemic has also produced a windfall effect for control, for prohibition.  Including on a large scale,  the brutal repression of migrations and exile.

A person who is aware of the fact that the coronavirus pandemic is just one of the consequences of the damned policies of macho states, a person who is aware of this, fights against it all.

Even if in Turkey, in particular, authoritarianism is not a nothing new, it is true that we can look at the world and see the rise of fascisms that do not speak their name. I would remind you that Turkey is going to be a hundred years old, and that its republic was already built on a genocide, that of the Armenians. And, Covid or not, this nationalist history continues. If we were to look closely, we would see that for many countries, there are also singular histories that have brought them to this point. But I believe that the global generalization of a system based on inequality, the destruction of nature, patriarchy against women, is reaching the limits where crises are breaking out. Covid has brought them to light perhaps and the dark forces of power are coalescing.

I really think that the light is coming from the women. In Rojava, for example, look at the state of war. It is the women who give hope in this ravaged Middle East. So my art is about their struggle, and it’s also mine.

Using the traumatic experience of your imprisonment as a starting point, your graphic novel Prison N°5, published in France on March 17, deals with the history of the oppression of the Kurdish people and the resistance of the incarcerated women.

How long have you been working on this book and what do you wish to achieve through its publication?

My creative ground is rather rooted in the culture of caricature. I came to comics almost instinctively. When I was still free and covering, as a journalist, the Turkish state’s exactions in Kurdish cities [at the end of 2015/2016], I was already combining journalism and artistic practice, by drawing on a digital tablet, and then publishing on social networks some kind of graphic notes, close to comic strips. As I mentioned, it was one of these digital drawings that landed me in prison…

This was, of course, a different technique from the drawings that make up Prison No. 5.

Often a drawing can have a stronger impact than thousands of words. So, out of need and necessity, in prison, I used everything I could get my hands on to draw, as art materials were forbidden to me.

I came across the 9th art unknowingly, by combining the need to create, to be understood, to testify, to archive in another way.

For the album Prison n°5, therefore, I started to work on it in Diyarbakır prison, quite quickly, in the early days of my incarceration and started to make the plates, when my friend Naz Oke, started to send me her letters written on kraft paper. This stage lasted throughout my incarceration more than 2 years, in Diyarbakır prison, then Tarsus prison where I was deported with 20 friends, in November 2018. As I told you, all the boards left the prison, one by one, clandestinely, except for the last page, which by the way bears the stamp of the censorship board, which controls all the letters.

Then, after my release on 24 February 2019, Editions Delcourt became interested in my project. For a year, an extraordinary work was carried out, as well by my translators Daniel and Naz, as well as my editor Leslie Perreaut, and all the publishing team of Delcourt, so that this book could  come to fruition.

Pandemic allowing, your forthcoming exhibition is due in April. Would you like to tell me about it? 

This exhibition will take place in “Kiosk”, the brand new gallery of the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin. Here, too, there has been a long and thorough preparation with much enthusiasm. It will contain textile and newspaper works.

Some of the diaries are from the “underground period” before my imprisonment, when I was hiding in Istanbul. These are testimonies of the state’s exactions in the Kurdish cities in late 2015 – 2016. But there will also be those from prison, where the diary became a makeshift medium.

The exhibition will contain many textile works. Dresses, lingerie, sheets, many were brought by my mother as “clean linen” and once painted, returned to my family as “dirty linen”. A strategy of my mother, which worked. These textiles, among the hundreds of works I was able to smuggle out of prison, took this route.

In the exhibition, there will also be the original plates of Prison n°5 which have already been exhibited at the Berlin Biennial, the two issues of the handwritten newspaper Özgür Gündem, prison diaries, and other works…

Hopefully this -or another- exhibition of yours will make it to Greece sooner or later. Have you travelled to Greece in the past or would you be interested in doing so in the future?

I hope so too.

I came to Greece in the summer of 2020, to spend a few days in Rhodes. I came back with some bad memories too.  My luggage check-in had turned into a police interrogation, first by a company employee, then by men in civilian clothes who introduced themselves as police officers. My Turkish “nationality” in spite of myself, my unwanted presence in Greece, my “arrogance” in my answers, resulted in “We can send you back to Turkey”, “We have the power”. We were talking earlier about authoritarianism on the rise. I found myself in a situation where I was almost in police custody. I could feel the violence, in the gestures and attitudes. These two guys, proud in their trousers, could not admit that a woman did not lower her eyes in front of them.

But that’s routine for a woman, isn’t it? And above all, it is Frontex’s routine against migrants, which leads them to take all the risks at sea. If I speak about this story, it is not for my own sake. How many people have suffered, and continue to suffer under this treatment? In these xenophobic migration policies, there is a dehumanisation of the same type as racism. There is an ideology of nationalist withdrawal which is grafted onto this ordinary racism, and which “trickles down” to the small executor, to the small power delegated, with impunity, to block it. If and when this comes to light, it is called a “blunder”. But old Europe has been “blundering” all the time, behind empty rhetoric, for decades.

So, yes, I hope I will come back to Greece, to collect and build other pleasant memories, among the populations, which will soften the observations I make about Greece, and its zeal to apply the European migration agreements with Turkey.

I thank Naz Oke, journalist, graphic designer, curator of cultural projects, founder of, contributor and friend of Zehra Doğan, for translating the questions and answers.

My thanks also for the courtesy of the photos that accompany the post. You can browse Zehra Doğan’s multifaceted work a bit this way.

Ioannis Kontos

Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
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