Ελληνικά Εναντιοδρομίες | Français | English 

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.

nusaybin drapeaux zehra dogan

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
You may use and share Kedistan’s articles and translations, specifying the source and adding a link in order to respect the writer(s) and translator(s) work. Thank you.
Auteur(e) invité(e)
Auteur(e)s Invité(e)s
AmiEs con­tributri­ces, con­tribu­teurs tra­ver­sant les pages de Kedis­tan, occa­sion­nelle­ment ou régulièrement…