The Catharsis of Zehra Doğan’s Art Behind Bars

‘In sexist discourses, the earth is personified as a woman’s body – something to be possessed. I draw and paint women who oppose this fate’

Tutsaklığımın dansı (The dance of my captivity), 2018, turmeric, pomegranate juice, coffee, cigarette ash, lipstick, drawing pencil, drug prospectus, 45 x 70 cm (from the artist’s time in Diyarbakır Prison, 2018). Photo: Jef Rabillon. Courtesy the artist

‘I am Zehra. I do not regret,’ read the Kurdish words painted on a square of embroidery-edged white cloth. A larger piece of cloth beneath it shows faded drops of menstrual blood, surrounded by a ghostly sketch of female figures dancing in defiance – or writhing in pain. Zehra Doğan, who created it in 2019 with whatever materials were at hand in Tarsus Prison, Turkey, was serving out the last stretch of nearly three years of incarceration. Her crime had been a painting, too.

Doğan was born in 1989 in Diyarbakır, a city in southeastern Turkey also known as Amed by the Kurds: an ethnic group spread across parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. The city was planned, by European imperial powers eager to cut the Ottoman cake, as the capital of an independent Kurdistan after the First World War. This backfired when it sparked the Turkish War of Independence in 1919; the promised Kurdish homeland was the collateral damage. Kurds have struggled for self-determination ever since and face violent repression by the governments of the four states in which they live.

Ez Zehra (I, Zehra), 2019, bird feathers fallen in the walk, hair, menstrual blood, 97 x 140 cm (from the artist’s time in Diyarbakır Prison, which ended in Tarsus Prison, 2019). Courtesy the artist

The painting that irked the Turkish authorities was based on a photograph of the Turkish military’s destruction of the majority- Kurdish town of Nusaybin, which Doğan witnessed in 2015. She was there as a reporter for JINHA, the all-women news agency she had founded. Charged with making ‘terrorist propaganda’, Doğan was detained from 2016 until 2019 in three Turkish prisons (she now lives a nomadic life in Europe). As artists from Ai Weiwei to Banksy drew international attention to her plight, she continued her art behind bars, and hand-produced a newspaper with her women co-detainees, Özgür Gündem Zindan (Free Agenda, Dungeon Edition) – a nod to the broadsheet Özgür Gündem that was shut down by a Turkish police raid in 2016. ‘We, Kurdish women in the four-portioned Kurdistan, are the “others” discriminated against by those already subject to discrimination’; this self-emplacement among her own, voicing their experience in both art and writing, is Doğan’s liberation praxis as both Kurd and woman.

Muğdat Ay, 2018 (a portrait of Muğdat Ay, killed at the age of twelve, in Nusaybin, in February 2016), ballpoint pen and tea on towel, 144 x 92 cm (from the artist’s time in Diyarbakır Prison, 2018). Photo: Jef Rabillon. Courtesy the artist

Her evolution as an artist is inseparable from her political reality, even though its conditions have affected her work differently at different times. Growing up, Doğan had to seek out art training without her family’s knowledge, attending classes offered at the Mesopotamia Cultural Center (a multibranch organisation that has stewarded Kurdish culture in Turkey since the 1990s). She then studied fine art at Dicle University in Diyarbakır and continued painting as she took up journalism in 2010. Working among her Turkey-based community as well as in Kurdish regions new to her in northern Iraq, Doğan credits her journalistic mindset with keeping her creative practice away from “the comfort zone [of ] the artist who uses and abuses these [war] topics for a market that knows how to merchandise every issue”.

Ruhumun Sarmaşıkları (Ivies of my soul), 2016, water paint on kraft paper, 62 x 45 cm (from the artist’s time in Mardin Prison, 2016). Collection Editions des Femmes. Photo: Jef Rabillon. Courtesy the artist

Doğan’s art is preceded by her lived experience of the oppression of Kurdish women. As such, even where her artworks do depict the horrors of incarceration, war and misogyny – like the work titled Hey soldier; you can’t make strip search. I’m already naked (2018), a bra and briefs featuring a sketch of the female reproductive system and a clump of the artist’s hair – they are far from performative. They translate her commitment to the women of her region into a visual language of her own. This language blends motifs from Mesopotamian myth with Doğan’s sources of contemporary inspiration in global feminist protest and Kurdish women’s resistance. “Power exerted on the body as an instrument of domination maintains itself by manipulating perceptions of the relationship between bodies and lands,” Doğan observes. “In sexist discourses, the earth is personified as a woman’s body, becoming, like a woman’s body, something to be possessed. I draw and paint women who oppose this fate.”

Xêzên Dizî (The Hidden Drawings), 2018–20, graphic novel, 103 charcoal pencil and marker pen on letter papers provided to the artist by a friend, 30 x 21 cm each. Courtesy Editions Delcourt

The series she produced in Turkey’s Mardin (2016), Diyarbakır (2017–18) and Tarsus (2018–19) prisons speak to this. Painted on smuggled newspaper and cloth using found materials like coffee, cigarette ash, urine, menstrual blood and vegetable pastes, they had the added bonus of distressing the prison staffwho would invasively handle all of Doğan’s belongings. “I know that what I drew in prison causes reactions, raises questions. But all I did was represent a piece of what myself and my co-detainees experienced.”

Several works reach beyond this reality, too, towards myth. Shahmeran’s pain (2016) features the half-woman, half-snake figure found in Kurdish folklore. In Ishtar (2019), its titular Mesopotamian goddess sprouts birds from her bleeding hands, a Kalashnikov resting on her naked thigh. Others depict the faces of Kurdish elders, their world-weary eyes staring out from the pages of Turkish newspapers reporting the latest military gains made in Syria. Others still use as a canvas the shirts, dresses and embroidered cloth that Doğan’s mother brought to her in prison. These include a vest that records in red paint the instructions on the walls of her prison’s visitation rooms: Speak Turkish, Speak Plenty.

Kemal Kurkut, 2017, acrylic on newspaper, 39 x 59 cm framed (from the series Clandestine Days, Istanbul, 2017). Photo: Jef Rabillon. © Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée MUCEM). Courtesy the artist

While these artworks undoubtedly testify to Doğan’s experience, they are also intensely cathartic and unpremeditated. Now free to choose any materials, she continues to reach for paint, foodstuffs, blood and textiles. “I don’t think I’ll ever wish to produce colossal works to impress a public. After seeing death, why should I build temples dedicated to my immortality? Why should my art not be just as my people are: without a country, singular, simple, stubborn and renewing itself?”

The ‘activist artist’ label Doğan sometimes receives in Europe is, if anything, revelatory of the gulf between this lived reality for a global majority, and for a global north that apparently still believes (if the ‘activist’ qualifier is anything to go by) that an ‘artist’ pure and simple is something else – presumably someone who doesn’t keep depicting the places that European imperialisms have historically helped destabilise, in which case they are doing ‘activism’. Doğan, who points out the already “splitting foundations” of this particularly ahistorical “vision of art, rooted in and celebrated in the West”, is more concerned with how, back home, this dynamic continues to produce what the anticolonial thinker Frantz Fanon described in 1961 as the alienation of the native intellectual. The latter types, Doğan reflects, “cannot manage to take root in their country, with which they are not at peace. They turn their eyes toward Western countries and tear at themselves in attempting to use them as a model.”

Yağmurun Eseri (The work of the rain), 2019, triptych, pomegranate peel, moss, black cabbage on paper, 21 x 30 cm (from the artist’s time in Tarsus Prison, 2019). Photo: Jef Rabillon. Courtesy the artist

Doğan is not alienated. Appraising her work through the prism of ‘activist art’ seeks meaning that cannot be found in a designation naive to the myriad ways in which art and resistance have always intersected for the oppressed peoples of the world (of which the Kurds are one). Rather, Doğan’s art sits within the Third Worldist liberation tradition, and makes it reach for an uncompromising prioritisation of women. Third Worldism refers to a shared political orientation towards anti-imperialism that was attempted across Africa, Asia and Latin America in the mid-twentieth century. Although its thought emerged from contexts as different as 1950s Algeria, 1960s Cuba and 1970s Guinea-Bissau, it consistently situated the artist as within, and a part of, the everyday struggles of peoples living amid the fallout from colonialism. That did not mean the artist’s role was a propagandistic one. It conceived of the artist as of their people: a participant-interpreter, whose representations of reality helped reveal the connections within that reality, between the political and the cultural, individual and collective.

Eşa Şahmeran (Shahmeran’s Pain), 2016, bundle scarf, felt pen, acrylic, 114 x 151 cm (from the artist’s time in Mardin Prison, 2016). Courtesy the artist

The reaction of the Turkish state to Doğan’s work is just one example of how, to most of the world, the social power of art comes as no surprise. Of course, the risks of making art then grow exponentially. That is a risk, however, that is more natural to Doğan than the alternative: “Why would I introduce my people, who have been made fearless from the practice of constant struggle, in museums?” Why indeed.

Prison No. 5, a solo exhibition of work by Zehra Doğan, can be seen at Kiosk, Maxim Gorki Theatre, Berlin, through August. Doğan’s exhibition Il tempo delle farfalle (The time of the butterflies) is on view
at PAC – Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea, Milan, to 19 September

From the Summer 2021 issue of ArtReview Asia

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