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From a Turkish prison to Tate Modern: The story of Zehra Doğan, the Kurdish artist and journalist endorsed by Banksy and Ai Wei Wei

Image credit: Photo of Zehra Doğan by Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship.

Zehra Doğan was released from prison on 24 February 2019. She was jailed over a painting she adapted from a Turkish army photograph where she depicted armored vehicles devouring civilians in her hometown, Nusaybin. She was denied access to painting materials while imprisoned and began making paint from fruit, spices, and blood, and used newspapers, letters and bed sheets as canvasses. She used feathers and her hair as paintbrushes. Zehra also taught other prisoners to paint and use alternative materials. Her situation was noticed by acclaimed artists: Banksy who painted a large mural for her in New York and Ai Wei Wei who sent her a letter in solidarity. Doğan recently won the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Arts Award and is a Writer in Residence with English Pen.

 

Image credits:
[top] The photo which was being celebrated as the victory of the Turkish army and the defeat of the PKK.
[lower] Zehra Doğan's painting of the photograph, which she was jailed for. The Turkish judiciary stated the painting was an example of terrorist propaganda.


Run Riot: What motivated you to start critiquing government censorship of art and political unrest through your paintings?
Zehra Doğan: I was born in Kurdistan and natives there witness many things in their lifetime. Since 1923, the country was divided in four with borders made of barbed wire and landmines. Everyone native to that land grows up knowing and experiencing war. Generally, people in that area produce art and stories that describe war and, as an artist and journalist born there at the time of the clashes, the main theme in my art has always been war. I was living in a place that was in constant bombardment and hundreds of people who I knew died. People became desensitised with the clashes and the deaths around them. The news reports I wrote had no effect. I decided that the only way I could express the immense tragedy happening around me would be through painting. My whole experience in life motivated me to paint. Having my town completely destroyed I couldn't think of anything else

RR: Which artists have inspired your painting style the most, and what about their style and messages has inspired the messages you strive to communicate through your art today?
Zehra: All artists inspire me because everyone’s art tells a different story. For example, Goya described war in a place and time where there was no cameras or recordings. If an artist like Picasso never depicted ‘Guernica’ we wouldn’t even know it existed. Through Frida Kahlo we could experience what was happening in Mexico. All the paintings produced by these artists also describe how they thought politically. I am very inspired by artist Rene Magritte whose painting of a pipe had written ‘this is not a pipe’, making it very philosophical. Artists who combine philosophy and art inspire me the most because, for me, life is a combination of the two.

As an artist, you often don't relay your message directly - but I do. For example, I generally paint women with large eyes to show their experiences in life and what they have witnessed. In a painting of mine, Dorşîn (see below), I depict a funeral in which women with large eyes carry the dead body of another woman. The women have a grin and I made it very colourful so that it seemed as if it was a wedding. My paintings are vibrant and colourful because I want to give context to the pain and darkness in human lives.


Image credit: 'Dorşîn’, painting by Zehra Doğan.

RR: How did the public first respond to your art, and how do they respond to it today?
Zehra: I first started sharing my paintings on social media because I received a lot of insults for it because I was illustrating the war. Those insulting my work were mainly soldiers and policemen. I often drew people who were killed, and I would receive threats on social media saying that something similar would happen to me. However, I saw this as something positive because my art was having an effect. I was also imprisoned because the authorities detested my paintings but, because I was imprisoned, I received international solidarity. Artists like Banksy and Ai WeiWei heard my story and supported me. I received messages from people all around the world letting me know that my art had enlightened them on the atrocities occurring in Turkey. Many of the messages I received from individuals were also apologetic because they did not know things like this were occurring. So my paintings began to spread and people began to value them more. It is thanks to organisations like Index on Censorship, English Pen, Pen International and IWMF who supported me and gave me a voice that I had the amount of solidarity I did while I was in jail.

RR: What central themes are you trying to convey through your art today, and how have these themes changed over time?
Zehra: The main themes of my paintings today are women and war. Because I paint what I witness, many of my themes have not changed much over time.

RR: While you were in prison, what motivated you to continue your work despite the limitations you faced, and how did you motivate yourself to keep producing art?
Zehra: When I am banned from doing something, it inspires me to do it more. If painting was not banned in prison, maybe I wouldn’t have painted as much as I did while I was there. Being imprisoned was a test for me as an artist. I thought “I am an artist, I must do this”. I also asked myself “Am I an artist who paints only when she has a chance, or am I an artist who has an oppositional political stance?” I worked hard to pass this test as an artist, and I passed it. They banned canvas and paint, but as canvas I used clothes, newspapers and bedsheets, and as paint I used rocket leaves, tumeric and other spices, and my own menstrual blood.

RR: How do you portray and defend women's rights in your artwork? What problems within women's rights do you depict within your artwork?
Zehra: I don’t depict women as oppressed or as pitiful because I know women are strong and I want to portray that strength. Sometimes women are illustrated in an erotic way but I try to do it differently by painting the dignity of women.

 

RR: Why does the Turkish government see your artwork as a threat?
Zehra: The Turkish government sees my art as a threat because I paint what they have done. I paint their disgrace. As a result, they hate my art but I have no other choice, the Turkish government has given me so much material to work with. The government doesn’t like my art because it documents and is proof of their destruction - the same goes for my writing.

For artists right now, Turkey is a fertile country to produce art because there are so many topics that can be illustrated.

RR: How have you inspired and supported artists who also stand in opposition towards the Turkish government?
Zehra: I feel that inspiration would be too bold of a word for this. We were affected as prisoners and we were affected by each other which resulted in a different type of art that probably wouldn’t have come about if we were not imprisoned. I would tell inmates that anyone imprisoned could make art. Making art is easy, it’s like finding the beauty in life and making it more aesthetic. I met inmates who I spoke to that began having their own exhibitions. I even motivated imprisoned children to paint. Inmates began to understand that art is a form of expression and leaned to find alternatives to produce it. If you don’t have paint, use menstrual blood or vegetables. If you don’t have a brush, make one from your hair. They saw, through me, that it was possible and that was my aim: to make alternatives and protest through art. I now have people around me who think the same. I am sure that the children who started painting in prison will be better artists than me in 10-years.

When I left prison, children would come up to me and show me their paintings. One day I hope to create a workshop in Mardin (my village), so people can go there and learn to paint for free. They will learn how simple it is and will not need me to teach them after some time. Art is, really, very simple. Art has been marketed as being something divine and unattainable so that it would be valuable but it is basic and anyone can do it. Art is valuable because it is basic, like love, everyone has love and we value love in the same way that everyone can make art which makes it valuable.

RR: How did your experience in prison impact your artwork? How did your experience give a stronger voice to the messages you were trying to convey in your artwork?
Zehra: My experience in prison taught me that there are no excuses for art. I learned that objects don’t have a single use. Tomato puree can give food a better taste but it can also be used as paint. Even the most intimate piece of clothing like underwear can be a canvass. I didn’t find this out by being clever but it's something that is even passed down from our mothers who ingeniously use worn out clothing as a cleaning cloth. Menstrual blood showed me its many purposes. It has been something that has been seen as ‘disgusting’ for thousands of years. I was imprisoned and labeled a terrorist which was also seen as ‘disgusting’ by the government. I was seen as disgusting when I menstruated. So when a labeled terrorist comes together with a woman who is menstruating, you then produce a different type of artwork. I would have never thought that I would be exposing the disgusting things the state has done through a medium like menstrual blood.

RR: Could you tell us about your installation at the Tate Exchange?
Zehra: I will have an exhibition at the Tate Exchange from the 21 to 25 of May alongside three other artists. The event named ‘Who Are We? is hosted by Counterpoints Arts and The Open University along with artists and activists. 

As a journalist covering the clashes in Kurdish cities in Turkey, 2015 - 2016, I will be exhibiting items I collected which were left under the rubbles of the destroyed buildings. Through these items, I will tell the stories of the people so this piece will highlight my work as both an artist and a journalist. One of the most touching pieces that will be exhibited is a colourful burnt carpet. The carpet represents all the people in the land: Turks, Kurds, Arabs, etc. The people are all beautiful when they are together but not when they are divided. However, the carpet is burned showing that over the land, we have been divided and burned. There will also be clothes which form part of people’s identity – how they value and define them. The clothes they had to leave behind were burned and under rubble, so it shows that they are dead. The visitors of the exhibition will be greeted by these corpses.

Zehra Doğan
zehradogan.net
Twitter: @zehradoganjinha
Instagram: @jinhazehradogan

Installation: 'Li Dû Man (Left behind)' by Zehra Doğan
As part of Who Are You?
21 - 25 May 2019
Tate Exchange
Tate Modern
Bankside
London SE1 9TG
tate.org.uk