Jailed Kurdish artist Zehra Doğan recalls war at Tate Modern

London’s most prestigious art gallery, Tate Modern, is currently hosting an exhibit by Kurdish journalist and artist Zehra Doğan.

Situated in central London on the banks of the Thames, Tate Modern is a leading global centre of modern art. Not every visitor to the city comes to the Tate, but it’s frequented by locals, and this young artist is currently the talk of the town.

In addition to being an artist, Zehra Doğan now works at Jinnews, and before that she was a co-founder and a co-editor of Jinha, the first Kurdish women’s news agency. She’s the child of a Kurdish family that was forced to leave their Southeastern village in the 1990s, and she became interested in painting and art as young child. Now, thousands of people are visiting Tate and learning about her story and her journey from Diyarbakır to London.

The 30-year-old artist’s exhibition is open from May 21 until May 25. Doğan estimates that around 600 people have come each day; most of the visitors are foreign, but there are people of Turkish origin too.

The exhibit is made up of 18 pieces. These pieces are mostly burnt and bloody clothing, with other accessories like carpets and prayer rugs. A burnt blanket hangs at the entrance of the exhibit, and the other pieces are items Doğan collected from conflict-scarred Kurdish towns in 2015 while working as a reporter for Jin news agency.

As the 24-hour curfew and military operations were intensifying in Southeastern towns like Cizre and Sur that year and in 2016, Doğan began spending two years in prison for sharing on social media a drawing she made of a photograph taken by a Turkish soldier in the town of Nusaybin in southeast Turkey and for reporting on notes a child wrote. She continued writing articles and making drawings in prison, and she won a few awards during her detention. Even world-renowned street artist Banksy painted an enormous mural in Manhattan to protest her imprisonment and show his support for the young artist.

At Doğan’s show, young writer Ege Dündar is there in support. On a table near the entrance is a newspaper with the same name as the exhibit: E Li Dû Man (Left Behind). The table also holds a box where visitors can drop notes describing their thoughts and feelings about the work. On the other side of the room are postcards that Doğan designed herself, on which visitors can write to other young journalists still in jail, including Nedim Türfent, Kibriye Evren, and Meltem Oktay.

One visitor to the exhibit is 31-year-old dance therapist Ekin Berkay, a British Turk who’s lived in London for 10 years. Berkay found the objects both striking and sad.

“In those difficult circumstances, she gathered up these things and brought them here, and now we’re confronting them. Artists are visionaries, and that’s what Zehra Doğan has done here. She’s seen the future, and it’s very moving.”

Berkay’s father was tried in the Ergenekon case, which allegedly revealed a gang of people, including military officers, who were seeking to unseat Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. Another trial in the case is currently ongoing.

“We need freedom in Turkey,” says Berkay. “This exhibit shows how much we lack freedom and how our resistance is supressed.”

Zehra Dogan
Zehra Dogan

Many visitors to the exhibit are journalists, from both Turkish and international outlets. Doğan greets each and every one of them warmly and engages in long conversations with them. One of these journalists is Akın Olgun. Olgun has not been able to return to Turkey for many years, but he follows the news from Turkey closely. He was deeply affected by the exhibit and points out that it’s very important for people like him to encounter the pieces in the show.

“Zehra’s exhibit is about confronting something. It creates a memory, and as a work of art, its value lies in addressing the hardships the inhabitants and survivors faced. At the same time, the work lets the world bear witness, which creates a shared memory. It’s the one way we can escape simply telling ourselves about ourselves; creating a shared memory can only be done through art, music, and literature.”

According to Doğan, the exhibit aims to inspire. She says the exhibits are not just burnt and bloodied garments she brought from a conflict zone—they also tell a story, so there are also videos and other visual media in the exhibit, like photographer Refik Tekin’s slideshow, that are meant to cultivate understanding and make visitors think and empathise. On the third day of the show, Doğan works on a portrait on pieces of paper scattered around the floor, with several visitors standing around showing interest.

“These pieces I brought back from the places I worked as a journalist actually hold the answers to a lot of important questions,” Doğan says.

“Why do Kurds want autonomous rule? What did they survive behind those barricades? What kinds of hardships did they face? There are true stories to answer these questions. These 18 pieces are getting some interesting reactions today in London. If this exhibit were in Istanbul, I would never have seen these reactions or received these kinds of comments.

“In our society, there’s generally one reaction—people ask why I’m not there. Rather than trying to understand the problems and the resistance, the goal here is to reach people who can’t go to another place. In a place like London, it’s much more valuable to explain this to an English person who doesn’t know anything about it.”

Doğan’s artwork and writing are enjoying an expanded following, and this exhibit at Tate Modern is just the beginning. In the coming months, her work will also appear in cities like Paris, Berlin, and New York, and she says she’s working on more paintings. Until now, the visitor that affected her the most was a Chinese woman, she said.

“She has come every day since the exhibit opened. She spends hours here, and every time she comes, she brings someone different with her. If the work was only about pain, that woman wouldn’t keep coming. She asks us how she can go to Kurdistan. If we were just talking about pain, she’d get wind of that and leave.”

Zehra Dogan
Zehra Dogan

Doğan says she’s thinking about staying in London a while longer. She also wants to go to Turkey soon to visit her family. She says that Europe is not really a place that nourishes political art like hers; she needs to return to the lands of Mesopotamia. On the other hand, she says a lot of visitors have expressed anxiety about her plans to go back.

British–Kurdish doctor Meryem Kaya, 35, is just one of many visitors who feels uneasy about Doğan returning. She says she herself hasn’t been to Turkey in four years and that there’s no freedom of expression there; the Turkish state would come down hard on anyone talking about this exhibit.

Zehra Dogan
Zehra Dogan - Tate Modern

Kaya’s concerns are echoed by another visitor, British–Kurdish activist Mark Campbell, who says the exhibit exposes the war crimes carried out by the Turkish state.

“The stories of two young people are told very effectively here. I see a lot of things when I look at these pieces; Zehra bore witness to the 2015–2016 war and is now announcing it to the world.

“She writes articles together with Ege Dündar, and all of her other work gives an important message. The work enlightens and educates visitors and elicits various reactions from them. But in fact, there’s an element of risk.”

Although Doğan’s work is being talked about around the world, her response is quite modest.

“When I look at the artistic work I’ve done and the work of other Kurdish artists, there’s nothing actually special about mine. I’m not the first. It could just be that Nusaybin is relevant and fashionable now.

“It’s work from the front lines at a time when everyone is thirsty for it. It’s not work from a studio or far from the war. It’s by an artist under bombardment, so maybe that’s why people are interested. Otherwise, I don’t think there’s anything different about me.

“Kurdish art has many roots—we have artists, people like Mihemed Şexo, Ayşe Şan, and Meryem Xan, who did a lot of forward-thinking work. That’s why I’m not giving a lot of credence to this idea of a rebirth of Kurdish art. We’re just adding to it, not creating it from scratch.”