Kurdish artist Zehra Doğan continues struggle to make art in jail

Jailed in Turkey for a painting, Zehra Doğan, an ethnic Kurd, defines herself as an artist of the oppressed.

In July last year, Doğan was sentenced to two years and nine months in jail for “exceeding the limits of criticism” by depicting the destruction of the southeastern town of Nusaybin by state security forces.

Zehra Dogan
Zehra Doğan painting of Nusaybin that landed her in jail. (all over the internet)

“There was nothing imaginary in the picture – it was a picture of reality. If painting an existing scene exceed the limits of criticism, then I would ask which limits were exceeded when the city was destroyed and why they were exceeded,” Dogan said in an interview.

Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters seized control of parts of Nusaybin between late 2015 and early 2016 after a ceasefire with the state broke down the previously July. After several months of fighting, much of the city was destroyed and Turkish authorities bulldozed a large part of what was left to make way for high-rise apartments. Tens of thousands of people were displaced.

Doğan said her work documented rights abuses in the country. In the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, Turkey ranked as 157th among 180 countries, with more than a hundred journalists currently in prison.

"All the paintings I've made have imprisoned journalists in them, because they are period paintings,” she said. Her work, she said, “is neither trapped in the past, nor a continuation of European culture. It's a discipline moulded by issues contemporary to the nation I belong to."

She criticised journalists for cozying up to the government and said that “not compromising on the facts is the journalists’ protest.”

Doğan said there were major rights abuses in prison, with the gravest problems experienced by the sick and elderly.

“We have sick friends on our wing. There are elderly mothers and health problems. Although the prison conditions are not suitable for our friends’ health, it's stated in health reports that they can stay. However, this is not possible. The infringement of rights suffered by prisoners who are sick is very serious,” she said.

Doğan also faces difficulties when it comes to producing her own artwork in prison.

“We are subject to restrictions on books, magazines, and newspapers. Bed linen, blankets and personal items that have not been taken or destroyed are not cleaned by the administration … At the same time, they don't provide the necessary materials needed for painting. They seize and dispose of paintings … that I made from food waste,” she said.

Despite the difficulties, Doğan said she had been able to find ways to continue making art.

“Everything is forbidden – all paints are banned. I created vibrant pigments with the yellow of a lemon, the purple of a cabbage, the colour of a pomegranate, the green of rocket, with coffee and tea with what was taught to me. I didn’t even have this many paints on the outside. But when I first came here, I could have given up since there wasn’t any of this. I could have waited and hoped for justice and for the prison administration to one day give me painting supplies,” she said.

Doğan said making her own pigments and creating art gave her hope.

“Hope is a two-way street. Passive hope kills and makes you submissive. Hope only finds meaning when moulded by struggle,” she said.

Doğan said she was in good company in prison, where she said that she lived with 70 women who were activists, politicians, journalists, artists, mothers, lawyers, and students.

“We don't waste a single moment in our wing. Our space is a place for debates on many topics such as monotheistic religions, the nation-state, the history of cities from the Neolithic to city-states, Kurdish history, the history of oppressed people, Middle Eastern and world history, daily politics, feminist philosophy, and women's history,” she said.

She said the prisoners lived in an egalitarian way.

“As women, we know very well what it means to be in the period of time we are in. In our history, there are thousands of years of destruction from male domination. How did men make the world this way? The answer to this is hierarchy, ambition, power, dissatisfaction, authority, violence, and so on. Do you think it's possible to make the same mistake when you know all this and when you argue all this every day and ponder how to expand the struggle? For this reason, there's no room here for authority or any hierarchy,” she said.

Doğan has previously said that black is not a neutral colour, but a warm colour.

Asked if she felt the same way, she said: “If you start to see complete darkness everywhere, then it means the end is near …  Colours are stubborn – they are hidden, but they never disappear. Yes, they made the country go black. They disregarded the many colours like the Arabs, Kurds, Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Armenians living in this country and mixed them as if using a blender and came up with a jet-black colour. We all became one colour.”

Doğan said she regarded black as a holy colour.

“I like it, because I hear the cry of all the oppressed colours in it. I like it, because I know it doesn’t disappear. The place where black is most dense is the place where colour is most intense. It’s up to us to be able to get it out. Yes, we are in utter darkness now, but we haven’t disappeared. We’re still here.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.