Painting with honey, fruits and blood

Alessio Perrone talks to a Kurdish artist and journalist who has taken on the Turkish government from behind bars.

Pictured: Zehra Doğan/Credit: Alessio Perone

Zehra Doğan knew she could get arrested if she went to Nusaybin, Turkey. She had been warned.

After three years of peace negotiations, the 40-year-long conflict between Turkey and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) had broken out again in the south-eastern region in 2015, and Nusaybin – located on the Turkish-Syrian border – was caught in the crossfire. Some 3,000 civilians lost their lives.

‘In our lands, we got used to death because we have seen lots of people die – parents and relatives,’ Doğan tells New Internationalist, speaking through a translator.

The city of Nusaybin (population 80,000) is currently under military siege and a strict curfew is in place. Since 2015, when conflict began again, the Turkish government has shut down scores of Kurdish media, associations, language schools and cultural institutions.

The only reports on the region covered the Turkish army’s side and Zehra Doğan, a Kurdish journalist working for Jinha – a feminist women-only news agency reporting in the Kurdish language – wanted to document the other side.

‘I’m from a people whose language and identity are rejected by the [Turkish] state,’ she says.

On the Independent, she wrote: ‘If I did not go, I would have been leaving my people on their own. Their stories would never have been heard.’


Ways of seeing

But when Doğan was arrested in July 2016 it wasn’t for her journalism, but for a painting.

Believing that the world didn’t understand Kurdish people, habits and culture, she painted scenes of traditional life and of local women in bright colours in her spare time. And when she realized Jinha’s reporting was being ignored or censored on mainstream media, she used painting to document what she saw, and posted her work on social media. Her images offered the missing Kurdish perspective, and soon began to be shared widely.

The most famous artwork reproduced an actual photograph of military presence in Nusaybin, but with a twist: the army tanks had been turned into ravenous civilian-eating monsters.

After her arrest, witnesses testified in court that she was a member of an illegal organization – for which she was abruptly put into prison and kept in pre-trial detention.

Life inside

While in confinement, Doğan’s work found new life. She found the Turkish prisons to be teeming with life: Turkey had been arresting Kurdish journalists since 2015, but after a failed coup attempt in July 2016, academics, journalists and activists across the country also ended up behind bars. Using sweeping emergency powers and anti-terrorism laws, authorities arrested over 60,000 people in 2016 alone, controlled social media and shut down critical newspapers.

‘So many journalists who had stories to tell were in prison,’ she says. ‘And their public was also in prison.’ So, it made sense to found a newspaper there. Doğan collected stories about female political prisoners, human rights abuses and published comment pieces on a DIY publication. Because no photographs could be taken, she painted – using supplies sent to her from supporters outside the prison walls.

The Turkish authorities did not take this form of activism lightly. In September, they raided cells hoping to find press machinery and evidence of who was printing the newspaper. However, they were unsuccessful – everything had been done by hand.

After the raids, Doğan and the prisoners ran another issue of the newspaper. Zehra remembers the front-page headline: ‘Although we are captive, we are still after you’.

People outside prison also sent Doğan canvases, brushes and paints – using them to teach other female prisoners how to paint. They drew their own scenes and impressions of how women were being mistreated on a daily basis.

In December 2016, Doğan’s trial ended. There was no conviction and she was released. But the truce didn’t last long: she was arrested again in March 2017 and sentenced to almost three years for ‘propagandizing for a terrorist organization’, a charge that amounts to nothing more than posting her paintings on social media.


Sentenced to nearly three years in jail for painting a single picture. #FREEzehradogan

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Global recognition

In her new cell, in Diyarbakır Prison, Doğan met new levels of repression. The authorities banned painting materials.

Devoid of her usual materials, she created dyes using honey, fruits and blood. She painted on cartons and scrap materials found in the trash. Each time the authorities confiscated her paintings without question.

Her story attracted global attention. On the one hand, she was treated as a terrorist in Turkey. On the other, Banksy painted a mural for her in New York; Ai Weiwei wrote her letters and she was shortlisted for awards across the West.

She remembers the international support and the letters fondly, saying it was a big morale boost for her and all the other female journalists, politicians and academics she was imprisoned with.

Many of them are still in jail but Doğan isn’t: she was released on 24 February 2019 and travelled to London recently to accept the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for the Arts and a PEN International Fellowship.

Much has changed since Doğan was first arrested three years ago: high-power men and nationalism are gaining traction and influence in many Western countries, and NGOs and the international community that supported Doğan are coming increasingly under fire.

Turkey’s own ‘powerful man’ – Erdoğan, the president that co-ordinated the crackdown on civil society – and his party have suffered defeats in local elections in Ankara and Istanbul, where their rise to power began. ‘It means a lot that in such an oppressive era, people go to the polls to vote against Erdoğan,’ Doğan says. ‘You could get arrested for just saying you don’t like him.’

Although Jinha was shut down by the state shortly after Doğan’s arrest, it still exists under a different name – Jinnews. For Zehra Doğan, a normal life might soon be in sight. Having held on to some of her fellow prisoners’ paintings, she plans to organize an exhibition and will soon return to Nusaybin.