I was just released from prison in Turkey because of my art, but I refuse to be silenced

What the authorities forget is that every repressive act produces its own resistance: behind bars I began to produce my own art supplies. My paints came from fruits, vegetables, drinks and the menstrual blood of the women in the prison

Zehra Dogan
Sunday 31 March 2019 11:11 BST
Banksy's new artwork on Turkish prisoner Zehra Dogan on New York building

Fighting between security forces and armed groups in Kurdish-majority cities began in Turkey in 2015, and I, as a Kurdish journalist, felt the need to visit those cities. The media in Turkey, which is almost completely under government control, was only reporting information shared by the security forces, put out in a one-sided and propagandistic way.

In 2015 I was working for the JINHA, a women’s news agency, which was made up entirely of women and wrote all its news from a feminist perspective. There was still one year left before JINHA, of which I was a founder, would be closed by government decree.

Before I went to these cities, some people warned me I could be arrested. At the time these places were under military siege, with a 24/7 ban on going out into the streets and the bodies of civilians, who had been killed in the fallout of clashes, lying for days in the middle of the road.

But if I did not go, I would have been leaving my people on their own, and their stories would never have been heard. I was also frightened of being detained or wounded in the fighting, but this was not going to stop me from doing what was necessary as a journalist. To fear is human, but to give in to fear when trying to tell the people the truth in the face of a repressive regime is to lose the struggle before it has even started.

As a reporter, I covered conflict zones for months, and I relayed what I saw and the statements of witnesses living in these cities. But our coverage went unseen by a large proportion of the Turkish press. The websites on which our news was published were censored. As a painter, I decided to use art in order to convey what had happened there. I first began to draw the destruction of the town of Nusaybin and the painful events that were happening around me with a stylus on my mobile phone and I shared them on social media. Social media was not censored like mainstream media, and these pictures began to be shared a lot. It had never occurred to me that in order to get across what was happening in a conflict zone today I would need to paint it, like the war painters of the 1800s.

These pictures came to the attention of social media users, and they did not go unnoticed by the state. One day after I left Nusaybin, I was detained and arrested. The pictures and news I had made were given as the reasons I should be sentenced. The Turkish judiciary gave a short answer to questions asked by artists – such as, “Is there a limit to criticism in art, and if so, where is it?” – by judging my picture to have “exceeded the limits of artistic criticism”.

At first they allowed me to paint in prison. People sent us canvas, paints and brushes from the outside, and I both painted with the prisoners and taught the other women in the prison to paint. Eventually the bringing in of art supplies from outside was banned.

What the authorities forget is that every repressive act produces its own resistance: I began to produce my own art supplies. My paints came from fruits, vegetables, drinks and the menstrual blood of the women in the prison. My brushes were made from bird feathers that fell into the prison yard and women’s hair. I produced much more under these repressive conditions than I had ever produced in the outside world, and I didn’t lose heart – despite dozens of my pictures and the notes I had written for a novel being seized and destroyed.

While I was being depicted as a “terrorist” in Turkey, my pictures were exhibited in a number of European countries. I was nominated for international awards without even knowing it, and I won some of them. The picture that the court had said “exceeded the limits of artistic criticism” was projected onto a wall in New York by Banksy. Many international organisations and artists made calls for me to be released and drew attention to jailed journalists in Turkey. My art and words, which the authorities had sought to silence and censor, spread to the four corners of the Earth as a result of this repression. I received encouraging letters and postcards from many different countries, and it is difficult to describe in words the optimism that each letter spread.

All of this was not simply a big morale boost for me, but also for all the other women I stayed with in jail, and for artists, politicians and academics. We read about acts of solidarity in the few newspapers allowed in the prison with joy.

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I was behind iron bars, but I was free. The state could keep me cooped up in one place, but it could never arrest my mind. In Turkey today, if there are thousands of free-thinking people in the jails, there are millions of arrested minds outside them who have been subjected to the government’s brain-washing.

After my experience in prison, I believe that the whole world needs to show even more support of prisoners in Turkey. Unlike the period when I was under arrest, politician Leyla Güven started a wave of hunger strikes, which hundreds have people have continued for more than 100 days by taking limited amounts of sugar water to slow death. Their demands are completely legal and basic: for PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan to be able to use his legally-protected right to see his lawyers. Many people are today on the brink of death, and as of 29 March, four people have died by hunger strike.

While the vast majority of the Turkish press are not reporting this, even in the smallest column, international powers coming together to put pressure on the government is the most important thing. I am now outside prison, but there are many journalists, artists, students, academics and politicians under arrest as a result of their thoughts. There are enough of these people to turn Turkey’s prisons into the world’s largest educational institution, but their notebooks are seized, the books they want to read are banned, and the artworks they create are ripped to shreds. Do not forget them and do what you can to help them.

Zehra Dogan is a nominee for this year’s Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards for Arts

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