Art on trial

September 21 2017 Text: Hanna Nordell Translation from Swedish: Jan Teeland Image: Zehra Doğan "Nusaybin" (2016)
The work of art published above is the reason why the artist and writer, Zehra Doğan, is now in prison for terrorist propaganda. Artists, like writers, portray what many people experience and are therefore amongst the first silenced by a repressive state.
 
Doğan’s painting is based on a photograph from the city of Nusaybin, a site of conflict between the Turkish army and Kurdish PKK. The photograph shows a lacerated landscape, empty of civilians - an effect of a curfew imposed on the city residents - while the military and tanks occupy a central place in the photo. The buildings that are still standing have been decorated with the Turkish flag. The photo was taken and shared in social media by the Turkish military.
 
Named after the city of Nusaybin, Doğan’s painting shares the same motif with the original photograph: both show razed architecture, flags, dust and destruction. But through the special methods of painting - e g color and form - the artist complicates the story and presents it in another light. In Doğan’s dystopic image the military presence is portrayed as a kind of monster-like creature that seems to consume all life around it.
 
The painting, together with a news article and comments on social media, is the reason that Doğan has been incarcerated since 2016. Absurdly enough, she was accused of both having taken the photograph that the painting paraphrases and for furnishing the buildings with the Turkish flag in her version. In her defense Doğan argued that the painting should be seen as part of her work as a journalist, whereas the prosecutor presented it as proof of her association with and propaganda for the PKK. She was sentenced on 24 March 2017 to two years and ten months in prison. In conjunction with the sentence she wrote the following in the social media (now deleted):
 
I was given two years and 10 months only because I painted Turkish flags on destroyed buildings. However, they [the Turkish government] caused this. I only painted it.
 
In her journalism as well as in her art Zehra Doğan has focused on women and on the situation of the Kurds. In 2015 she won the Metin Göktepe Journalism Award for a series of articles on Yazidi women who had fled from ISIS. Doğan has also been editor of Jinha, a feminist news bureau that was entirely staffed by women and that published news articles in English, Turkish and Kurdish. Jinha was shut down in 2016. However, together with other women internees, Doğan continued her journalistic work in prison by starting the paper, Özgϋr Gϋndem Zindan (Free Agenda Dungeon) that was painted by hand and came out in five editions last year.
 
Doğan is currently being held in a prision in Diyarbakır; from where she can no longer publish the paper because she is denied access to artistic material.