Imprisoned Turkish artist, activist and journalist Zehra Doğan isn’t allowed to paint in jail. She makes do with what she has —using food scraps for colour, honey for glue and discarded wrappers for canvases— yet Turkish guards continue to destroy her artwork, claiming it is forbidden in prison.
In March 2017, the artist was sentenced to two years, nine months and 22 days in jail for her watercolour painting showing the destruction by Turkish security forces of the Kurdish city of Mardin in the Nusaybin district.
Freemuse renews its call for Turkish authorities to release Zehra Doğan.
“Zehra Doğan should not be behind bars for publishing a painting depicting the destruction made by Turkish military operations,” Freemuse Executive Director Dr Srirak Plipat said. “She has the right to express herself through her art, whether incarcerated or not. By destroying her artwork, Turkish authorities are destroying her human right to freedom of expression.”
In an interview facilitated by her lawyers and published in the Gazete Karinca on 20 July 2018, Doğan explained that she does not receive any painting materials by the prison administration, but rather, creates her own materials out of available resources. In a letter penned by the artist in 2017 to the Swiss Freethinker Association ‘Frei Denken’, Doğan stated that she was able to “find alternatives” in order to continue making art.
“I use wrappers, garbage and food. I produce the colors from natural sources. For example, olives provide me with black, tomato paste gives me red… I crush parsley for green… turmeric provides yellow. There is tea, coffee… and honey for glue. For paper, we are allowed notebooks and writing paper. So I use newspapers, but also all kinds of wrappings. The cardboard from boxes of cookies, the aluminum foil on containers… For special effects, I also use the foil from packs of cigarettes,” wrote Doğan.
The fine arts graduate was initially arrested on 21 July 2016 on charges of being a “member of an illegal organisation” and “spreading propaganda”. She remained detained until 9 December 2016 when she was released awaiting trial.
At the time of her arrest, authorities claimed her painting was proof that she was part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a left-wing militant group that fights for Kurdish rights in Turkey, which the Turkish government has labelled as a terrorist organisation.
Though she was acquitted of the original charges, Doğan was ultimately sentenced for the painting and her coverage of a ten-year-old child’s notes or grades (there are conflicting reports as to whether they were notes or grades). Art Forum reported that Mardin’s Second High Penal Court assessed that it wasn’t the painting itself that landed her in prison, but rather her choice to share it on social media as it showed military operations.
Since her imprisonment, Doğan has received a rally of support from other well-known members of the artistic-activism community, such as Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei and England-based street artist Banksy.
ARTISTS AND ANTI-TERRORISM LAWS IN TURKEY
Notably, Turkey agreed to implement several recommendations included in the 2015 United Nations Universal Periodic Review for Turkey in order to improve the way in which artists are treated under the nation’s anti-terrorism legislation. Drafted by Freemuse, Siyah Bant, and the Initiative For Freedom Of Expression, the recommendations called on Turkey to improve the way in which its laws defined notions such as ‘terror’, ‘terrorist organization’, ‘membership of a terrorist organization’, and ‘making propaganda of terrorist organization’, noting that Turkey’s application of anti-terror laws is “ambiguous”. Additionally, Turkey agreed to the following recommendations specifically focused on artistic expression:
- Anti-terror legislation should not be applied against artistic and creative works that clearly have no connection with nor propagate violence.
- Public officials should desist from statements allying artists with terrorism, and hence from turning artists into targets.
Unfortunately, despite their acceptance of the recommendations, Turkey has continued to align the works of artists with terrorism, as seen with the case of Doğan. Furthermore, the Turkish government recently passed a new anti-terror law that grants Turkish officials even greater power in determining who can be labeled as a “terrorist”.
Read more about Turkey’s clamp down on artistic freedom in Freemuse’s State of Artistic Freedom 2018 report here.
11 January 2017: Turkey: Detained artist released, awaiting trial