Banksy has taken over the Bowery mural in New York City with fellow street artist Borf to protest the imprisonment of Zehra Doğan, a Turkish-Kurdish artist and journalist accused by the Turkish government of ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed Kurdish resistance movement.
The mural appeared on Thursday, a few days after another sign of the elusive artist’s presence in New York was spotted on 14th Street.
Doğan was imprisoned partly for painting an image of the destroyed Kurdish-majority city of Nusaybin by Turkish government forces. The city is on the border of Turkey and Syria, and was the site of extensive bombing by the Turkish military starting in 2015. Doğan painted an image of Nusaybin in ruins with Turkish flags flying above. The painting was based on an image circulated by the Turkish military via social media. The artist was arrested on July 21, 2016 and was accused, on the basis of her journalism and social media posts, of illegal “organization membership” and “propaganda for the organization.”
She was released from Mardin Women’s Prison on December 9, 2016 pending trial, which took place a few months later. Doğan was later sentenced to two years, nine months, and 22 days in prison by the Second High Criminal Court of Mardin province.
Doğan served as a writer and editor for JINHA, a feminist news agency staffed entirely by women that published news articles in English, Turkish, and Kurdish. The Turkish government closed the historic agency in October 2016 after the government’s Cabinet of Ministers issued Statutory Decrees Article 675 and 676.
In a statement to the New York Times, Banksy explained his feeling for Doğan’s imprisonment: “I really feel for her. I’ve painted things much more worthy of a custodial sentence.” The mural, at the corner of Houston Street and Bowery Street in Lower Manhattan, was painted with Borf, who spent time in prison for his own unsanctioned art. Borf’s real name is John Tsombikos.
The mural depicts a tally of the days Doğan has spent in prison (273), along with an image of her behind bars with the words “Free Zehra Doğan” written on the bottom right. On Thursday, a projection of three images was shown above the mural until midnight. One image depicted the original Turkish government photo of Nusaybin destroyed, the next showed Doğan’s painting based on the image, and the third was the painting with the words: “SENTENCED TO 2 YEARS NINE MONTHS AND 22 DAYS IN JAIL FOR PAINTING THIS PICTURE.”
On Thursday at 9:30pm, there were only a few people gathered around the mural, which is atypical of Banksy projects that normally are mobbed with gawkers and fans, often called “Banksy hunters.”
One individual standing by the mural was monitoring the situation and approached me to say the projection would only be shown tonight. When asked whether he worked for Banksy or was involved in the project, he responded, “No, not really,” and walked away.