BERLIN — “My name is Zehra. I am currently in Amed prison.”
So begins The Hidden Drawings, a new graphic novel by the journalist and artist Zehra Doğan, on display for the first time at the 11th Berlin Biennale. For almost three years, Doğan languished in prison for her painting representing a photograph of a Kurdish city lying in ruins; she was charged for allegations of propaganda and being a member of a terrorist organization.
The digital tablet drawing that landed Doğan in prison in 2017 portrays Turkish military operations that targeted approximately 30 towns and neighborhoods in an ongoing conflict, which displaced between 355,000 and 500,000 people, mostly of Kurdish origin. The work is based on an official photograph of these events distributed by the Turkish military. It depicts the heavy toll inflicted upon the predominantly Kurdish city of Mardin in the Nusaybin district, with a Turkish flag flying above the wreckage.
Now, the stunning graphic novel that Doğan made while incarcerated gives us the full breadth of a people who lie on the brink of erasure. In a large glass vitrine on the second floor of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, one of the main biennale venues, Doğan’s dimly lit drawings reveal the numerous indignities she endured on the inside.
The graphic novel is about mental and physical anguish and the lives of the women who remain incarcerated. While in prison, Doğan continued to produce her art using dyes made from crushed fruit and herbs, and even blood, using newspapers and milk cartons as canvases.
The Hidden Drawings (in Kurdish: Xêzên Dizî) were created with charcoal pencils on 103 sheets of letter paper sent by a friend to Doğan during her jail term. Her works were smuggled out of the prison by an intermediary; they depict stories of other female political prisoners and the human rights abuses inflicted on them by Turkish prison officials.
“Here, drawing is forbidden,” reads one. “But I found a way around this: my friend Naz Oke sends me letters and leaves the other side of the paper blank. Every night, I secretly draw on that back page and I send the pages back out, again secretly. I hope these drawings will reach you,” she describes in another.
Doğan has been at the forefront of championing Kurdish causes for years; she co-founded the all-female news agency JINHA, which was closed by the Turkish government in the wake of a state of emergency after an attempted coup in 2016.
As an artist, Doğan’s work demonstrates an attentiveness to political conditions and the life of women. During the democratic self-governed resistance in Northern Kurdistan in 2015 and 2016, the journalist reported from Nusaybin and Cizre, becoming a first-hand witness to state violence caused by a controversial curfew and subsequent military siege. Today, with Turkish forces active from Libya to Artsakh, there is little wonder that Doğan’s work took to examining conflict.
Describing the conditions of her arrest through these postcards, Doğan candidly discusses the thousands of other political prisoners who have met a similar fate.
“The state first destroyed the cities with tanks and cannons, and then arrested those who remained. Thousands of people were imprisoned on the false accusations made by ‘secret witnesses,’” she wrote.
“Thousands of civil servants, teachers, academics, doctors, etc. were removed from their jobs by decree-laws and sent to prison […] and this is how I was arrested, on the basis of a false statement by a secret witness, and because I drew a picture of Nusaybin, destroyed… They asked me why I drew this… l wonder why?”
Doğan illuminates in grisly detail life on the inside. In one drawing, she describes the overcrowded reality of dormitory life. “There are 22 bunk beds, but we are currently 33 people. Therefore, 11 of us sleep on the floor,” she says. “Also, a few comrades sleep on the kitchen floor. It is very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter, and there is only one radiator and one fan.”
Beyond the daily routine, Doğan’s notebooks also make vivid the tragic stories of others who remain in jail. One of them, Mother Sakine, is a 65-year-old woman who once lived in a village in Lice in a tent. She and her son Ahmed were sentenced to imprisonment on charges of assisting Kurdish guerrilla fighters. They remain in Amed prison, their future release uncertain. Sakine’s portrait is done in careful detail; the lines on her face become markers of a delicate wisdom, but depict a person brow-beaten and torn by her circumstances.
On the vicious tactics used by the prison officers to punish the prisoners, Doğan writes:
People experienced all forms of barbarity. Whilst torturing the prisoners, the guards would bring in the prisoners’ wives, sisters, or comrades and strip them naked. They were doing this to intimidate and threaten the prisoners to force them to confess. The brutality never stopped. The soles of their feet were cut with razors, salt was rubbed into the wounds.
In another scene, a prison guard uses a baton to hit a prisoner. Describing the massacre and systematic erasure of other ethnicities, she connects the plight of Kurdish people with that of Armenians, who suffered a genocide at the hands of the newly formed Turkish state after the collapse of the Ottoman empire.
“The history of Turkey is full of blood and exploitation. This country has always been dominated by fascist politics. It is not only Turks who live on this land, but also Kurds, Armenians, Arabs, Assyrians, Keldani, Mihelmi, Laz, Cherkes and more ethnicities,” she writes. “They all want to live freely as themselves and fulfill their ethnic identities. Because of this, people have always risen up to assert their rights, and the state has always responded with massacres.”
Above all, the graphic novel portrays in depressing detail the ongoing persecution of the Kurdish people. It leaves little room for interpretation, except perhaps how Doğan managed to survive. The most tragic portions come when she is describing life for mothers and other women. “The prison conditions are very difficult, especially for mothers, children and the elderly,” she says.
During the opening of the biennale, I asked Doğan that very question, how she managed to survive under such circumstances.
“Through solidarity I developed a will to survive,” she explained. “The victims of those lost kept me going, my will to survive became part of a wider class struggle.”
“So long as my people are tortured, imprisoned or persecuted, I will never stop using my journalism or art to call out the brutal injustices. My will to survive came through my art, my ability to tell the stories of others.”
The Hidden Drawings continues at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art as part of the 11th Berlin Biennale through November 1. The exhibition is curated by María Berríos, Renata Cervetto, Lisette Lagnado, and Agustín Pérez Rubio. The graphic novel by Zehra Doğan was translated from Kurdish Kurmandji by Aladdin Sinayiç and contains proofreading by Harriet Paintin.