Zehra Doğan, Hey soldier; you can’t make strip search. I’m already naked, 2018, ballpoint pen and hair on underwear, two parts, 8 3/4 × 28 3/8" and 10 1/4 × 11 3/4".

Zehra Doğan, Hey soldier; you can’t make strip search. I’m already naked, 2018, ballpoint pen and hair on underwear, two parts, 8 3/4 × 28 3/8" and 10 1/4 × 11 3/4".

Zehra Doğan

Zehra Doğan’s work chronicles, defies, and transforms the twenty-seven months she spent in Turkish prisons. Doğan was a twenty-seven-year-old reporter—and founder of JINHA, a feminist news agency—when, in 2016, she made a digital-tablet drawing based on a news photograph of Turkish soldiers posing with machine guns. In the background, it shows Nusaybin, a town caught in the crossfire between Kurdish militants and Turkish soldiers and reduced to rubble. As crimson Turkish flags flutter ominously over its ruins, shadowy security personnel seem to emerge from vehicles resembling scorpions in the front. A Turkish court decreed the work “terrorist propaganda” and handed her a thirty-three-month prison sentence. A 2018 mural in New York by Banksy, in collaboration with street artist Borf, featured a portrait of Doğan behind bars and helped her become a symbol of the victims of Turkish autocracy.

“Not Approved,” Doğan’s first solo show in Turkey, showcased works she produced in three different prisons: Mardin in 2016, Diyarbakır in 2017–18, and Tarsus, where she was held until her release on February 24, 2019. (The artist now lives as a nomad in Europe.) In confinement she developed an artistic practice shaped by necessity: Art materials were prohibited, so she made brushes with “the hair of my imprisoned friends and the feathers of the birds nesting in the barbed wire of the airing court.” Newspapers, packing cartons, aluminum foil, and towels became her canvases; her palette comprised bird droppings, pomegranate peels, cigarette ash, cooking oil, bird blood, honey, coffee, pepper, and aspirin tablets. Among the two dozen works on display was Womanhood, 2018, which Doğan drew on a dress sewn by her mother, using coffee and paint she stole from the prison storage room, and had delivered to her family as dirty laundry. Ghostlike faces with shaven heads contrasted in an unsettling way with the florid patterns of the garment, which was presented on a coat hanger. The plight of Turkey’s political prisoners was also the subject of Hey soldier; you can’t make strip search. I’m already naked, 2018, a work consisting of a bra and briefs on whose surfaces Doğan made ballpoint-pen drawings of female heads, reproductive organs, and a vulva, covered by a lock of her own hair. The work’s defiant message embodied the central tension between the imperative to clandestinely chronicle private suffering and the desire to articulate it publicly.

Echoes of Tracey Emin’s My Bed, 1998, seeped into the installation Ez Zehra, ne poşmanım (I Am Zehra, I Do Not Regret), 2019, in which Doğan inscribed the words of the title with her hair on a scarf placed like a pillow on a mattress. Beneath the scarf is a bedsheet featuring blue ballpoint-pen drawings of female figures who climb, dance, and swing on barbed wire. Blood colors the center of the composition; during her internment, Doğan used her menstrual cycle to mark the passage of time. Hewş (Courtyard), 2018, made with menstrual blood, hair, and ballpoint pen, shows a woman lying on her back in a courtyard surrounded by barbed wire. The fragile texture of her scarf contrasts with the expression of dread on her face.

Doğan’s Li Dû Man (Left Behind), 2019, was shown in the context of a workshop at Tate Modern in London in the year of its making, three months after her release. For this installation, she used objects she’d found in the debris of war-torn Kurdish cities in 2015 and 2016 to tell “the stories of those who fled, via what they left behind.” The Istanbul exhibition’s works, by contrast, told stories of those who were unable to flee, using materials they’d made available to Doğan behind bars, or that she managed to procure herself. Inmates in Turkey’s federal facilities are allowed one ten-minute personal phone call every week, and in The world’s shortest 10 minutes, 2020, a mock pay phone plays calls the artist made from prison. The recordings of those monitored and archived talks crystallize the artist’s years-long struggle to make sure her voice is heard, allowing visitors to hear her utterances while looking at the Turkish prepaid calling cards that once granted the artist communication, albeit of a strictly regulated kind.