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Art in exile: A prison cell as an exhibition venue

Ceyda Nurtsch
March 3, 2021

What form does artistic freedom take in prison? A show by exiled Turkish journalist Can Dündar explores the topic.

Can Dündar standing outside in front of the glass box which is part of the installation.
With his exhibition in Berlin, Can Dündar aims to draw attention to those imprisoned in TurkeyImage: Ute Langkafel MAIFOTO

A glass box, 25 square meters (269 square feet) in size, contains a toilet, a bed, a table and chair and a sink — nothing more. This artistic installation is a replica of a prison cell at the high-security Silivri prison in Turkey and is titled Prison of Thought. Next door, the exhibition titled The Museum of Small Things is taking place in a part of Berlin's Maxim Gorki Theater.

The show features a collection of everyday objects political prisoners may have: a telephone card, a paper airplane, black tea. In video installations, actors explain how each object is used, providing insight into the lives of the imprisoned, their solidarity, as well as their communication with one another — and their hopes.

The exhibition was curated by Turkish journalist Can Dündar, along with Hakan Savas Mican. Dündar has been living in Berlin since 2016. He incurred the wrath of Turkish President Erdogan's government after reporting on arms deliveries by the Turkish intelligence service to Islamist militias in Syria in 2014. As punishment, he spent three months in pre-trial detention, then went into exile. Should he ever return to his homeland, 27 years in prison await him.

A pencil and paper airplanes sitting on a desk.
Red pencil and paper airplanes from Can Dündar's Berlin installationImage: Ute Langkafel MAIFOTO

The exhibition was symbolically opened as part of the digital festival Re:Writing the Future, held in Berlin from February 25-28, 2021, and organized by the Allianz Cultural Foundation, the Maxim Gorki Theater and the Berlin Artists' Program of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), among others. The exhibition will be on view as soon as Berlin's museums reopen

Artistic expression in prison

Since the coup attempt in July 2016, journalists, opposition politicians, academics, and cultural workers in Turkey have found themselves subject to increasingly harsh repression. Many are imprisoned, while the Turkish government stubbornly maintains that only those who have engaged in terrorist activities have been jailed. Many have chosen to leave Turkey and live abroad in exile. 

The mirrored interior of the cell with a bed, table and chair (Pressebilder SİLİVRİ. prison of thought)
Interior view of the "Prison of Thought" part of the exhibitionImage: Lutz Knospe

But how does artistic freedom take shape in prison or in the foreign land of exile? How is resistance documented? In the virtual panel "Undoing Prison," which also took place as part of the digital festival, Dündar explored these questions in conversation with writer Aslı Erdogan, Kurdish artist and journalist Zehra Dogan, and sociologist Nil Mutluer. All participants in the conversation live in Berlin. 

"We didn't want to create a Madame Tussauds museum where visitors can look at how horribly people were once treated," Dündar says, explaining his exhibition. "This is still the current situation. We wanted to show that there is indeed repression, but there is also resistance."

Remnants of freedom even in detention

Kurdish artist and journalist Zehra Dogan knows what it means to struggle to maintain some semblance of freedom in prison. She grew up in eastern Turkey, "in an atmosphere of annihilation," as she describes it. In 2016, she was imprisoned for her image of the city of Nusaybin during the state of emergency imposed by the AKP government after the 2016-18 coup attempt.

A portrait of Zehra Dogan outside.
Zehra Dogan was imprisoned for three yearsImage: privat

But even during her nearly three years in prison, Dogan tried to stay artistically active with the means available to her. One artwork shows a bent-over woman's body onto which she has sewn her hair that fell out while she was in prison, stained with menstrual blood.

Time in prison leaves deep scars. For the physicist and writer Aslı Erdogan, it destroyed her relationship with language in particular. She was imprisoned for around five months along with 100 other intellectuals. She was sent to prison for symbolically taking over the editorial management of the Turkish-Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem (Free Agenda) for one day in an act of solidarity.

Images on the floor and holograms on the wall in a room of the installation.
A political spatial installation about the situation in Turkey: "Silivri. Prison of Thought"Image: Ute Langkafel MAIFOTO

The Turkish state declared an article published that day to be terrorist propaganda and held her responsible. Although Turkish was her native language, she says prison destroyed her relationship to it. "Turkish quickly became the language of authority. I resent that," she said. 

Kurdish artist Zehra Dogan has long known what alienation to one’s mother tongue by Turkish authorities can mean. She remembers being beaten by her teachers when she was five years old because she only spoke Kurdish and did not understand Turkish.

Can Dündar had to learn in exile that uprooting oneself also affects one's own language. For him, another painful experience: life in a foreign country does not mean freedom. "You are held hostage. Everything you say can be used against your family back home," he said. "Even if you are not in prison, you are not free. Because one's word is not free." A country where one is not free cannot become one's own country, he says. Only one's own writing becomes a kind of homeland, he adds.

A portrait of Can Dündar.
Life in exile has not been easy for Turkish journalist Can DündarImage: Malte Ossowski/SvenSimon/picture alliance

Can Dündar: A dangerous life in exile

As part of the Berlin festival, human rights lawyer Veysel Ok also reported on the increasing authoritarianism and the greatly reduced spaces for artists and journalists in Turkey. He has called on Europe to take a stand for all of those oppressed, not just the big names. "European leaders and activists are mainly committed to well-known names such as the writer and journalist Ahmet Altan," he said. "But not for the Kurdish people who are unknown in Europe. They should be represented as well."

In realizing The Museum of Small Things, Can Dündar has fulfilled a dream. He would like to bring the exhibition to Turkey. But his main goal, he says, is to go to Silivri prison once again — to visit it like a visitor to a museum. 

This article was translated from German by Sarah Hucal.