EXHIBITION 2021 “PRISON N°5” | Prometeo Gallery, Milano

Download the Catalog

Shahmaran 2. On carpet, acrylic, felt-tip pencil. 2021 Lucca, Italy. Prometeo Gallery. (photo by Ludovica Mangini)

Shahmaran 2

Mardin, a city in Turkey, stands on one of the parts of the Kurdish lands, which were divided like a cake into four, a hundred years ago, between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. I was born there.

This is the story of Shahmaran, half human, half snake. His story is that of a love for a man, the historical symbol of the dominant civilisation, by Shahmaran, shah of the snake clans, who lives seven floors below ground, guardian of the wisdom of natural life, for thousands of years, refusing to submit to the world of men.

“Thousands of years ago, humans stopped living in the mountains and caves. They moved down to the plains. First they built villages, then cities. At first everything went well. But as the cities grew, people drifted apart, became preoccupied with providing for each other, clinging to their possessions. Sharing diminished, and that feeling called evil took root in the hearts…” thus began my mother’s story.

Dilan 1. On carpet, mixed media on carpet. Lucca, Italy. Prometeo Gallery. (photo by Ludovica Mangini)

Dilan 2. On carpet, mixed media on carpet. Lucca, Italy. Prometeo Gallery. (photo by Ludovica Mangini)

Dilan 3. On carpet, mixed media on carpet. Lucca, Italy. Prometeo Gallery. (photo by Ludovica Mangini)

Dilan 1, 2, 3

Dances, wedding feasts, funerals -for oppressed people fighting against persecution, these are precious opportunities for research, allowing for a better understanding.

The Kurdish people to which I belong, constitute a vital topic in my eyes.

On our lands, weddings and funerals resemble one another. We sing at the head of the tombs, if the one who died was young, we dance with platters filled with henna we have prepared, as we do for weddings and feasts. The songs themselves are sung in a joyful and amused way during the gatherings, although most of them speak of death and suffering. We are a people who can dance even on such painful words.

In the towns as well as in the mountains, we dance, arm in arm, holding hands, in the same step, on the same rhythm. These dances are not done alone or by independent couples. We hold one another’s arm and we dance, moving in the same direction. If one person gets a step wrong, this mistake influences the rhythm of the entire group. So, the group drops the rhythm it was following, picks up the one of whoever made a mistake, and attempts to recover the initial harmony.

On our lands, these dances occur collectively. Arm in arm, we dance holding one another up. These dances are probably the best description of the social reflexes and the philosophy of a people that has been subjected to war for years. Being alone in this war meant dying. This is why we hold on so tightly to one another. We live our pain, same as our dances, by embracing and touching.

Hatıra (Souvenir). On carpet, mixed media on carpet. Lucca, Italy. Prometeo Gallery. (photo by Ludovica Mangini)

Hatıra (Souvenir)

These women had gathered in the foothills of the Zagros mountains…And women gathered again, thousands of years later, in the Zagros mountains where a world without gender had sprouted, taken hold, this cradle of the gardens of Eden.

Now, thousands of Kurdish women, in the women’s battalions (PAJK) fight against the world of men. There is a ritual with the women in the guerilla: when sections come across each other, they assemble, they sing and talk, and each one must share her memories with the others…And just before leaving each other, they take photos. This is a bit as a preparation for the consolation a photo might provide, should they never see one another again.

Gavan (Cowhand). On carpet, mixed media on carpet. Lucca, Italy. Prometeo Gallery. (photo by Ludovica Mangini)

Gavan (Cowhand)

Years after leaving our village, we came back to live there as a family. We had a field and a vine, silence, no electric power, nor water. This is where we built our one-room house. Right next to it, we set up our stable. My parents bought 30 calves. We were responsible for watching over them, my brother and I; he was 19 years old, two years older than I and ever since I was small, I had never managed to get along with him. We took the animals to pasture in the surrounding valleys and mountains. And we often argued. We even fought at times, right in the middle of the fields. He would tell me “you’re a stubborn she-goat.” I refused to follow his every order. I couldn’t stand taking order from him. But since he was older than I was, my parents had named him as “chief sheperd”. I was only his assistant. At any rate, I didn’t like being under his orders at all. While we fought and argued, our cattle would scatter, each cow fleeing to a different village in the surroundings. So, until night fall, we went searching for them from village to village, while trying to keep the rest of the cattle under control. At home, we would fall into bed, exhausted, with not a shred of energy left.

Our father and our mother, realizing things could not go on this way, seaparated us. We went to watch the cattle alone. My brother was no longer in charge of me. We took out the cattle in turn, he on one day, and I on the next.

My mother’s rifle hanging off my shoulder was taller than I was, and heavier than I was too, but I could watch the cows by myself, making my own decisions, and this made me very happy in the end.

Havîn – (Summer). On carpet, mixed media on carpet. Lucca, Italy. Prometeo Gallery. (photo by Ludovica Mangini)

Havîn – (Summer)

In Turkey, each man must devote two years of his life to military service in the Turkish army. My eldest brother, who is 8 years older than I, went mad when he heard that one of his friends had been killed, simply because he was a Kurd, and that his death had been labelled a “suicide”.

My brother wasn’t the same anymore. He no longer spoke to us, and he held conversations with other worlds. He had become crazy.

Who among us is totally sane? On these lands where, every day, people are tortured, killed for being Kurdish, holding on to your sanity is truly a luxury…

My brother’s wife, went on loving him despite everything. They have three children. The eldest is named Havîn. I am the one who gave her this name. In Kurdish, Havîn means summer.

For me, summer is the season that best describes Mesopotamia, Kurdistan. The endless golden fields under a burning sun, a proud people, brown skin, deep eyes. Havin is like that also.

In a village resting on an immense valley in Mesopotamia, a girl with black hair, with deep eyes. Havîn doesn’t talk much, but her looks speak louder than words.

Mêrdin (Mardin). On carpet, mixed media on carpet. Lucca, Italy. Prometeo Gallery. (photo by Filippo Ferrarese, OKNO Studio.)

Mêrdin (Mardin)

Stories lurk on each of the historical streets that criss-cross Mardin like a labyrinth, my town with the ochre atmosphere. Armenians, Arabs, Syriacs, Chaldeans, Mahallamis, Kurds, in this town we have all lived together for centuries. At times, the history of the powerful led us to killing one another. The Syriac genocide in 1914-1920, the Armenian genocide that began in 1915, then the policies of genocide and assimilation targeting the Kurdish people…By itself, Mardin is like a prototype of Kurdistan. Centuries-old peoples, each with their own painful history, holding on to a profound dignity, without ever giving it up.

In this town, at every turn, you come across black-eyed women with deep eyes. Their eyes say everything. Women who go on living without forgetting their bitter History, who move on, not with sickly hatred in their heart, but attempting to surmount everything, by deeply inhaling the air of the alleyways.

Nerinên bi neqş (Embroidered gaze). On carpet, mixed media on carpet. Lucca, Italy. Prometeo Gallery. (photo by Ludovica Mangini)

Nerinên bi neqş (Embroidered gaze)

The patterns that adorn the carpets carry within them peoples’ memory. On Kurdish lands also, carpets are an important means of expression.

The women get together and, while singing, they tell their stories on their looms, thread after thread, with their fingertips…

Şemal. On canvas, mixed media on carpet. Lucca, Italy. Prometeo Gallery. Private collection. (photo by Ludovica Mangini)


When they threw her in prison, she had two little ones with her. Her eldest daughter was two years old, and the little one was only a baby of a few months. Şemal was a proud woman. And she managed to spread her wings over her children, even in prison.

When the lights were extinguished and so the little ones would not be afraid of the dark, she carried them away to other places through the tales she invented. She was constantly inventing new games. In impossible prison conditions, she made toys with whatever she could find in the garbage.

Since the prison meals were planned for adults, her children started to suffer. She had to send her two-year old daughter out to her father on the outside. The smaller one, still breastfeeding, stayed with Şemal. After two years, when she had grown, she started to eat. She also fell ill. Şemal  had to let her go to her father also.

The minute the little one crossed the prison gate, she started howling from grief. She wanted to go back to her mother. The only night she spent on the outside must have seemed like an eternity to her. She cried until dawn. This baby knew nothing of the outside world, of the real world. She had never seen trees, nor parks, streets, cars, not even the full glare of the sun. She was a stranger to this outside world and all she wanted was to go back to her mother.

The following day, the great iron doors of the gaol opened again and her baby was handed back into Şemal’s arms.

Sara Kaya. On canvas, mixed media on carpet, 90×68 cm. Lucca, Italy. Prometeo Gallery. (photo by Ludovica Mangini)

Sara Kaya

The bombings were ceaseless. Power had been shut off. Several people had left the town. In this dark and deserted town, youth resisted behind their barricades and, facing them, the Turkish police and army, the State, made war on them with giant armored tanks, mortars, phosphorus bombs, barrel bombs, fighter planes…

A year went by and the war went on. The street where voices used to ring out from the windows of the houses, were now empty. Those who had stayed in the town were exhausted, others had died, some had been imprisoned… Most of the survivors left the town, wounded but their dignity intact. A few groups chose to stay, we were among them. The town turned into hell. Heavy bombings. Endless bombings. For a year already, the shattering of bombs had been ringing in our ears.

Black-haired Sara. With the flaming eyes, Sara… She was co-mayor of the town. Neither she nor co-mayor Cengiz Kök left those who had chosen to stay. They wanted to be with them, to face this process together. She had a place in every heart in this town. She would stop at each of the barricades, at every street corner, to lift the morale of the young ones, of the mothers, of the children. She was constantly opening talks with Parliament in order to end this war. She kept journalists informed on the war…

But despite all of this, no one heard our voice. More than one hundred thousand homes were destroyed through air strikes. Hundreds of young people, scores of old people and of children lost their life. And we, the remaining ones, were arrested.

Between 2015 and 2016, in the section of Kurdistan still inside Turkey, against the heavy attacks of the Turkish State, the Kurdish people’s struggle for self-government continued. In Nusaybin, one of the towns where the war was very intense, I witnessed the resistance of my friend Sara Kaya. We were together. Because of her persistence, she has been in prison since 2016. She was inflicted a life sentence to be served in full, the sentence that replaced the death penalty when it was abolished.

Sara is currently incarcerated in the prison of Tarsus. If you could write her letters of support, she would be very happy to receive them…

Sara Kaya
Tarsus Kadın Kapalı CİK
Alifakı Mahallesi Alifakı sokak

Bi Zor 1. 2021, tea, coffee, turmeric, cigarette ash, pencil, felt pen on fabric 155100 cm.

Bi Zor 2. 2021, tea, coffee, turmeric, cigarette ash, pencil, felt pen on fabric 155×130 cm.

Bi Zor 3. 2021, tea, coffee, turmeric, cigarette ash, pencil, felt pen on fabric 130×100 cm.

Bi Zor 4. 2021, tea, coffee, turmeric, cigarette ash, pencil, felt pen on fabric 152×100 cm.

An angel descends on Babel. 2021, menstrual blood, coffee, ballpoint pen on fabric 153×148 cm.

An angel descends on Babel. 2021, menstrual blood, pomegranate peel, organic paint, ballpoint pen, on fabric 155×128 cm.

An angel descends on Babel. 2021, pomegranate peel juice, beet, menstrual blood, coffee, urine, ballpoint and felt pen, acrylic on fabric 238x154cm

An angel descends on Babel. 2021, pomegranate peel juice, beet, menstrual blood, coffee, urine, ballpoint and felt pen, acrylic on fabric 155×103 cm

Newspaper archives

Newspaper absorbs colors and the printed materials tell old and true stories. The Kurdish press has always served as the archive of a painful history. And today, everyone can read in the pile of old newspapers about sufferings, more rarely about joyful moments.

I am also a journalist. If I have often used newspaper out of necessity, I also do so by choosing archival reproductions. That of the Kurdish press – almost devoid of images – on which I deposit my own images on their words.

These words also tell the story of Prison N° 5 where I was detained. They tell of the horror of its recent past, combined with my own impressions.

A press archive, like a palette, a notebook of drawings.

Newspaper archives N°1. 2021, mixed media on fabric, 174×155 cm.

Newspaper archives N°2. 2021, mixed media on fabric 146×100 cm.

Newspaper archives N°3. 2021, mixed media on canvas 160×143 cm.

Newspaper archives N°4. 2021, mixed media on fabric 63×45.50 cm.

Newspaper archives N°6. 2021, mixed media on fabric 154×97 cm.

Newspaper archives N°7. 2021, mixed media on fabric 159×155 cm.

Prison N°5

When Zehra began this graphic account in 2017, she was in prison, deprived of all art supplies, of all paper products allowing her to envisage realizing such a book project. As with all the other creations she undertook in a clandestine manner in a gaol environment, she took advantage of everything she could get hold of in Diyarbakir’s prison N° 5

108 original pages under plexiglass and 12 large panels, mixed media on wood.

More information: Prison n°5 – Installation

English Translation by Lucie Bourges