Why Did the US Deny Kurdish Artist Zehra Doğan’s Visa? She Doesn’t Know—and She’s Not the Only One Affected

"They made me feel like a criminal," the artist said of the visa application process.

Zehra Doğan. Courtesy of Voice Project.

The Kurdish artist and journalist Zehra Doğan, who was imprisoned for nearly three years for making art that offended the Turkish government, was denied entry to the US last month when she attempted to attend the opening of a show at the Drawing Center that includes her work.

The exhibition, “The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists,” features the work of incarcerated artists, including political prisoners and concentration camp detainees. Doğan was accused of being part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey considers a terrorist group, after she painted a photo of a Kurdish area that had been destroyed by Turkish security forces.

Doğan believes her time behind bars was a factor in the US’s decision to deny her visa application, she told Artnet News.

During her application interview, she was asked about her conviction and imprisonment. “They did not speak with me at the counters where they usually speak with other people, but took me to [a] special room where they take criminals. They kept asking questions just like the police that [were] questioning me under custody. This situation continued for hours,” she said in an email, translated from Turkish to English. “It made me feel guilty, like I was a criminal.”

Left, the photograph of Nusaybin, Turkey after military forces destroyed it. Right, Zehra Dogan's painting from 2016.

Left, the photograph of Nusaybin, Turkey, after military forces destroyed it. Right, Zehra Dogan’s painting from 2016.

Doğan’s imprisonment was widely publicized, in part thanks to the British street artist Banksy, who painted a mural in tribute to her on New York’s Houston Bowery Wall. Afterward, she wrote a letter thanking him, saying that his support helped raised awareness of her work, and that “my painting now accomplished its mission of showing the atrocities.”

Doğan’s inability to attend the Drawing Center show was “a significant loss,” Rosario Güiraldes, one of the exhibition’s curators, told Artnet News in an email. “Her work is central to the exhibition, and demonstrates the ways in which drawing can be such a powerful tool for those who are surviving imprisonment or struggling against it.”

Both the Drawing Center and PEN America, the nonprofit that defends international freedom of speech in literature, had written letters in support of Doğan’s visa application, and were ready to help the artist appeal the verdict. But the artist told them not to.

An artwork by Banksy in New York drawing attention to the imprisonment of Zehra Dogan, a Kurdish painter from Turkey. Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images.

An work by Banksy in New York drawing attention to the imprisonment of Zehra Doğan, a Kurdish painter from Turkey. Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images.

“I personally don’t want to go to the US anymore,” Doğan said. The application process demanded a 15-year history, including all of her social media use, travels, residences, and employment, she said. “This is a terrible approach. This doesn’t serve anything but to diminish the US in the eyes of the artists and intellectuals,” she added, noting that she had planned other events in Washington, DC, and Los Angeles.

Doğan is the latest of several artists who have been denied entry into the US recently. A group of Middle Eastern artists were also prevented from attending the opening of a MoMA PS1 exhibition in Queens about art made during the Gulf Wars, due in part to President Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban.

Turkey is not one of the countries targeted in the ban, however, and the authorities did not offer a reason for denying Doğan’s visa. It seems to be just one of “a number of instances in which artists and scholars either of Kurdish identity or working on Kurdish issues have had their visa applications denied in recent months,” said Julie Trébault, director of PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection program, in an email to Artnet News.

Installation view, "The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists" at the Drawing Center, New York. Photo: Martin Parsekian.

Works by Zehra Doğan at the Drawing Center, New York. Photo: Martin Parsekian.

Doğan also suspects that her ethnicity was the problem. “They simply did not want to issue a visa to me because I am a Kurd and a struggling woman,” she said.

“The rejection of [Doğan’s] visa risks sending a message that the US is being selective in welcoming dissident artists,” said Trébault. “But there can be no mistake that international exchange between artists and creative thinkers of all backgrounds is and must remain a fundamental part of the American cultural fabric.”

“The Pencil Is a Key: Drawings by Incarcerated Artists” is on view at the Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, New York, October 11, 2019–January 5, 2020.

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