In a move timed to coincide with the first anniversary of her imprisonment, Banksy has returned to New York after a five-year hiatus to paint a mural in honor of political prisoner Zehra Doğan, a Kurdish painter and journalist sentenced to almost three years for painting a watercolor of Nasyabin, a city in Turkish Kurdistan reduced to rubble by Turkish Army forces while fighting Kurdish rebels – an image, perversely, based on a photograph the Army itself had circulated. Both the photo and painting show demolished buildings above which newly, bitterly mounted Turkish flags defiantly fly.
Banksy partnered with street artist Borf to create the mural on the now-curated, 70-foot long Bowery Wall on the Lower East Side. It shows four long rows of vertical tallies amidst which Doğan’s face looks out from what become prison bars and a sharpened pencil, presumably both for the power of the press and the newspaper Doğan runs in prison with other women. It is called Özgür Gündem Zindan – roughly translated, Free Agenda Dungeon. Below the image, Banksy has inscribed, “FREE ZEHRA DOGAN.” At night, he projects Doğan’s painting above the mural. “Sentenced to nearly 3 years in jail for painting a single picture,” he wrote on Instagram. “Protest against this injustice by (sharing) her painting, and tagging Turkey’s President Erdoğan.”
A couple of other Banksy works have also popped up in the city – a large stenciled rat on a clock hanging from a former bank downtown, and a businessman whipping a group of fleeing people with a stock-market graph in Brooklyn. They’ve all been quickly vandalized or removed, but Banksy is focused enough on the Doğan mural, and the injustice it portrays, to have returned to clean it up. “I really feel for her,” he told the New York Times of her harsh sentence oftwo years, nine months and 22 days. “I’ve painted things much more worthy of a custodial sentence.”
Rights advocates, including PEN America, likewise condemn Doğan’s imprisonment by the increasingly repressive Erdoğan regime. Doğan was the editor of JINHA, a feminist news agency publishing news in Kurdish by an all-female staff, when she was detained during a wave of arrests after a failed coup in July 2016; in its aftermath, over 180 news outlets have been shut down. Doğan was charged after sharing her painting on social media; Turkish prosecutors also accused her of working with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is waging an insurgency against Erdoğan. In response, Doğan argued she was simply doing her job as a journalist. After her sentencing last March 24, 2017, Doğan remained unyielding. “They (the Turkish government) caused this,” she tweeted. “I only painted it.”