Page last updated at 08:51 GMT, Thursday, 4 December 2008

'Politics defines our lives'

Kurdish artist Haider Akbaga was in prison for 12 years in Turkey, accused of being a member of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Now in the UK, he describes his time behind bars and how he was forced to get creative to continue his artwork.


Haider Akbaga
Haider Akbaga finds it difficult to settle to life outside prison
I was a student at the university studying art but I also attended demonstrations and protests. I was politically aware and attended activities on the Kurdish issue.

In Istanbul I attended a large demonstration about some village massacres in the Kurdish regions. At that demonstration I was detained and charged with being a member of the PKK.

I'm a sympathiser but I'm not a member. I was tortured and then I was given a 15-year jail sentence of which I served 12. As soon as I was released I tried to work with various cultural associations but the authorities kept following me, detaining me, interrogating me.

After that I came here to the UK. I didn't want to leave but it felt like I had to make a decision between living and not living.

Art in prison

I had to stay in my own cell. You have no rights, scarce food and how they treated you was arbitrary.

When I first came out of prison, I couldn't even cross the street properly - I kept tripping over
I've always been drawing, painting since I was a kid. I did fine arts at school. In prison, I didn't get paint so I was forced to get creative. I mixed oil with medicine tablets, syrups, earth, lemon, and parsley to make paint. The guards would become suspicious and search my room for paint. But of course they couldn't find it.

I'd paint on anything and everything. Sometimes we'd get a case wrapped in paper or newspaper. I used tiling works, cardboard, sometimes I'd make templates out of dough and sugar. I got really professional at certain things.

They wouldn't give us chessboards. So once using the dough inside bread we'd mix up dust from the fan and create chessboards and chess pieces.

That chess set was a matter of discussion for police guards for a month. They'd argue over who let the chess set in. We'd say: "No, you guys gave it to us."

I used to think about stuff I left half-done in my life outside. I thought about everything I used to own, about human values.

There was a pigeon that used to fly around the prison. We put some bulgur wheat in by the fan. He came down to eat it. As time went by he started to know at what times to come. He became very domesticated but the guards caged the bird and took it away.

It was a symbol of freedom and peace. We would talk to it and tease: "Why are you here? You are free, we are trapped."

Art and politics

When I first came out of prison, I couldn't even cross the street properly - I kept tripping over. Even the way people swore had changed.

I had not been aware of the outside world and that made it much more difficult coming here. If things were changed in Turkey right now, there'd be no reason for me to stay here.

I know life isn't just about politics. So now I paint a lot of different things. But politics defines our lives and it can be almost anything. If I want to be an artist in the true sense, I must think of all these things.

I've done pieces about love but the main thread is and has to be politics.


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