Art and Culture

Art of darkness How Fevzi Yazici’s arrest and confinement have transformed his work

Arrest Socrates “This picture says that thoughts cannot be imprisoned. Because, if you try to imprison thoughts, the ideas turn from light to a prism and begin to shine.” — Fevzi Yazici on the above piece, created in his prison cell in December 2018.


Fevzi Yazici missed the opening night of his first professional art exhibit. While other artists were proudly standing beside their work and posing for photographs at a gallery at St. John’s University in Queens, Yazici was 5,000 miles away in a prison cell in Turkey.

Yazici was arrested in 2016 and is one of 47 Turkish journalists in jail, according to a 2019 Committee to Protect Journalists report.

For nearly 15 years, Yazici had been the design director of Turkey’s Zaman newspaper. His arrest on a number of charges was part of a crackdown on the Turkish media by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government that intensified nearly four years ago. Across the country, newspapers have been shuttered and some journalists have fled the country rather than risk imprisonment. The crackdown landed Yazici, now 48, in Silivri’s Prison No. 9 on an original sentence of life behind bars. Though that sentence has been reduced, he has spent more than 800 days in solitary confinement.

LEFT: Yazici attended Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University and passed the time during many newspaper meetings drawing and sketching. These are some of his sketches from his time at Zaman. RIGHT: EGG: “I really like the structure of the dome. The structure on top is the same structure of an umbrella. The easiest way to feel the sky in a closed area is to take refuge in a domed structure.” — Yazici, who created this piece in November 2009, before his arrest

Yazici was born in Trabzon, a city on the Black Sea, and went to school near Istanbul. He began sketching at a young age, drawing in the blank pages of his siblings’ notebooks. He studied at Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University and graduated in 1997 with a focus on graphic design. Though he moved from drawing to journalism, his art was never far away; the New York exhibit included a group of sketches and drawings from his time at Zaman — made on napkins and the back covers of notebooks.

Design directors typically give newspapers and magazines their core aesthetic, a guiding look to help meld news, images and other information in a way that invites audiences to read. Yazici’s staff at Zaman was often recognized for its trend-setting design work — the newspaper earned more than 100 awards during his tenure. He also was the co-host of an annual conference in Istanbul that brought in speakers from across the world to teach design to students and professionals.

The King

“This work was the result of a dance performed by my paper and pen with a free technique. He’s a pessimist and a dark king. Although it does not belong to this world physically, there are some aspects of our world. I think the kings are lonely in every realm.” — Yazici, who created this piece in his prison cell in February, 2018

I first met him in 2015, when he was judging the Society for News Design’s competition for the world’s best-designed newspaper. I played host to Yazici in Washington later that year and then got to see firsthand his impact at Zaman, when I attended what would be his last conference in Istanbul. During my tour of the newsroom, the staff showed me the video cameras set up throughout the lobby to capture any potential government takeover.

In March 2016, those cameras captured footage of police raiding the office. Zaman was placed in government control and later closed, in part because it was believed to be aligned with Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who lives in the United States and is an outspoken critic of Erdogan.

Inspiration X

“I have allowed myself to be captured; I’ve been drawing nonstop. I am obsessed with the drawing ‘Inspired X’, I am on fire. The very fine, too fine, ballpoint pen is ruining me. A drawing that should take two-three days to complete is in its second week, still incomplete. Everywhere hurts; it’s all I think about. This is a story about a prison. I will talk about it sometime later.” — Yazici, who created this piece in his prison cell in 2019

After Zaman, Yazici worked briefly as a columnist for a different newspaper, writing about art and design. But the failed coup in mid-July 2016 escalated the perils for all Turkish journalists. “I cannot recognize my country,” he told me during the coup. “They are closing down TV channels and silencing the nation. This cannot be real.”

He was arrested on July 27, 2016.

Yazici was put on trial alongside other journalists accused of having ties to Gulen and attempting to “eliminate the government of Turkey.” One of the accusations against Yazici was his attendance at a meeting about a television commercial that featured a smiling baby. The government alleged that the ad included a hidden message signaling the timing of the attempted coup some nine months later. Throughout, Yazici maintained that he was innocent of all charges.

Cell and the Fetus

“The pen is a ballpoint pen and unfortunately, it doesn’t provide many opportunities for an artist. Especially one of the most limiting pens that I have come across. I couldn’t even make any fluid shapes with this pen. Being hopeless, the only way out of this unfortunate circumstance was to use dotting technique. … Connecting the tip of the pen to the paper resulted in the Cell and Fetus creation.” — Yazici, who created this piece in his prison cell in March 2019

When the trial ended in February 2018, all six defendants were found guilty. The United Nations denounced the convictions in a statement: “The court decision condemning journalists to life in prison for their work, without presenting substantial proof of their involvement in the coup attempt or ensuring a fair trial, critically threatens journalism and with it the remnants of freedom of expression and media freedom in Turkey.”

Yazici’s art before his arrest was lighter and futuristic — full of dreamlike scenes and amorphous unworldly figures. “Fevzi’s work has almost always had a surrealist bent. His earlier works exude the imaginative, shape-shifting worlds of [M.C.] Escher or [Salvador] Dali,” said Owen Duffy, director of the Yeh Art Gallery at St. John’s, which hosted Yazici’s exhibit.

The Paradise Bird

“Suffering pain changes a person from time to time. It changes your mind, your ideas, and even your soul. Maybe even the human anatomy can change as we pray. Like me as well as others, I resemble the bird in this picture to those who come and visit us every week, especially my wife.” — Yazici, who created this piece in his prison cell in April 2018

Since his arrest, his work has intensified and turned darker. His cell gets very little light during the day, making it difficult to work on his art. He has only a basic ballpoint pen and letter-size sheets of paper. He resorts to a meticulous dotting technique that sometimes can take up to a month to complete for a single piece. “Arrest Socrates” captures the plight of Yazici and his fellow imprisoned journalists. I’m struck by the attention to detail in “Cell and the Fetus” — a painstaking style that comes with knowing there is no deadline.

This fall, Yazici’s sentence was reduced to less than 12 years for the crime of membership in a terrorist organization. His wife, Firdevs, and two sons were allowed to visit once a week before the coronavirus outbreak, but she more recently reports that she hasn’t seen Yazici in a month and all visits are forbidden. I am told his spirits remain strong, and he has appealed his case to Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals.

“I am an artist, as innocent as the pictures that I draw,” Yazici said in a letter read on the opening of the exhibition. “I am a journalist, as free as my thoughts. But I know that I am not going to be the first or the last innocent man in prison.”

Fevzi Yazici celebrates one of his sons’ birthdays during a visit to Silivri Prison last year. With outside food prohibited, they celebrated with an improvised dessert of pretzels placed in a chocolate to mimic a birthday cake and candles.

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