Artist Ting Zhang comes from Dalian in China. He studied painting in China and Japan as well as at the Academy of Fine Arts (HFBK) in Hamburg. His paintings of big-eyed guerrilla fighters immediately cast a spell over you. They show calm, determination, strength and community.

Ting lives only a stone’s throw away from me, but we never met. Now he exhibits his paintings in the “Galerie Gemüse”, a vegetable shop in St. Pauli with regional organic products. The gallery is a place where the neighborhood comes together. And now we too. It touches him a lot when I show him photos from the Kurdish mountains.

“I came to Hamburg with an art scholarship. In the German course people asked each other where they came from. ‘I am Ting from China’, I said, others said, ‘I am from Syria, but actually I am Kurd’ or ‘I am from Turkey, but actually I am Kurd’. When I asked Turkish classmates, they said, ‘These are terrorists’. This conflict interested me, including the topic of identity. Sometimes I, too, ask myself who I am. The women in the picture do not carry weapons, but uniforms. The police also wear uniforms. Who decides who of them are terrorists? With my paintings I would like to ask questions. What are they fighting for? Why do they wear uniforms? They are more symbolic of conflicts in general. I’m interested in the contradiction.”

Regarding his trip to Kurdistan he says: “My German was too bad, I ordered books in Japan about the Kurds. In 2012 I traveled to Turkey. 15 days I traveled alone there. I was in Bitlis, Diyarbakir, Batman, Van and Urfa. I did not need a hotel, I was invited by the people everywhere. I was even at a circumcision feast, the people were very friendly to me.”

He did not meet guerrillas, the pictures were taken from photo searches. In 2013 the paintings were already exhibited in the HFBK. “I also met many Kurds in Berlin, for example in kebab shops. In their apartments hang the pictures of Öcalan, but in their shops you cannot know that they are Kurds.”

“Since I came to Germany with an art scholarship, I am only allowed to work as an artist here. I once had a job in a kitchen, so I could pay my rent and make a living. But that was forbidden to me by the authorities. I’m only allowed to live from my art, so I’m doing everything I want now. I even portray your cat.

I really like the Kurdish images, it would be hard for me to separate from them, but as I said, I have to live from art, so I would sell them.”

Ting Zhang’s paintings can still be seen in the Langen Reihe 3 in Hamburg’s St. Pauli district until June 16.