Human rights activists and human rights abusers alike have, for a long time now, understood the role art and creative expression play in voicing issues others would rather keep quiet. That is why artists all over the world put themselves in incredible danger in the name of the messages they espouse. Extreme Reactions to Creative Expression was a panel held on Saturday 19 May as part of the Melbourne Human Rights Arts and Film Festival (HRAFF). In it, three artists from different corners of the globe discussed the challenges they face due to their message, their gender or their ethnicity; and how they have found ways to overcome them.
The artists discussed censorship and different forms it can take.
Ajak Kwai came to Australia as a refugee from Sudan in 1998. An award-winning singer with an amazing voice, she remembers how in Sudan – as a woman – it would be considered taboo for her to sing in public, especially at night.
Also on the panel was Jeff Daniels, who made international headlines when the Chinese government attempted to prevent his film – The 10 Conditions of Love (2009) – from being shown at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). As an Australian accustomed to freedom of expression, he was shocked at the level of resistance he encountered attempting to make a film about China’s oppressed Muslim minority.
Khadim Ali – a painter who has lived in Pakistan and Afghanistan – joined Kwai and Daniels on the panel. He makes works exploring the violence in both these countries. As a member of the persecuted Hazara community, he has felt the physical threat to his life because of his art.
For many in the audience it was surprising to hear that even in Australia artists face a subtle form of censorship.
The artists discussed censorship and different forms it can take. Ali believes that the worst types of censorship are the silent ones. In Pakistan, he reminded us, 700 Hazaras have been violently targeted – and not one of the terrorist groups responsible has been taken down by national security. In these circumstances the censorship does not come from a set of laws, but through the knowledge that state authorities could not protect you if you were attacked.
In Sudan, women like Kwai could not perform unless covered from head to toe – even then they were not allowed to move on stage and would bring shame on their family if they performed at night. For Kwai, being forbidden to perform her art amounted to the destruction of what she loved.
For many in the audience it was surprising to hear that even in Australia artists face a subtle form of censorship. When Daniels was searching for funding to create his film he received little support, as broadcasters understood it would ultimately lead to confrontation with the Chinese government. Even after the huge display of public support the film received, the ABC cancelled its planned airing of the film. The ABC buys the most documentaries in Australia – filmmakers like Daniels put their careers at risk if they choose to challenge national broadcaster.
If art were not powerful, nobody would try to silence it.
In the face of this struggle, these artists have not given up. When asked what artists can do to combat censorship, Ali pointed out that simply by making his art he is having his perspective heard. Even if his art is ultimately destroyed, someone has to first understand his position to feel threatened or angered enough to act against it.
For Kwai, writing songs about love in a country torn apart by violence and hatred is an act not so much of defiance, but of healing. Finally, Daniels pointed out that it was only because of the support of the public and organisations like MIFF – who decided to show his film despite being placed under intense pressure not to – that his message and the plight of the Uyghur people was able to break through attempts to hide it.
If art were not powerful, nobody would try to silence it. All three artists use different media techniques and are from different parts of the world. What unites them is the belief that, through giving their chosen issues a creative voice, they create a better future. That is why it is important that we as a public support them, listen to them and keep their important conversations happening.
Extreme Reactions to Creative Expression was held at Melbourne’s ACMI Cinemas on Saturday 19 May 2012 as part of the Melbourne HRAFF program.
For more on our coverage of the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, click here.
To visit the HRAFF website, click here.