Five challenges to artistic freedom

© UNESCO

Violations of international human rights conventions

To some it was good news when the universal right to freedom of expression, including creative and artistic expression, was reaffirmed in a joint statement by 57 states at the Human Rights Council Session 30 on 18 September 2015. In reality it was really bad news that less than a third of all UN member states were supportive. All UN Member State should respect international human rights conventions and the rule of law. Speaking on behalf of the original 53 States joining the statement (some of which actually do violate those rights), the Ambassador of Latvia, Jānis Kārkliņš, told the Council:

“In addition to being an integral part of the protected human right to freedom of expression, artistic and creative expression is critical to the human spirit, the development of vibrant cultures, and the functioning of democratic societies. Artistic expression connects us all, transcending borders and barriers. Artistic expression can challenge us and change the way we view the world.”

The major challenge is to convince all States to respect international conventions.

Repression by non-state actors

Even if all Member States of the UN did respect the right to artistic freedom, unfortunately huge regions of the world are controlled and suppressed by non-state actors such as Daesh/IS, Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram.

Their attitude toward artistic expressions is that of total control, total condemnation and total repression to any expression that they dislike. This poses a major threat to artistic freedom and the right for citizens to access artistic expressions.

Nationalism and religious orthodoxy

Nationalism and religious orthodoxy is spreading in many parts of the world – in the North as well as in the South, East and West. Controlling the minds and expressions of people is based on fear, and the tool of control is spreading more fear, leading to self-censorship, and to stereotyping of ‘the other’ whether these ‘others’ are cultural, religious, sexual or social minorities.

Behind messages such as ‘protecting our culture and nation’ and ‘protecting our moral values’, lies the fear of diversity of expressions, opinions and creativity. Has the world not learned anything from Hitler’s ‘Entartete (degenerate) art’ campaigns?

Lack of solidarity

Journalists all over the world support their colleagues through national, regional and international networks. Freedom of expression is built into the “DNA” of most journalists. That DNA does not come naturally to artists and artists’ organizations. Very few national artist’s organizations, international umbrella organizations and members of the well-endowed culture industry address artistic freedom violations. Even fewer support their colleagues – PEN International who support authors being the large exception as many members of PEN are creative writers. The documentation of violations and advocacy for artistic freedom is predominately made by human rights and freedom of expression organizations such as Freemuse.

Insufficient monitoring

Artistic freedom violations are underreported in many countries due to fear, self-censorship and repression. Attracting funding to support documentation is almost impossible, with some exceptions such as from the Government of Sweden. Donors tend to support media and internet freedom, and the small number of people dedicated to documenting violations of artistic freedom and advocating for it can easily be counted. This is a huge challenge

http://artsfreedom.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Freemuse-Annual-Statistics-Art-Under-Threat-2015.pdf

 

WAR • ROOM • ECHO – Regarding the Pain of Other Cyborgs_Performance excerpt, Pispala, Tampere, Finland

This reading from the book took place at The Memorial of the Red Guards, who died during the Finnish Civil War in Pispala, Tampere. The inscription in the stone says, ‘On this Pispala ridge, the Red Guard in Tampere last stood with weopans in hand defending their cause in 1918’.

The project is ongoing and a copy of the book in its current state is donated to the Pispala Library on the occasion of the exhibition, ‘Where does poetry nest?’, on 6th September, 2016 in memory of the over 5000 year old Civil War that the world, it seems, has not seen enough of.

Ali Akbar Mehta

  Missä runous pesii? | Where does poetry nest?
                  08­28.09.2016
Poetry—an everlasting inquiry of art, drives language outside its
borders. Poetry sets into play every possible moment of
signification by placing the exercise of imagination at the center
of all contradictions. Poetry as an aesthetic praxis outlines our
possibilities to challenge the everyday, locating potential
transformation at the centre of our political enunciations. Poetry
contradicts and slips between the cracks of meaning, propagating
evidence that something else is there. In its intimacy, it draws
complex figures from our emotions, just to blur them into new and
old unreachable impossibles, to keep us moving, desiring.

If we listen to poetry carefully, we realise that it is something social. Its sociality is voiced as a constant transgression to the de politicised forms of enunciation; these poetic echoes keep on challenging every space of retreat. Poetry captures tautology and pushes it to the edges. Since there is no purity in poetry, it confronts general assumptions with a subtle whistle that triggers a dance of our subjectivities, nude and broken out in sweat. There is nothing too radical for poetry; even if something has already been said before, it can always be said differently.

Poetry is looking back at us from the other end laughing,
flirting, fugitive.

Poetry grounds utopia not as something reachable, but as a practice for keeping the unreachable present. Inhabiting between sentences, it bears testimony that other histories have always been present, through gluing their words together. Within it, art becomes our interlocutor for these other histories, always rebelling, always demanding justice and dignity, driven by the air which feeds change. Another history which finds in every wall not a border, but a place for public denouncement and mobilisation.

Where does poetry nest? It is not a question asking for an answer,
but a question mark waiting to be followed.
D.M.
[*] The Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros recalled this question during his
time in Lecumberri prison: “Where does poetry nest? I can’t say how long ago this
question emerged within me. But it reemerged when I listened to Macario Huízar. And
the first time I followed it through to interrogation was in prison among a group
of dopers.”

Not on Noah’s Ark, but on the Raft of the Medusa:

Recent Works by Ali Akbar Mehta

 

Normality is the somewhat misleading name that many of us give to the present. It is often the only means of remaining sane while enduring the abrupt horrors and dehumanising provocations that surround us. The artist, however, is not obliged either to neutralise himself to these horrors and provocations; nor is he afraid of exploring the regimes of consciousness that lie beneath the sanctioned threshold of sanity.

And so the jesters, harlequins, cerecloth-swaddled zombies and explosion- flayed refugees who populate Ali Akbar Mehta’s paintings and digital works are not strangers. Not at all, for we know them intimately well, these figures who dominate the 1983-born Mehta’s first solo exhibition: they are ourselves an hour from now, a decade from now, in the near future, or at any moment. Allegories of the present, veiled thinly as a post apocalyptic future, Mehta’s works alternate, tonally, between melancholia and the ludic, between Lent and Carnival. They emerge from a long tradition of critique-through-image that turns our conventions of time, space, gravity and propriety topsy-turvy: a tradition that counts, among its major exponents, Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel.

On the testimony of these works, produced between 2006 and 2011, Mehta is an explorer charting a demon-haunted world that balances precariously between compassion and oppression, instability and militarisation; the mushroom cloud of nuclear annihilation is always billowing on its horizon.

*

Mehta is a member of what has been called the generation of ‘digital natives’, who grew up with personal computers, wireless telephony, and electronic retrieval systems of every size and scale. The translation of substance into immaterial form is a basic parameter of the lifeworld he inhabits; with it comes the understanding that data flows rather than being confined, and that images and episodes too are part of ongoing, vast narratives rather than remaining in guarded pools.

Having been exposed to animation as a creative form in his parents’ animation studio, Mehta also embraces comic books, graphic novels, manga and anime as cultural resources.

Ali Akbar Mehta_Harlequin Series; To Glory in Self, like some kind of New Monster, 2010, Archival print on Hahnemuhle paper, 182 x 121 cm

Naturally, then, Mehta is fascinated by the figure of the superhero: who is supremely powerful yet deeply vulnerable, benevolent yet sinister, weighed down by the knowledge of humankind’s ultimate fate yet aware of his role as a guardian of hope and renewal. If the archetype of the great hero enshrines the spirit of indomitable resilience, it also incarnates all the freight of fear and paralysing anguish to which humankind is heir. In many of Mehta’s figures, the ligaments are stretched, the bone is set at breaking point. Indeed, in Mehta’s handing, the body is often an unsettling hybrid of muscular presence and spectral apparition: it is made, seemingly, of ectoplasm or pulp that has momentarily assumed a shape which it may lose without notice.

In Mehta’s imagery of the suffering yet defiant body, we may detect an act of homage to his grandfather, the legendary artist Tyeb Mehta. We find this especially in the trussed figure, suspended from ropes, more prisoner than marionette and hung above the abyss, in ‘The Identity of Violence Series: Suffering and Rapture’(2010). That homage also animates the figure that has been twisted, knotted, folded double in ‘Triptych’ (2007) and jammed into the cage formed by the frame of the canvas.

Ali Akbar Mehta_The Identity of Violence Series; Sacrifice and Redemption, 2010, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 182 x 121 cm

*

Mehta’s preparatory process involves a theatre-like ‘characterisation’ of his protagonists: a detailed imagining of their ‘inner lives’, a fleshing-out of their ‘back stories’, a calibration of their emotional temperature based on episodes deemed to have taken place in the past of their fictive present scenarios. As in theatre, this characterisation is not made wholly explicit in the articulated form of the work; nor is it meant to be. Rather, it serves the artist as the substance that confers reality upon his characters, and is the continuing material substrate from which his images and the narratives that concern them will be conjured.

Mehta delights in portraying quixotic figures of unpredictable motivation as they move through the columned halls and terraces of normality, replacing these with the weaving shapes of hallucination and phantasmagoria.

*

Among his protagonists are the jester and the harlequin: the first permitted to speak truth to power, although in politically sanctioned satire and allegory; the second a shape-shifting trickster who celebrates all that is chaotic and out of joint. Accordingly, the artist favours a pictorial space that is psychedelic, its emphasis laid on the play of strange lights and pulsating auras. Indeed, to this observer, his canvases articulate the ominous psychological freight of Bikash Bhattacharya’s paintings of the 1970s.

Humankind lurches from one crisis to the next in Mehta’s post-apocalyptic ecologies, with little chance of redemption. We find predators and victims, survivors and demons, all conjoined in a common destiny, all adrift: not on a Noachic Ark so much as on a Gericauldian Raft of the Medusa. In the painting that gives this exhibition its title, ‘The Ballad of The War That Never Was’ (2010), one of the key figures is modelled on the Deposition, the enduring moment when the crucified Christ is taken down from the cross, except that this figure has no hope of resurrection; another figure in this tableau is based on Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’, except that the banner is fraying, torn to pieces by the wind.

Ballad of The War That Never Was, 2011, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 152 x 198 cm

 

Or, as with the close-packed figures in ‘War’ (2011), screaming as they flail, wrestle and fall together in a grand tapestry of the damned, Mehta’s figures strike us as a contemporary version of Dante’s eternally condemned figures in the Inferno or Michelangelo’s in the Sistine ‘Last Judgement’. The mode of the history painting manifests itself again and again in Mehta’s work, through allusion and citation. But the inspired certitudes of history painting and its heroic belief in the ability of the human will to dominate all circumstance have yielded, in Mehta’s paintings, before a more tragic awareness of human fragility. This artist does indeed take man as the measure of all things, in the classical humanist formulation; but man is here a strained measure, bent under pressure. Precisely for this reason, Mehta’s protagonists speak to us of our own anxieties and exhilarations, sing to us of our own at-once epic and intimate predicaments.

 

Ranjit Hoskote

Mumbai

2011

Soak

Curatorial text for SOAK
The Occupation of Decontextualised Spaces for the creation of Contemporary Art
part of projects by The d/func.t  Collective.

 

Identity is always that which you Identify with.

An exhibition is always an act of placing artworks and understanding the importance of engaging with a site and at the same time producing a polylogue with other spaces. A place is no fixed thing – it has an episodic history and takes its particular aspect through an intense immersion.

Stories are not simply aesthetic objects disconnected from experience, but are rooted in the very fabric of life and have the capacity to profoundly refigure our world. Narrative discourse and life are dialectically tied to each other through a “mimetic arc.” This, however, poses interesting problems and difficulties. How do stories affect the transformation of experience?

We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.

Within this exhibition, artists collaborate, contradict and are indifferent to each other. As a collective body of works, they tug and pull simultaneously towards and away from each other creating a symbiotic friction. Some works fall within a loose togetherness, others are ferociously independent. Some work towards a common goal, and others negate it. As curators, we present an island universe. As curators, we offer only the possibility of alienation or identity.

Illusia is a boat, a place, a site, a stage and a structure. It is all of the aforementioned and at the same time something more. This composite sense of what it is, what its environment is, what it in itself is placed within (and without) is what the starting point for the viewing of works in this exhibition can be. We offer only a possibility.

 

Soak is a mixed use word.

It’s a made up word, like any other.

It can mean what you want it to.

 

 

Ali Akbar Mehta

Helsinki,

2016

 

null.void @Kallio Public Library

 

A 3 minute excerpt of my radio performance, which was a One Hour Reading session of Wars from 2000 to 2011, at Kallio Public Library as part of Chimurenga’s Pan African Space Station live radio broadcast. For the full one hour radio broadcast of the performance, check out The Chimurenga Archives at http://panafricanspacestation.org.za/

{
null.void;
// a sermon of nothingness and a space odyssey of zero movement and tycho magnetic anomalies
}

null.void; is a Transmedia Performance-lecture recitation and Research Project. It comprises a procedural audio soundscape of glitch sounds using static and radio frequencies, and a performance recitation of a comprehensive list of every war, battle, siege, sacking, revolt and revolution spanning 5014 years of human conflict and violence.

 

*null.void will eventually become a part of a currently-in-developement project titled WAR • ROOM• ECHO: Regarding the Pain of Other Cyborgs