Perspectives June 8, 2023
Risks Arise Where Art and Activism Intersect—But Artists Won’t Be Silenced
Persecution of artists only validates the power of artistic expression as a catalyst for change.
In February, Shervin Hajipour's “Baraye”—a tribute to Iranians’ dreams of freedom that became an anthem for the country’s protest movement—won the Grammy for Best Song for Social Change. But Hajipour wasn’t there to receive it. Instead, he was at home in Iran, barred from leaving the country while he awaits trial for “inciting violence.” Prosecuted for the same piece of art for which he was awarded, Hajipour is one of many artists around the globe facing repression for their work.
Art is stifled for many reasons, including for challenging authorities, exposing abuses, advocating for the rights of marginalized groups, and even as a method to cope with arbitrary detention and imprisonment. Yet amid the risks, artists remain defiant, and their resonant works can be difficult to extinguish.
Criminalizing dissident art
Artistic expression and activism have long existed in tandem. But, activism through art can place creators at risk of criminal prosecution. In 2020, the awarded Sri Lankan Muslim poet and teacher Ahnaf Jazeem was arrested on trumped-up charges that his Tamil-language poems contained extremist content. Tamil-language experts pointed out that the poems contained explicit denunciations of extremism, and characterized the charges as part of a larger crackdown on Tamil and Muslim minority groups in Sri Lanka. Jazeem was barred from speaking to lawyers for 10 months, held in pretrial detention for 19 months, and eventually released with the charges still pending—a tactic to remind him to tread carefully.
Artists have even been arrested for the presumption of artistic expression. In 2022, Çiğdem Mater, an activist and filmmaker who participated in the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Turkey, received an 18-year prison sentence, in part for allegedly raising funds to create a film about the protests.
Some governments have passed specific laws to suppress unfavorable artistic expression. Cuba’s recent 2018 Decree Law 394 criminalizes art that officials deem to be obscene, and prohibits artists from performing in public or private spaces without government approval. In response, artists including Maykel Castillo Pérez, known as Maykel Osorbo, and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara founded the San Isidro Movement, a collective to protest the decree and the culture of detention in their country. Both were imprisoned in connection with their activism.
Suppression beyond the cell
Artists who stand up for fundamental freedoms can also experience harassment and intimidation in the course of everyday life. For example, Mashrou Leila, an indie band from Beirut, was well known in the Arab world for using their music to advocate for LGBT+ rights. Their activism resulted in exile from festivals, bans in Egypt and Jordan, and ultimate dissolution in 2022. Band members cited aggressive harassment online and from authorities .
The threat of harassment and censorship doesn't only affect artists’ public expression and activism—it can also extend into the home, as Cuban dissident artist Tania Bruguera and Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and political activist, illustrated in a 2017 panel appearance. “We have generations of [Cuban] people who have been afraid,” said Bruguera. “Censorship is starting in the house. Your father, your mother, they’ll say ‘don’t do this, or you’ll have problems.’” Weiwei, whose father was persecuted by Chinese authorities for his poems and political opposition, described a similar phenomenon, saying his father’s sentence in a labor camp and authorities’ scrutiny of his family imparted the idea of self-censorship as a matter of safety. When Weiwei himself was in detention—over a tax fraud conviction that was widely considered retaliation for his activism—guards would taunt him, claiming that his then two-year-old son would forget him. Chinese authorities promote “the so-called stability of a society, a harmonious society,” he said, “but it’s really at the cost of every family.”
Spotlighting political prisoners through art
Some artists have sought to highlight the plight of political prisoners. The Burmese painter Htein Lin, for example, was among those imprisoned in Myanmar for challenging the country’s military regime. After his release, he began a project titled “Show of Hands,” in which he creates plaster molds of the hands of former political prisoners and shares the stories they wish to highlight. “When I make the plaster hands in a public place,” he told Studio International magazine, “it interests the younger generation who do not know exactly how much the older generation sacrificed.”
In Syria, Saydnaya prison is notorious for holding political prisoners and military personnel suspected of opposing the regime. It bars visitors, journalists, and monitoring groups, leaving prisoners deeply isolated. Abu Hamdan, a visual artist based in Beirut, heard about the Saydnaya prisoners’ plight and began to research and recreate the sounds that detainees become attuned to in the dark and silent prison. Hamdan’s resulting art installation, comprising an audio track and a light box, pulls their harrowing experiences out of the darkness, communicating the abuses of the detention center.
Repression of art only validates the power of artistic expression as a catalyst for change. Each piece—written, visual, and auditory—has the potential to affect individuals profoundly. Even in the face of persecution, artists’ drive to change the world cannot be stifled. “The regime has destroyed my artwork and violated my rights and the rights of my friends,” Otero Alcántara writes, from detention in Cuba. “We have endured all this and more in pursuit of a dream…none of this has succeeded in extinguishing our dreams.”