“If art is singular expression, then by nature, the best art is controversial. But when art stirs debate for reasons besides its artistic integrity, that’s when things get bent” ―John Ridley
If the word “art” is searched on Google one would get the following definition: “Art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power. Music, theatre, film, dance, and other performing arts, as well as literature and other media such as interactive media, are included in a broader definition of art or the arts.”
From an early age, those with the inherent talent of drawing find themselves copying images of their parents or other objects that they take a fancy to. Those with inclination towards music like to sing and dance, the born sculptors mould things with play dough and the literary ones use their pen to ink their thoughts. These are instinctive acts based on the likes and dislikes of the human minds which, if cultivated can help individuals to attain high levels of perfection. However, the idea that art is mere imitation has been replaced by the theory that art is a form of expression. Thus, the toddler who sketches odd-shaped figures depicting his family is doing so because of the love he has for it. This represents his inner feelings using the outward expression of the drawing.
In other words, the medium of art is a manifestation of one’s deep-rooted emotions that a person may be unable to display in a different manner for whatever reason. These emotions can be of love, anger, disgust, awe, happiness, sadness, fear, rebellion and so on. Those who have the capability to use words, may voice their sentiments, those who cannot speak out, convey their thoughts through paint or sculpture and the bolder ones write plays, novels and poetry. Thus, where hands are tied, where there are signs of acute censorship and feelings of frustration are on the rise, rather where undue suppression exists, the extreme inner pressure building up finds its vent some way or the other. The rioters take to the roads but the artists communicate with their skills.
An exhibition comprising 400 tombstones set up at Frere Hall for the Karachi biennale commemorating the 444 persons killed in so-called encounters and who were victims of police, more specifically SSP Rao Anwar’s brutality, was declared vandalism and not art by those who matter in this Land of Pure. Naqeebullah Mehsud killed by Rao Anwar for which he is facing a trial, was the principal focus of the artwork. The artist, Ms. Suleman, set up inside the Frere Hall, 5 painted stone pillars and a video of the deceased’s father. Although there was no commentary but only music and aerial shots of the farmhouse where the victim was tortured and slain, yet the whole show was ruthlessly wound up by the authorities. Her offence was putting up the concrete grave markers in the courtyard to represent the people Rao Anwar is accused of killing.
This type of persecution is nothing new where there is an authoritarian rule. In a country where justice is just a deceptive illusion, where the innocent are labeled as terrorists and the not-guilty languish in prisons for decades, how else can the bereaved people and their sympathizers lodge their protest and disgruntlement with the system? What is then the difference between Adolph Hitler, Stalin or Pinochet and the present-day rulers? These authoritarian leaders and their likes have been known to forcefully smother artists. According to the composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich, Stalin had systematically executed all of the Soviet Union’s Ukranian folk poets. Likewise on gaining power in Chile in 1973 Pinochet arrested, tortured and exiled muralists. Claudia Calirman, author of “Brazillian Art Under Dictatorship” discloses that the museum director had to hide works of art and advise artists to leave Brazil after authorities stampeded the museum, blocking petty but ‘dangerous’ pictures like that of a member of the military falling off a motorcycle, declaring them as detrimental to the image of the army.
Even today there are many artists who have been persecuted by their governments. Playwrights Nikolai Khalezin and Natalya Kolyada of Belarus who believe in art as a means for subverting a repressive government, were arrested after authorities found out their private performance about state sanctioned disappearances. Similarly, Jafar Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker was arrested along with his wife, daughter and 15 friends over the content of his films which was alleged as propaganda against the rulers. China too is notorious for targeting artists. In April 2011, Ai Weiwei was detained in China for three months and is presently barred from leaving Beijing just because he is critical of the Chinese government’s views on democracy and human rights.
Same is the case in Myanmar where Zarganar, a comedian and critic of the military government became a political prisoner and was indefinitely banned from performing publically. In Syria, Dr. Kamal al-Labwani, doctor, painter and human rights activist was sentenced to jail after his painting was proclaimed as having incited foreign aggression against the country that was offensive to the Syrian president. His art is reflective of his prison experiences and emergency laws enforced in the country for the last many decades.
In Bahrain, Ayat Al-Gormezi, a 20 years old poet was arrested in 2011 only because she recited a poem that criticized government policy in the infamous Pearl Square protests in the wake of Arab Spring. While in jail, she was subjected to harassment, abuse, intimidation and threats of violence and rape.
Artists and victims of persecution include such names as Pier Paolo Paslini, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andrei Tarkovsky, Owen Maseko, Caravaggio, Charlie Chaplin, Paul Klee and MF Hussain just because they, like Julianne Moore, firmly believe that: “Art is an expression of who we are, what we believe, and what we dream about.” Unfortunately, there are some who tend to disagree with this concept and want to exert state control over art and culture that practically curbs freedom of expression. They discourage those who show their faces in the mirror of art. For them, the purpose of art is to charm viewers with its ambiguity as aptly opined by Ai Weiwei. Anything to the contrary is considered provocative, but not art.
The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)