Artist Alert: February 2014

Artist Alert: February 2014 - Civic Space

A mural on a wall depicting an artist painting and various caricatures including a split image of ex-President Mubarak and Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and El Morshed. To their left is a fanged policeman wielding a huge club. Below them are a line of riot police with Mubarak faces and the acronym ACAB (All Cops are Bastards) below.

Art, in any form, constitutes a key medium through which information and ideas are imparted and received. Artist Alert, launched by ARTICLE 19 in 2008 highlights cases of artists around the world whose right to freedom of expression has been curtailed and abused and seeks to promote and defend more effectively the freedom to create.


Kenya: Wolf of Wall Street banned, vendors arrested

Two retailers in Nakuru, mid-west Kenya, were arrested on 24 January for selling copies of Wolf of Wall Street. The Scorsese film was officially banned in Kenya on 16 January for scenes including sexually explicit content and drug use. Police confiscated 500 copies of the film. The vendors could face up to five years’ imprisonment and a $1,160 fine for the sale and distribution of the film under Section 12 of the Kenya Film and Stage Plays Act.

Cameroon: Imprisoned poet and activist publishes new collection

Enoh Meyomesse, a poet and activist imprisoned in Yaoundé, published Prison Poetry on 19 February. Meyomesse has now been in prison for two years on trumped-up charges regarding the ‘theft and illegal sale of gold’. According to Meyomesse, he was prosecuted in 2012 “without any proof of wrong-doing on my part, without any witnesses, without any complainants, and more than that, after having been tortured during 30 days by an officer of the military.”

Despite his limited access to computer facilities, this is Meyomesse’s second collection of poems to be released since he was imprisoned. The collection was published ahead of his scheduled appeal hearing, which has been delayed seven times.

Meyomesse ran against President Paul Biya representing the United National Front in the October 2011 elections.


Cuba: Punk musician’s trial delayed

Gorki Luis Aguila Carrasco, lead singer of the punk band Porno para Ricardo, was brought to trial on 11 February charged with drug possession. The crime carries a sentence of up to 10 years in jail. His trial was suspended unexpectedly when his lawyer fell ill.

Critics and bloggers suspect that Gorki’s arrest and trial are related to his political lyrics and that the drug charges are being offered as an official explanation to hide the real reason. Supporters launched a solidarity campaign to protest against the drug charges.

USA: Chevron names satirical cartoon in countersuit against Ecuadorean plaintiffs

Chevron, the petroleum conglomerate, named a satirical video by Mark Fiore in its countersuit against Ecuadorean lawyers on 5 February. The oil company filed the lawsuit under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) in New York in 2011, after Chevron lost a court case and subsequent appeal over environmental and health damages in the Amazon.

The company named Fiore’s video, made in partnership with the organisation, Amazon Watch, as part of its “evidence” in its claims that the lawyers were trying to “extort and defraud the company”. The cartoon features Donny Rico, a Mafia-like character, explaining Chevron’s environmental damage, the subsequent court case and the suppression of evidence of pollution from scientists, journalists and activists.

The application of RICO in this case could influence other like-minded companies to use the legislation to squash opposition.

The original lawsuit against Chevron started in 1993, when Ecuadoreans sued the parent company, seeking damages for Texaco Inc’s oil spills, toxic waste dumping, and the abandonment of toxic waste pits.

Asia Pacific 

Malaysia: Banglasia film banned

The Malaysian Censorship Board noted on 31 January, 31 issues with Namewee’s film Banglasia requiring the director to change and re-shoot approximately ninety percent of the film, without which the film would face an indefinite ban. Namewee has decided not to change his film. 

Examples of the Censorship Board’s complaints included any scenes with Namewee wearing a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Save Malaysia’. The authorities felt that this “insult[ed] the country”, implying that it was “unsafe”. Namewee wore the shirt throughout the movie.

The Censorship Board also remarked: “If you’ve been to Kota Raya, you’ll know it’s a place full of foreign labourers. There were too many Bangladeshi customers in the shops and streets in one scene. There were also too many Bangladeshi workers. It’s doesn’t reflect the real Malaysian country, so it needs to be removed. Does that make sense?”

Malaysia: Finalists’ work removed before art prize ceremony

Two works by Cheng Yeng Pheng and Izat Arif Saiful Bahrin were removed from the National Visual Arts Gallery (NVAG) in Kuala Lumpur on 12 February ahead of the Bakat Muda Sezaman (Young Contemporaries) 2013 awards ceremony. The two works, which were shortlisted for the prize, were said to have “distressed” visitors since the exhibition opened in October last year.

One of the works in question was Cheng’s Alksnaabknuaunmo, a painting bearing the words ‘ABU=ASHES’, which the artist spray-painted onto the work during the judges’ interview. The term ‘abu’ literally means ‘ashes’ in Malay, but also stands for ‘Anything But UMNO’ (the United Malays National Organisation, the largest political party in Malaysia and major constituent party of the Barisan Nasional, Malaysia’s ruling coalition). The title of the work is also an anagram of ‘Asalkan Bukan Umno’, which means ‘anything but UMNO’ in Malay.

When the work was removed from the NVAG, Cheng protested in front of the empty space where her painting had originally been hung. A video of her protest was uploaded to YouTube.

Bahrin’s work, titled Insert#, was an installation consisting of a rack of t-shirts printed with the Arabic words for ‘Fa Qof’, phonetic for ‘Fuck Off’. He did not contest the removal of his work from the exhibition prior to the awards ceremony.

Datuk Mahadzir Lokman, NVAG chairman, apologised to Cheng. The museum offered to keep both works in its collection. While Bahrin accepted the offer, Cheng refused. A number of politicians have come to the two artists’ defence.

India: Doniger’s book on Hinduism recalled

Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, was withdrawn from sale and physically destroyed on 11 February by Penguin India. This followed a civil lawsuit filed in 2011 by Shiksha Bachao Andolan (Save Education Movement), a conservative Hindu campaign group that criticised the book for “heresies and factual inaccuracies”. The publisher recalled the book after agreeing to an out-of-court settlement.

In India, it is a criminal offence to insult “religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. The book’s withdrawal has sparked public criticism of the country’s failure to protect freedom of speech. Indian and international academics have called for the penal code to be amended and have initiated an online petition.

Doniger is a professor at the University of Chicago’s divinity school.

New Zealand: American hip hop group denied visas

Immigration authorities denied members of Odd Future, a hip hop group from the USA, entry visas into New Zealand on 13 February. The musicians were scheduled to perform in Auckland at an open-air concert that included American rapper Eminem. According to Immigration New Zealand, Odd Future was considered a “potential threat to public order and the public interest, including incidents at past performances in which they have incited violence.”

Immigration authorities say they denied visas to the six Odd Future members after coming across a 2011 incident in Boston, where witnesses claimed that the group incited violence against police officers.

Odd Future’s music is known for its controversial style and lyrics that “canvas drugs, killing and rape”.

Australia: Artist charged for producing and possessing child pornography

Paul Yore, whose photographs were removed from the exhibition Everything is F—ed at the Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts last year, was charged on 14 February with producing and possessing child pornography.

The Melbourne artist’s work was removed from the gallery after police received a complaint that the artworks allegedly depicted sexually explicit acts with children’s faces superimposed on the images. Yore is contesting the charges, with an administrative hearing due in May and a three-day committal hearing with witnesses starting on 7 July.

Europe & Central Asia

Uzbekistan: Artists’ work removed and censored in exhibition

Photographs in an exhibition organised by Neformat [The one on the fringe] at the Tashkent House of Photography were removed on 25 January for “tarnishing the country’s image”.  An hour before the exhibition’s opening, Art Council chairman, Akmal Nur, ordered two photo series and a number of captions to be removed, despite having previously granted official approval for the exhibition to go forward.

Svetlana Ten’s photographs documenting Khorezm village life, Timur Karpov’s Sardoba series and Stanislav Magaj’s captions for the Melting Pot series were all removed. Magaj and Olga Fedina, another artist, then removed their own work in protest.

Russia: Series of books under investigation for violating ‘gay propaganda’ law

Ludmila Ulitskaya, a leading Russian novelist, claimed on 7 February that a book to which she had contributed was investigated by Russian authorities for violating the law against ‘gay propaganda’. The Family in Our Country and Others by Vera Timenchik is part of a series for adolescents on ‘cultural anthropology’ and its focus on types of families around the world allegedly led to official scrutiny. A passage of the text mentions the existence of homosexual families in “some places in the world”.

Ulitskaya claims that Timenchik was called in for questioning and told that the authorities intended to speak to her as well. The Investigative Committee of Russia, in an official statement, denied any investigation, saying, “Ulitskaya has not been summoned in any capacity. The checks […] have not been carried out and are not being carried out.”

Ulitskaya was signed an open letter published in The Guardian criticising Russia’s gay propaganda law and its anti-defamation and anti-blasphemy legislation.

Germany: Exhibition cancelled

The Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, cancelled on 5 February its Balthus: the Last Pictures exhibition, which was due to open in April this year. The museum decided to abandon the show after it was revealed that one of Balthus’s Polaroid pictures featured Anna, a model who had posed for him over several years, between the ages of 8 and 16.

German newspaper Die Zeit called images in the forthcoming exhibition “documents of paedophile greed”.

In an official statement, the museum responded that the Balthus show “could lead to unwanted legal consequences and the closure of the exhibition”. It added: “Such a development based on the existing legal situation would not be in the artistic interest of the project, and would contradict the mandate and the responsibility of the Museum Folkwang. Therefore, the museum’s management has decided not to proceed with the exhibition.”

Middle East & North Africa

Egypt: Satirist returns to Egyptian TV

The comedy show by Bassem Youssef, popularly referred to as “Egypt’s Jon Stewart”, returned to the Egyptian airwaves on 8 February after being shut down for three months. Youssef’s comedy routine started out by mocking the public lionisation of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military chief widely expected to become the country’s next president.

The surgeon-turned-comedian’s The B+ Show became a hit on YouTube for criticising the Morsi regime. He was then offered a spot on Capital Broadcast Center, a private broadcaster, hosting a satirical newscast, Al Bernameg (The Programme), which earned him 40 million viewers. His show was cancelled in November 2013 when he began making fun of Sisi, criticising the country’s nationalism. Youssef claims that his show’s cancellation was the result of a political landscape which discourages political dissent. He was never directly banned by the government. 

Iran: Rock band and spectators arrested

Iranian rock band Garage 480 and their audience of about 100 were arrested in Isfahan on 8 February. Revolutionary Guards and Basij security forces took the members of the band and all their audience to Isfahan’s main prison.

The Iranian government maintains an official ban on public concerts, requiring musicians to obtain government approval before performing. This mass arrest comes as part of the recent clampdown on concerts that started in December last year.

Tunisia: Illustrators launch campaign to free imprisoned cartoonist

Illustrators and designers launched on 4 February 100 dessins pour Jabeur, a website that collects drawings to bring attention to Jabeur Mejri’s continued imprisonment in Tunisia. In 2012, Mejri was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for depicting the Prophet Mohammed and distributing writings and images on Facebook that were deemed “insulting” to Islam. He was officially charged with disturbing “public order”.

Activists are calling for an official pardon in honour of Tunisia’s new constitution, which contains articles to protect freedom of expression.