Strands of natural red, black, brown, blonde and silver hair dotted with pink and purple braids clad a Paykan, a popular Iranian-made car manufactured from the late sixties until 2005. "It's an icon of Iran's collective memory," Iranian-Canadian artist Simin Keramat explains of the vehicle she has chosen as the starting point for her artwork. Produced a decade before the 1979 revolution that ended with the implementation of the current regime of the ayatollahs, Keramat has resignified it with another symbol: the hair that covers it has been donated by thousands of women, "many of them Iranians", who cut their hair in public to denounce the death of Mahsa Amini, the young woman arrested for wearing the veil improperly and whose death in police custody sparked the current protests in Iran. "This Paykan now represents the Iranian resistance against the regime," Keramati explains to EL PAÍS a few minutes after unveiling his work last June at the Oslo Freedom Forum, the convention of activists organized every year by the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) in the Norwegian capital.
The 'manual of repression' shared by modern tyrants
Art "is one of the most powerful tools of dissent," says Freddy Lim, a musician and member of parliament in Taiwan. It is, he reflects, for its power to inspire and create alternative spaces for debate. The politician, founder of the New Power party and death metal singer, believes that "artists who use their art to denounce have decided to speak through a new language," be it music — as it was in his case, before he was elected as a member of the Legislative Yuan — or any other form of artistic expression. he says in a talk in Oslo. As a result, authoritarian governments around the world systematically "persecute, repress, or censor" artists to silence political dissent, adds Joyce Ho, a researcher at HRF.
The Ugandan novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija experienced it in his own flesh, when he was imprisoned and tortured for his literary work. First in April 2020, after publishing his first book, The Greedy Barbarian, a work that the Ugandan intelligence services interpreted as a criticism against the head of state of the African country, Yoweri Museveni. And months later he ended up behind bars again after publishing a new book, Banana Republic: Where writing is treasonous, in which he narrates his time in Ugandan prisons. "Creative dissent is very positive to ask for justice and to move others to imagine and act," he says in a conversation in Oslo after receiving the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissidence, awarded since 2012 by HRF.
The mobilization is precisely what the Ukrainian singer Elizaveta Izmalkova tried with her performance, Stand up for Ukraine (Stand up for Ukraine) also winner in the 2023 edition of the same award as Rukirabashaija. The project, on which she worked with three Lithuanian artists, consists of a live performance in which Izmalkova joins others on the street to sing a folk song, Chervona Kalyna, symbol of the Ukrainian resistance. "Art is a powerful weapon that unites and inspires people in the darkest times and I have decided to use my voice as a call to action for the free world to continue supporting Ukraine" in the face of the Russian invasion, explains the artist excitedly.
Iranian-American composer Rana Mansour also decided to use her music and voice to fight for the women of Iran. "I have decided to translate Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour's protest anthem Baraye, Grammy winner, into English so that everyone can understand it," he says of a song composed "literally" with tweets from Iranians. Because it is important, he believes, that "everyone understands what the reason for the struggle is." The lyrics, which he sings minutes later during a performance in the Norwegian capital, make it clear: "For dancing in the streets; by the fear of the moment of kissing the one we love; for my sister, your sister, our sisters; for the longing for a normal life..."
Drawing by Guatemalan artist Pedro X. Molina.
Ukrainian illustrator Mariia Loniuk uses drawings to denounce the barbarity of the Russian invasion and "describe things that cannot be described in words." "Through images, we can experience emotions, feel pain or sadness," says the artist, who confesses that she never thought she would have to illustrate the war. The drawings of the Guatemalan cartoonist Pedro X. Molina also uses the drawings to propose ideas, criticisms and reflections. "I use my cartoons to denounce the repression suffered by my country, Nicaragua, under the regime of [Daniel] Ortega and [Rosario] Murillo, who have tortured, confiscated and even deprived people of their nationality. Not only political opponents but also students, businessmen, journalists, human rights activists and even religious leaders," the third winner of the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent in 2023 said in a conversation at the Oslo Freedom Forum. And for that, nothing like humor: "It makes them too ridiculous to be taken seriously."
Installation 'Lives at a discount', exhibited in Oslo last June.P. R. B.
Call to action
Because art, in short, "seeks to stir consciences," stresses Joyce Ho, referring to the installation Lives at a Discount, HRF's artistic proposal, presented for the first time at the beginning of the year and exhibited in Oslo last June. The project shows two shelves of T-shirts. In one they are sold at $ 44.99 (41.06 euros), while in the other they cost 10 times less, $ 4.99 (3.65 euros). The viewer can receive a ticket for the purchase of the cheapest. On the strip of paper appears the face of a Uighur prisoner – the images are from the so-called Xinjiang Police Archive, revealed last year in a journalistic investigation in which EL PAÍS participated – with the reasons for the discount, such as the violation of human rights or forced labor, explains Ho. The facility also denounces China's crackdown on Xinjiang's Uighur Muslim minority and the use of Uighurs held in so-called "re-education camps" as cheap labor to grow cotton. It's a call to action, says the researcher. In this case, the boycott against companies that use cotton from Xinjiang in their garments.
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