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Compiled and edited by Marie Korpe Report no. 12/2016 ISBN 978-87-998868-0-7

Published by Freemuse, Jemtelandsgade 1, DK-2300 Copenhagen S, Denmark, tel: +45 3332 1027 | Copyright © Freemuse 2016

Freemuse is supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida, in Sweden, the Culture Secion of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Norway, and Fritt Ord in Norway

Graphic design and cover photo by Mik Aidt Photos and artworks published with courtesy of the authors/artists

Disclaimer: The views in these articles do not necessarily represent the views of Freemuse.


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Content FRANCE: France post-November 13: Musicians shocked but defiant By Daniel Brown | 26 November 2015


FRANCE: Combo: French artist finds coexisting hard in street of Paris By Daniel Brown | 14 April 2015


SYRIA: The Syrian uprising – art in the diaspora By Donatella Delaratta | 28 April 2015


SYRIA: Syrian artists standing against tyranny By Mohammad Dabi | 27 April 2015


BURUNDI: Musicians menaced, silenced and fleeing the country By John Banram | 28 September 2015


RUSSIA: Cultural freedom under threat By Lena Jonsson | 11 May 2015


TUNISIA: The alternative voices: Artists in the Arab World By Daniel Brown | 9 September 2015


TUNISIA: Musicians confronted with censorship and repression By Daniel Brown | 3 November 2015


ISRAEL/PALESTINE: The political legacy of muzzling artists in Israel/Palestine By Henriette Holm | 3 November 2015


MALI: Three years after the music ban By Andy Morgan | 14 December 2015


USA: The spear of the N-Word By Deji Bruce Olukotun | 21 January 2015


SWEDEN: Rap group’s concerts cancelled after free speech controversies By Mik Aidt | 6 May 2015


SWEDEN: Art under threat By Sanna Samuelsson | 12 May 2015


INDONESIA: Punk music and Shari’a law By Maria Bakkalapulo and Niall Macaulay | 12 June 2015



Freemuse Statistics on Artistic Freedom of Expression Violations 2015







Introduction Documenting incidents of censorship has never been enough. From the very beginning Freemuse has attempted to put censorship of music and arts into a larger context. In 2015 we introduced INSIGHT – a series of articles providing readers with analytical stories on censorship of the arts and in-depth interviews with censored artists or/and cultural producers. The 2015 compilation covers 11 countries and topics as diverse as Syrian art in the diaspora, Punk music and Shari'a, art under threat in Sweden and Russia, the challenges of promoting co-existence through art in Paris and the use of the N-word in arts. Freemuse annual statistics on violations of artistic freedom of expression for 2015 provides complimentary and detailed information on killings, threats, imprisonments and attacks. Marie Korpe Editor and member of Freemuse Advisory Board




From the music project ‘Paris New York Damas’ by Ronan Houssein. Courtesy of the artist

France post-November 13: Musicians shocked but defiant The massacre at the Bataclan concert hall spreads fear and generates financial losses but also determination to carry on.


By what eerie twist of fate did the three assaillants launch their massacre in the renowned Paris concert hall Bataclan as the Californian band Eagles of Death Metal (EODM) were ratcheting up their hit song Kiss the Devil?

“Who’ll love the Devil? Who’ll sing his song? I will live the Devil and sing his song” Those concluding lyrics belted out by lead singer Jesse Hughes are words the 1,500 spectators never heard as band and Parisians fled the bullets and 90 spectators perished in two murderous hours. Brandishing their trademark mix of blues rock-pop, humour and irreverency, EODM seemed to fit everything the Islamic State publicly abhor. In the communiqué IS transmitted on 14 November, via Twitter, they wrote: “[The attackers targetted] the Bataclan Conference Center (sic.), where hundreds of apostates had gathered in a profligate prostitution party. This attack,” the communiqué concluded chillingly, “is the first of the storm and a warning to those who wish to learn.” •6•


“Vive la musique, vive la liberté, vive la France, and vive EODM.” Eagles of Death Metal

Two weeks after IS’s coordinated blitz against the French capital, resulting in almost 500 people dead and wounded, the country’s population remains in a state of shock. The fear and tension have been fed by a state of emergency extended to three months by the National Assembly on 18 November 2015. This allows for searches without judicial warrants, the arming of municipal policemen, house arrests virtually at will and aggressive questioning of suspects. Within five days, there had been over 1,000 searches, 140 interrogations and 117 arrests. 551 of the 558 parliamentarians voted in these measures. One of the six dissenting voices, Isabelle Attard, said the vote poses a “danger to democracy”. “Since Friday evening,” she said, “our police forces and intelligence can cast a wide net. And inevitably they are catching innocent people in the middle.” The Parliamentarian from Calvados warned: “We have a tendency to transform temporary measures like these into permanent ones. During the Algerian war, the Constitution was also modified, in 1962, and it’s not changed since. And we still suffer from the consequences. What do I criticise the government and the president most for? Well, instead of putting aside their emotion they resort to demogaguery by pitting fear against fear… I’m ashamed of my fellow politicians, I’m living days that are totally surrealistic.” Attard’s anxiety grew after president François Hollande’s proposed in Versailles’ Senate to strip citizens with dual nationality of their French citizenship and to reform the Constitution. 
 Musician: ‘Interpol positive’ The abuses Attard warned against are already being reported. (See, for example, Le Monde and New York Times). And artists are not being spared. One of music’s most distinguished trumpet players, the French-Lebanese artist Ibrahim Maalouf went from paying homage on prime-time television to the victims of the Paris attacks, to being aggressively questioned by French police and customs officers. His 16 November performance on Canal Plus reflected his profound conviction that the attack goes way beyond the Bataclan butchery: “The gunmen hit a certain joie de vivre à la française,” he explains to me over the phone. “They went after people enjoying themselves, a mixed crowd revelling in Paris’ nocturnal life. The terrorists are the bitter kind, who’ve never been able to integrate. It’s transformed them into criminal monsters.” On his way to promote a sold-out concert scheduled for 17 November at the Barbican in London, Maalouf discovered he was ‘Interpol Positive’. The 35-year-old’s passport was confiscated and he was unable to take his Eurostar for a day of promotion. The next day, customs officer tried to force him off the train before Maalouf was able to reason them into letting him stay onboard and perform in front of 2,000 people. In a long exchange with Freemuse, the trumpetter plays down the ‘incident’. “We’re in a state of emergency, it’s •7•


natural that they check up on people with unusual profiles like myself: born in Beirut, travelling the world, including to countries which are troubled. I just was a victim of over-zealous officials, especially the customs representatives,” Maalouf says. But what does ‘Interpol positive’ – a term that rhymes eerily with ‘HIV positive’ – mean? “Well, I’ve since discovered it’s for major criminals or people who’ve lost their passports or had them stolen. That’s where it’s baffling. They said my passport had been invalidated since 2012, but I’ve been using it nonstop in the past three years, no problem. It’s valid until 2017 but now I’ve had to apply for a new one. Maybe it’s a technique to limit trips abroad of people with a “risky” profile…” Maalouf pauses. “I don’t mind being on their list, or being frisked in airports, that’s okay, I’m used to it, I’ve had that treatment elsewhere for years. But I won’t accept this excessive behaviour by the French customs people. That’s why I spoke out to say: ‘Watch out!’ I was telling them, ‘we’re also keeping an eye out on you.’ France is in a fragile state just now but that doesn’t mean you can put everyone in the same bag.” The Paris-based artist is the nephew of one of the greatest contemporary writers in the French language, Amin Maalouf. Did he imagine his uncle was also ‘Interpol positive’? “I really can’t say, but he could well be. I’m constantly re-reading an extract of one of his books ‘Identités meurtrières’ these days. He wrote it in 1998 but it could have been published today. It’s so premonitory and scary, showing how people marginalised and humiliated in our western societies go to extremes to seek revenge. And then you see a how it all descends into war, and parties like the Front National come to power.” As of writing, Ibrahim Maalouf’s Facebook posting of the extract has reaped close to 26,000 likes and been shared over 12,500 times.

Paris venues hit France’s state of emergency and new police measures have meant the cancellation or postponement of dozens of concerts and sporting events. They have forced all major cultural and sporting venues to invest heavily in new and costly security measures. “This will cost us, um,… hold on, let me work this out…” A long silence as Lili Fisher, deputy director of the Zenith concert hall calculates the price tag that extra security will mean for a venue with a capacity of 6,238 people. She comes back: “Over a year, that’s an extra 700,000€ just for us. So what the government is offering to cover these extra expenses, 4 million euros, for every cultural venue in Paris, is a drop in the ocean.” However, Fisher is quick to insist this “drop” is vital, both symbolically and as a way of keeping music venues afloat until the end of 2015. •8•


“It’s over a longer period that we’ll see how resilient the French public is in going to concerts again.” Fisher refers back to the Charlie Hebdo murders of January. “To begin with, there was a real drop, people needed to take stock, gather strength. Then they all came back in a sort of sustained surge, we had a very good year in terms of attendance. So, only time will tell after this latest devastating blow.”

From the music project ‘Paris New York Damas’ by Ronan Houssein. Courtesy of the artist A few days after our exchange, the major trade union for the country’s venues, Prodiss issued a public call for 50 million euros in government aid to compensate lost revenue and growing security needs. The communiqué applauded the emergency funds provided by the Ministry of Culture but insisted the shock to the sector needed “a wide-ranging support plan to attenuate the impact of the attacks.” Renaud Barillet does not hide his establishment’s fragility after the attacks. His Bellevilloise concert venue was born in the aftermath of the Commune and the bloodbath that cost the lives of 10,000 Parisians in the 1870s. Its reputation as a cultural bastion for independent artists and musicians has been carefully nurtured by Barillet and his two fellow-investors. Since they bought the huge north-east Paris venue in 2006, they have transformed it into one of the capital’s most endearing multiple-activity poles. “I won’t pretend it’s going to be easy to overcome this week of lost revenue,” Barillet explains. “The Jazz ‘n’ Klezmer festival decided on Sunday [15 November 2015] to cancel its shows with us, Carmen Consoli, the great Sicilian singer also felt it was too close to the tragedy and pulled out. We also had to drop Gilles Peterson’s show.” It’s all so contradictory,” he pursues: “We felt the pain of this catastrophic massacre at the Bataclan, almost as if it had been us, we’d be next on their target-list. We stand for everything they abhor, it’s in the very nature of our make-up: this is a place of experimentation, debate, cultural resistance, and that dictates our programming. I’m not only talking about our concerts but also the debates, exhibitions, cinema, theatre plays we host. So there was an initial moment of panic.” Barillet pauses. “That didn’t last to long. Then, the feeling of having to fight back swept through the team. Two days after the killings we opened our photo-documentary exhibition and kept our scheduled debate on freedom of expression. On se sert les couilles, as we say rather crudely – we hold tight, we’re not prepared to let fear dictate our reaction. If I want to •9•


schedule a controversial artist, or a band from Israel, I will not hesitate.” Barillet’s vision appears an accurate barometre of general feeling among Paris’ venues. The 42-year-old currently presides the Musique Actuelle de Paris network MAP, representing 30 of the city’s cultural establishments and hundreds of owners and artists. “Our members have seen a see-saw reaction from audience turn-out. And heightening security in our venues is a major challenge. Body searches are now imposed, some are installing CCTV cameras, we have to search all bags systematically now. Some are doubling the personnel to safeguard the venues. But it will pass. I always think of the saying coined by Graham Greene, something like ‘Hatred is just a deficit of culture’. And our role here is to bring the culture from the streets or even gutters into the public eye.” 
 French musicians: shocked but defiant In the aftermath of the killings, musicians appeared to grasp at sayings and history to strengthen their resolve. Sapho performed at the Bataclan three times in her long career as a vocalist. The French-Moroccan artist still appeared shaken in her beautiful old apartment near the Seine river. “I like to quote what Antoine Leiris wrote in a letter after his wife was killed in the Bataclan attack: “Friday night you took an exceptional life,” he wrote, “but you will not have my hatred. Responding with hatred and anger is falling victim to the same ignorance and hatred that has made you what you are.” “Leiris is right,” continues the singer who has released 16 albums in her long career. “These are young monsters who killed with no distinction of race, creed or background. Contrary to what happened at Charlie Hebdo where they murdered symbols, this time all of France was attacked.”

Sapho. Photo by Daniel Brown

Two days after the assault, Sapho performed John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ in front of the Bataclan. She sang it in English and Arabic. “As a French citizen of Moroccan-Jewish origin, I had to do something,” she says with passion. “This was an attack on music itself because it’s such a strong form of expression. Terrorists are terrified by music because it’s so strong. It can stop young people from joining their crazy projects.” •10•


 Reflections of a Syrian-French rapper Ever since he visited Libya as a journalist in 2011, Ronan Houssein has been acutely aware of the terrible impact of war on civil society and how it can transform people into war machines. His short stay there changed his life, he says. In the past four years, he has devoted his musical career to slams and raps which espouse his ‘Declaration of Soul Rights’ (‘La déclaration des droits de l’âme’ is the more poetic original). Not surprising then, that on that infamous Friday night, the French-Syrian rapper immediately recognised the rattat-tat of machine gun fire as he sat enjoying a drink in the Pouya Cultural Centre. He was only a stone’s throw from where the carnage began, next to the Hôpital Saint-Louis. “A man staggered into the café, he’d been hit at one of the bars, and he warned us gunmen were on the rampage. We brought down the café’s iron shutters and stayed holed up there for several hours, following the events as best we could.” How did he react now to the Paris carnage? “You know, it’s been four years that I’ve been reflecting on how art can fight obscurantist beliefs. These attacks have just amplified my own convictions. By coincidence I am releasing the first song from an EP project called ‘Paris New York Damas’, on 25 November 2015. This project distills my beliefs, it defends the cultural identities I’ve inherited.” The first of the EP tracks to come out is ‘The World is Yours’. It is released by Apple Music Connect. The song can be seen on Youtube and Hussein’s own website. It has been supplemented by recent pictures he added of Paris, post-13 November – which are the pictures illustrating this article.

Ronan Houssein. Screendump from video

“I’m very attached to my double-identity, Syrian and French,” the soft-spoken poet pursues, “and I hope to preserve what is most beautiful in both. It boils down to a battle between two poles, culture and hatred, a hatred born of people who have lost touch with their own community. We have to work on the parents, education, institutions. It will take a long time.” Did the young rapper think musicians might yield to the temptation of self-censorship to avoid the harder questions posed by the 13 November attacks? •11•


“Since these debates aren’t new to me, I’ve often asked myself that, this question of attenuating my lyrics to avoid brushing people up the wrong way,” Houssein answers firmly. “I hope people are aware it’s a social problem and that much of the youth has been abandoned by the authorities to sort things out by themselves. Politicians have lost touch with the base of this country and we have to say things upfront. So I’ll fight against censorship, especially selfcensorship.” 
 Temple of culture Malian composer Cheick Tidiane Seck was a spectator at the Bataclan… the day before the massacre. The keyboard wizard who has spent 30 years in self-imposed exile in the French capital was enjoying a concert by Saint Germain in what he calls “the great Temple of Culture in Paris”. A day later, it was his manager Danielle Krivokuca who found herself on the balcony, this time for the EODM gig. “She survived somehow, but doesn’t want to talk about it. Can you blame her? What a slaughter.” “They hit the epicentre of musical life in the 11th arrondissement,” Seck pursues. “The Bataclan is a symbol of alternative scene in the capital, open to world music. I used to live just behind it. I played several concerts there, with Coumba Sidibe, Oumou Sangaré, Dee Dee Bridgewater. But also concerts for the homeless, or against racism.”

Cheick Tidiane Seck. Photo by Daniel Brown

The 62-year-old multi-instrumentalist has played alongside some of the greatest artists of recent years – Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Cliff, Carlos Santana, Joe Zawinul, Hank Jones and Salif Keita, with whom he has re-united to bring back Les Ambassadeurs. However, the Paris attacks have made him feel more fragile, and he insists it will hit artists of all stature and notoriety. “I’m saying yes to all propositions. I’m playing the small clubs Gibus and Petit Bain at the end of the week. It’s not only important because everyone is cutting back on their budgets, but it’s a way of not panicking. The more concerts bring people back together, the better we’ll all feel. Meanwhile, us composers have to create a sacred union, I’m going to compose something to bring us together. We have to show unity and also fight those who are mixing everything up, blaming it on Islam and all that nonsense. It’s getting out-of-hand on the Internet.” Later that day, Seck the globetrotter sets off for Anglet in the southwest corner of France where Salif Keita and the



Ambassadeurs are to dedicate a concert to the victims of the Bamako massacre which has once again devastated the pianist’s homeland. “It’s all the same, Mali, France, Lebanon – the same struggle between intolerance and enlightenment. Music is at the heart of it all, so we can’t give up, n’est-ce pas, guerrier?” 
 Passports to understanding the Other Over the years, few writers have fought the clichés and prejudices Seck referred to with more erudiction and tenacious passion than Frank Tenaille. Back in 1990, this music specialist based in Montpellier founded the Zone Franche association uniting around 200 world music structures in Europe. Three days after the Paris attacks, Tenaille issued a powerful rallying-cry to his fellow-professionals, called ‘Génération Bataclan’. It is worth quoting at length: “Musics (sic) are vehicles for emotions, for personal psychology and collective pleasure, for opening out, for relationships that are as sacred as they are profane, within rituals or festivals. These green totalitarian individuals want all this eliminated, physically if possible (…) Faced with this apocalyptic millenarianism, the actors in world music have an over-riding responsibility: they must defend (in concert halls, festivals, acts, on-the-field mediation, popular education, international exchanges) the diversity of cultural expressions and the polyphony of their musical languages, but also the universal values that are part-and-parcel of these values.” “I had to write something fast, yet go beyond the binary discourse polluting our airwaves,” he explains to me earnestly from his home in southwest France. “We have to manipulate the complexity of our multiple identities and we do this in the field of world music. We have to impose it as a public debate, it goes well beyond music. But the Zone Franche’s founding charter, written back in 1990, has the kernels of this debate.” On 13 November, Tenaille was in Rabat for the Visa for Music gathering. This is a nascent platform for musical exchanges between Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle-East. He goes on to write: “We (the participants) shared with (each other) the conviction that there could be no compromise on our pluralistic points-of-view, on our heritage which defended hard-earned liberties, on the kind of society we want in which music is one of the passports to understanding the Other.” I ask him why music-lovers constitute such bridges. “Music listeners are receptacles. When you are listening you are distilling your own multifarious roots and history. And this combustion goes against everything these young kamikazes believe in. At times, it is a profane and iconoclastic mixture, at others it brings you closer to the divine spirits. That is a ‘religion’ they can never destroy.”

Daniel Brown is a journalist based in France and Vice-chair of Freemuse.




Artist finds coexisting hard in streets of Paris On the night of 30-31 January 2015, French street artist Combo Culture Kidnapper was assaulted by four unidentified youth as he put up a wall painting bringing together the three symbols of monotheism. ‘Coexist’ depicts the Muslim crescent, the Jewish Star of David and the Christian cross – replacing the ‘c’, ‘x’ and ‘t’, respectively. It was written next to a self-portrait of the artist pointing to the sky.


Combo enters the café in the Latin Quarter with a confident, if a tad ungainly stride, taking in the atmosphere with discretion. The tall, slim street-artist is shrouded in an inconspicuous seablue winter coat and resembles one of the droves of students haunting the neighbourhood of central Paris, home to the Sorbonne University and the Ecoles Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. Sporting the bushy beard that he grew for his ‘djih-art’ workshop in Beirut in October 2014, he shows none of the injuries he incurred two weeks earlier. The bruising of the face, the impressive black eye and dislocated shoulder in a sling have all gone leaving behind no physical nor, he says, psychological scars. Two days earlier, he published photos of his latest work on his Facebook page. Next to his graffiti title ‘Love is Blind: and Religion Can Blind Us’, this Saint Valentine’s collage depicts Combo in his traditional light-blue djellaba and duffle coat in a passionate embrace with another man in blue jeans, tennis shoes… and a kippah.



He tweeted it as #muslimjewishkiss. The 28-year-old says he never felt better and is ready for another day of intense exchange with the press. And this despite an unprecedented fortnight of media attention, that has taken a toll on his private and professional life. Combo has already flirted with controversy and its consequent coverage thanks to his murals in Chernobyl, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Beirut. But nothing quite like the onslaught he has faced since 1 February 2015. “It’s been a real pain,” he says with a lightness that does not quite gell with “pain”. “As an individual I have no desire to put myself through this dramatisation. It’s contrary to my nature, my values. But,” he says with emphasis, “if it allows my message to be heard out there, then I have to do it, I can live with it. I’m not going to hide that I’m quite happy with the outcome.”



This outer calmness has been a feature of Combo’s behaviour since he was attacked by four unidentified men at the Porte Dorée that cold Saturday night. “Last night I was attacked for my art,” he wrote matter-of-factedly on his facebook page. “They began hitting me: one by one, two by two, all at the same time… Tomorrow,” he concludes, “I’ll return to glue my work up. The day-aftertomorrow, too. Our ideals are worth more than their low-life ideas.” A week later, with the support of the Institut du Monde Arabe and its director Jack Lang, he distributed over 500 replicas of ‘Coexist’ to volunteers who plastered the Paris walls with them. “It’s not the first time I’ve been assaulted,” he says between sips of his double-coffee. “I’m aware of the risks, I’d been warned about them, I knew it would be tricky. But when you’re jumped by several people it’s actually easier to defend yourself than against a lone attacker.” He chuckles. “The experience was so fast, intense, I can’t even tell you how long it lasted. But I do remember applying some of the boxing moves one of my younger brothers has taught me to defend myself.” As for the physical identity of the assailants Combo has remained resolutely obtuse throughout. “I will remain willingly vague as to the description of these cowards,” he wrote on his Facebook page the day after the assault, “because it matters little where they come from, the colour of their skin, their religion or their political ideas. In the context (we are living in), they only represent stupidity and ignorance.” It was the first time the artist had tried out the ‘Coexist’ sign on the walls of Paris. He chose the northeast Paris neighbourhood partly because he knows it well and partly because it was near the kosher grocery store Hyper Cacher where Amedy Coulibaly went on his murderous rampage three weeks earlier. “After the ‘events’ of last month I needed to send out a message near where it took place,” he says, not wanting to elaborate too much. “I can only say that ever since those attacks my works are torn down much more quickly, especially if there’s a reference like ‘I am Charlie’. They stay up just a few days at the most, especially if it involves politics, religion, any form of militancy which touches on a raw nerve. If I pasted up animals, say dolphins or pigeons, it can stay up. The less you disturb, the longer it remains.” He smiles and shakes his head. Combo’s choice of working with the logo ‘Coexist’ had been an easy one. “It seemed appropriate. This drawing was created by Piotr Mlodozeniec in 2000,” he explains, “but there’s no copyright issue, it’s been free-of-rights since he first showed it in a competition organised by the Museum on the Seam in Jerusalem. Plenty of other people have used it, including U2 in a concert [Ed., as part of the Vertigo concert tour when Bono wore the design on his headband]. I had the same idea of just spreading the message and afterwards people can recuperate it, deform it, breathe new life into it. If it gives it new impetus, all the better.” New impetus is an understatement to what Combo did himself. Where Mlodozeniec’s picture is clean and classic, the self-styled “photo-graffeur” makes the letters and signs bleed with black ink. Even ordinary-looking elements of it take on different mantles. When asked in a well-known television programme where were the signs representing atheists in “Coexist” he laughed: “In the letters O-E-I-S, of course. Yeah, if you count, there are more atheists than believers, in the end.”

France’s deuxième degré Next to the deformed word is his ubiquitous self-portrait harbouring the traditional djellaba robe, a long beard, a sturdy expression and a finger lifted to the sky. As with most of his work, Combo uses wheat pasted prints which are unpasted then glued to a canvas adding to the street atmosphere in his work. Why the djellaba? “Oh, it’s just to tell people that the djellaba is not to be identified with Muslims but with Arabs. It’s the same message at heart: just because you wear a djellaba and sport a long beard doesn’t make you a Muslim. It’s turning people’s perceptions on their heads, telling them they shouldn’t judge someone on their appearances, they should take time to •16•


reflect about what’s behind it all. What we call in French un deuxième degré, not taking things at face value, questioning taken-for-granted assumptions …” Combo chanced on the idea during his six-week stay in Beirut last year. He had been invited for a six month residency and told his friends he was off on his personal “jih-art”. What started as a joke turned into a project where his djellaba persona exhorted Beirutis to indulge in “Less Hamas, more hummus”, prodded them gently with a “No Imam, No Cry” or turned western fears of the Islamic State on its head: “Write on a black flag in Arabic and just see how the Westerners will panic. What do you think?”, he graffitied.

The Lebanon experience was an eye-opener for Combo. “I found a strong multi-cultural spirit there, they were very open. Lebanon is a real melting-pot, you know. When they say “hello”, for example, they throw together three languages: “Hi, kif, ça va?” It’s brilliant, these people don’t even notice this linguistic mishmash, that’s the future: you mix it up, recuperate from all sides and create a new language. That’s Lebanon.” The contrast in attitude towards Combo’s work also struck him. “They laughed when I drew the caricatures of the Arabs and told them ‘This is how they see you in France’. But back in France they really thought I had gone on a jihad, there was no deuxième degré. I lost friends, was insulted. It’s too bad.” This deuxième degré is very much at the heart of Combo’s philosophy. “I defend people with differences, the right to be an exception,” he says with insistence in his rapidfire way. “Religion, for example, I don’t have any, my sexuality certainly doesn’t include gay, women, well, I’m definitely not one. But I’ll defend these ideas, I stick up for people who are different and are attacked for that very reason. I hope people would do the same for me, I find it much too boring to defend my own differences. I prefer to stick up for the others, I’m better at it. It’s just part of me.” The only way Combo has found to express these convictions is through street art, with all the risks it contains. “You just can’t predict how people will respond, it brings up so many cultural differences. If I can get them to stop for a few seconds or take a picture, I’ve won. I’m always looking for a reference to draw them towards my work. And this is the most direct way, it’s the only truly free form of art we have left.” Why? “Because it’s not governed by money like film-making and music are. What is left in the underground besides us? There used to be cinema, rock, hiphop, punk, but that’s all gone. Nowadays, you have to agree with producers, distributers, record labels, they become a form of censorship.



“But my painting, well…” He draws breath and launches into the monologue with renewed passion. “It’s simple, just some pieces of paper, or canvas, and an image. For me, when street art starts addressing people it’s reconquering the street. Nowadays, that street has been confiscated, it’s no longer a public space, you have to ask permission to express yourself all the time. So street artists operate a coup d’état on a part of it, a wall.” When asked about the freedom afforded by the explosion of social networks, Combo shakes his head: “That’s just another example of censorship. Take facebook, for example. You can’t show a breast or someone smoking, you can’t write an insult, they’ll remove it. I’ve tested a few things: I’ve had no trouble with ‘Suck my duck’, but when I tried ‘Fuck school, I wanna be a street-artist’, that didn’t get through. Either way, it shows they’re in control, somehow.”

Cosmopolitan past The 2014 visit to Beirut was also a return to Combo’s paternal roots. He is loath to talk much about his family or the reasons why they moved around so much as he grew up. His Christian Lebanese father married a Moroccan Muslim and he was born in Anvers, France, in 1986. The parents took their four boys to Nice, Paris, Morocco, Central African Republic, Troyes and, and “….more, many more places”. “We travelled a lot, I got a taste for it and so I continue now, for my art, it’s something I enjoy.” Combo’s start in street art was an accident, born of a desire for revenge: “There was this French teacher we had, she really took it out on us and so we decided to paint her car. We bought these spray canisters, went out at night but we couldn’t find it, she had moved it. We had these canisters we didn’t know what to do with, so we started painting the walls. I was 16, that was 2000, no, 2002, I don’t know, I’m still not very good at maths.” He pauses and breaks out in his infectious, childlike laugh. Once he began spraying it was hard for the teenager to stop and his graff-art became a source of pride and a problem. “In France, the law is clear: pasting up a picture is, at worst, a fine, you rarely go before the tribunals, where you get hit with €5,000 euro at most. But a simple graffiti is a crime, it can put you behind bars as a penal offence and the fines can be over €10,000 euro [Ed. in fact, vandalism of public landmarks can lead to fines of up to €150,000 euro and ten years in prison…]. That’s not freedom! I was often behind bars, usually for 24 hours, from the age of 16 to 23 years old. And I’ve spent many summers working just to pay off my debts. I had friends who owed the State 80,000€ by the time they reached 18!” The hostility to street art appears widespread in France, as the artist elaborates in a wide-ranging 2013 interview with Art Media Agency: “People are outraged, shocked, and even gallery owners sometimes. I once pasted next to the Galerie Perrotin, and the owners came and threatened to call the police, while they exhibit JR, Kaws… They like Street Art in a drawing room or a gallery, but not when it overflows limits. And this is precisely our essential issue: limits must be overflowed, this is our identity!”

Ambiguous France Combo’s perception runs counter to a more complex love-hate “attitude” the French have to a form of art they were instrumental in creating. Indeed, the defiance of a determined group of French street artists since they burst onto the scene as early as the 1960s helped spawn a worldwide trend. They were amongst the first to transform graffiti into an elevated form of popular art and poetry, inspiring the likes of Shepard Fairey and Banksy. Daniel Buren was one of its pioneers with his Affichages sauvages in Paris metros in 1967, a concept he went on to export to New York and Tokyo subways. Four years later, Gérard Zlotykamien began painting silhouettes in the debris of the green market of Les Halles that authorities tore down to build today’s controversial shopping centre. The situationist Ernest Pignon-Ernest furthered French dominance of street art with alternative evocations of modern history and wheat pasted portraits of Arthur •18•


Rimbaud. But the fact that artists praised the French capital as the hub of a new street movement did nothing to allay official hostility to the practice: a police unit was set up to dismantle the artists’ “rings”, a 1994 law, one of the most repressive in Europe, made tagging a dangerous and costly practice; while, at one stage, the French SNCF railway company sued 56 of Paris’ most high-profile taggers. The Paris municipality currently employs three private companies to paint over graffiti it deems offensive or disfiguring. Each year, they remove approximately 200,000 m² from the Paris walls. The result in the 1990s and early 2000s was an exodus abroad and the birth of a burgeoning underground scene. It was in this period of conservative blacklash that Combo continued to refine his street work. The teenager’s artistic talents had been good enough to open the doors of the respected National School of Fine Arts at the Villa Arson, in Nice. But his endearment to testing the limits of street art led to his expulsion in the first year and a subsequent move to Paris. “They actually did me a favour,” he says with no sign of irony. “The expulsion pushed me towards the world of publicity, of all things, and I learnt plenty of tricks I’ve since used in my street art.”

Testing new horizons Combo is not prolix about his time as publicist and artistic director for agencies like BETC (ranked number one in its market), but after four years in the publicity world he threw in the towel and returned to his initial passion for the street. “Re-acquainting myself with the street atmosphere was easy,” he insists. “In those first years of trying my hand I was more interested in drawing personalities, I wasn’t transmitting much. Graffiti was my adolescence, you repeat and repeat the same gestures. You have to grow up, get beyond that. And bring out a message. After quitting publicity, I had new tools, fresh ideas. I brought with me a publicist’s spirit and deformed it publicly. Hence the Apache warrior name I took for myself, Combo Culture Kidnapper. I’m a blend capturing different cultural elements and meshing them together.” When he returned to the streets in 2010, France’s attitude to the graffeurs linked to the 1990s clean-up had given way to new approaches and initiatives by politicians. In 2014 specialist Susan Hack could write: “The capital has lately re-emerged as a street-art mecca, boasting a stunning architectural backdrop and a growing population of appreciative citoyens”. Sure, the laws against defacing private and public property remain, and are “so strict that it’s illegal to put up a poster for a lost dog in Paris, let alone wield a can of spray paint, without prior permission from landlords or city officials,” Hack commented. But “high-profile politicians are working with street artists to legitimise their art.” Not far from Combo’s favourite northeast beat covering Montmartre, République and everything in between, the mayor of Paris’ 10th arrondissment, Rémi Féraud encouraged official street art through the creation of Modulable, Urbain, Réactif, or MUR (“wall” in French) for short. The likes of Speedy Graphito, eL Seed, Carlo Rero and Jef Aérosol were auctioning off their works, hanging them in some of the 60 Paris art galleries selling such creations or collaborating with Disney animation movies. Meanwhile, the 13th arrondissement’s mayor Jérôme Coumet has been commissioning burgeoning street talents to paint giant murals to give colour to a neighbourhood better known for its Chinatown and the drab grey skyscrapers piercing the capital’s southeast sky. But Combo was pining for different horizons. Caught by a desire to send out a message about nuclear power, he decided to mark the first anniversary of the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Chernobyl. “France was out because the lobby is too strong here and I wanted to open the debate up to a world audience. As for Fukushima, forget it, it’s impossible, they even keep journalists at bay.” Entering the former Ukrainian nuclear powerhouse turned out to be a piece of cake, however. To this day, trips to the site are a thriving business. Combo had no trouble persuading a-former-military-man-turned-guide, to turn a blind eye for $500 (“it was more than a month’s salary for him”) as he wandered through the abandoned ghost town of Pripyat equipped with his posters and a Geiger counter. Within hours on a frosty April day in 2012, he pasted up •19•


several samples of his works ranging from real adverts lauding the nuclear industry to a giant Simpsons mural. The latter was all the newspapers seemed interested in. Was he disappointed the international media only focused on America’s best-known nuclear family? “Yes and no. I know how the media works. The Simpsons were a bait, it opened the door and gave me room for my message. You learn the tricks of the trade and use it to your own advantage. That’s what Che did in his own world. Call me a media guerilla, if you like.” The positive media response to the Chernobyl operation spurred Combo to try his luck in China. Angered by the arrest of Ai Weiwei and 130 fellow-artists, he decided to attack what he sees as an “absurd” marriage between the communist government and a “hyper-capitalistic” society. In January 2013, he boarded a plane for Hong Kong in a street operation he later dubbed “Golden Shield”. “It was a time of protest in the streets, the people needed something to smile about,” he says softly. “My work also serves as an amplifier, and the government had just banned Google. So it means you can get near things, but can’t touch them.” It was what Combo called a “golden barbed wire”: “Barbed wire is ambivalent and ironic: it is attractive and prickly at the same time!” (“Interview with Combo, urban artist”, Paris, 13 February 2013, Art Media Agency.) When asked about the risks he took in China, his response was somewhat prescient: “I believe that creating art implies a risk, both aesthetical and physical. When one creates Street Art, one has to take a physical risk: it’s the street, not a studio, the act is risky and fast. Doing it right to the end might well earn you prison!” The artist printed several screen captures of the banned Google pages to make 3x4m² posters. To smuggle them into the country he cut them into over 1,000 pieces, a practice he uses for all sensitive operations: “You can’t see the message if they’re all dispersed,” he says, gesturing broadly. “But it’s a helluva lot of work dismantling and putting them back together again!” The Parisian began pasting them up in the Hong Kong central quarters at 5am, an opportune time when police shifts changed. “I had studied their work patterns, I was very careful. People looked and moved on right away. There was a mixture of surprise and discreet pleasure, no one denounced me. I just had time to put up seven posters, there was Ai Weiwei’s arrest, one on Tibet, one on Tiananmen Square during the demonstrations, and so on. Interestingly, the poster which seemed to arouse greatest interest was the cat giving the middle finger. I’m not sure they understood it but there was quite a gathering.”

Art must be like Ramadan Back in Paris, or Paname as he affectionately calls it, Combo enjoyed his first solo exhibition, ‘Golden Shield’. This was a play on words referring both to the other name given to the Great Wall of China and the censorship programme the government operated against Google. He had no trouble with the notion of moving his works from the street to the art gallery. “It allows me to spend more time debating my ideas with people than in the streets. I don’t mind selling my art, as long as I don’t live off of it. My principle is to live your art as a passion, not as a profession. I was never so bland and unimaginative as when I devoted myself fulltime to my creativity. I spent a couple of the last years doing that and it limited me. So I just got a small job forcing myself to be frustrated. It’s like fasting for Ramadan, afterwards you have a heightened appetite. At least that’s how it works for me.” The success of his ‘Golden Shield’ exhibition did not stop Combo’s restless forages into the street. He continued pinpointing with humour the contradictions in his own society, calling himself a ‘citizen-artist’ (and not a militant). After being made aware by the group Les Morts de la Rue of the death of 162 homeless people in Paris between June and December 2012, he realised a pop-up installation next to the Bourse stock exchange to denounce the anonymity of their deaths. It was a collective work but Combo fiercely defends his individualism. “I just did it with friends, I’m not into collectives, I never look for unanimity in my work, we don’t have the same vision and that’s what is interesting.” •20•


Nevertheless, his ongoing interest with the Femen group seems rooted in a shared outlook he says he wishes to further explore. It first came to light with a bold tribute to the women’s militancy, a massive collage along the Canal Saint Martin for the 14 July national celebrations of 2013.

The wheat-paste, brushed and breast-dominated transformation of ‘Liberty Leading the People’ by Eugène Delacroix is one of Combo’s most audacious works. “I want to denounce the discrimination and other misogynistic behavior that women still suffer too often and to pay a tribute to the activists’ fight,” he told the Huffington Post at the time. “I want to work with femininity,” he explains to me 18 months later. “These women have become friends, I admire them, they take far more risks than I do. They are true revolutionaries, they take their ideals to an extreme, while I only ask questions, I have no answers, I’m just a painter. We’ve become good friends.” Whilst Combo pays homage to Femen’s commitment, he also acknowledges a more prosaic engagement and resilience of his own, a necessity if he hopes to survive as a street artist. “It’s exhausting, exhausting. You’re out in the street all night. People take real risks and put their private lives on the line. You lose your friends, don’t go out, invest all your money in what you believe. If you have a day job, it’s almost impossible. But this city gives you the adrenaline to transgress and resist. And there are no CCTV cameras on every corner here, so street artists from elsewhere are coming to us more and more.” Hence, the appearance on Paris walls of artists like the Australian Vexta, Alexis Diaz from Puerto Rico and French American Sowat.

Dancing on a fault line Combo’s guerrilla communication, or culture jamming as he prefers to call it, finds its inspiration in the French philosopher Roland Barthes. Barthes’ 1980 book La Chambre Claire: Note sur la photographie delves in the pleasure or emotion of the observer, provoked by photographs taken as far back as 1852. They are not composed classically but follow a more instinctive path: “A photo is surprising when you do not know why it has been taken,” writes Barthes. “A photo is subversive when it is thoughtful and not frightening.” Combo says he uses this notion to “deform the primary object by super-imposing another approach.” “I take an image and I penetrate it with an original idea.” In this way he hopes to subvert and divert mainstream media culture and its institutions, by using the very tools they are built on. His “subvertising” embraces well-known icons of the mass media and the entertainment world to



produce satirical and ironic commentary about itself. In this way, he hopes it will foster debate and progressive change. “It’s also a form of demystification, breaking the images we all know and giving them another slant.” Dancing on this fault-line in our world is something the Paris artist seems to do with humour and self-deprecation. Combo appears very much a loner and feels deep down street artists must strike out in different directions and let their individualities dominate any idea of a joint force. “I have no idea what there will be out there in three-four years time, and I hope I’ll be pushed aside by a new generation,” he says gently. He is prodded about limits and respect for the Other by Sajoua Bentayeb of the Upaint Street Art Festival who has been following our exchange. He answers carefully as if picking his way through a minefield: “The only limit we have to give ourselves is guided by our own morals. We can hurt people, that happens. But we can also say we’re sorry, there should be no misguided pride about that, that’s life. It’s okay to provoke, it’s just you mustn’t want to hurt. That’s my limit, there’s nothing interesting in hurting.” He turns to Charlie Hebdo’s reaction to the January murders: “When (the new editor-in-chief) Luz drew that first cover with Mohammed holding up a piece of paper saying “I am Charlie” under a banner headline ‘All is Forgiven’ I don’t think he was trying to hurt anyone. After that, you can’t guess how people will react, it’s complex. You can’t stop living by worrying about hurting someone. If you stop at the sensibilities of each and every person you don’t go forward, you do nothing.” It is by seeking this area out of people’s comfort zone that Combo hopes to force society to revise its attitudes. His culture jamming reflects this trend in street art, that of puncturing commercial icons in such a way as to challenge the ‘Bigger Picture’, or an over-riding political culture of corporate domination. At present, the Lebanese-MoroccanFrench artist is well aware of the heightened sensitivities on all sides to a debate currently raging in French society. He pleads for some humour in his two-level messages, this deuxième degré that is at times so elusive: “I don’t want to laugh at people, I just want to laugh with them. And then make them think.” Combo’s current explorations are on femininity and women’s rights. He is also hoping to artistically exploit some of the exchanges he picked up in his frequent if short stays behind bars. “I saw a graffiti on the wall there: “France for the French, French women for Africans!” That’s very poetic!” He laughs, then shakes hands as we leave and says, somewhat apologetically: “Look, I can’t say much more, it’s like giving the game away. You’ll see it in my art, I don’t know how to talk, I write badly. It’s only in the streets I feel at home.”

Daniel Brown is a journalist based in France and Vice-chair of Freemuse. Photos © and courtesy of the artist.



The Syrian uprising – art in the diaspora If there is a place where using the word “revolution” in the context of Syria does not result in endless and highly heated conversations, that is in arts and culture. Unlike politics – a slippery slope terrain where the 2011 Syrian uprising against Bashar al-Asad can take unexpected shapes and be easily turned into a “foreign conspiracy” or a “civil war” – the domain of contemporary Syrian cultural production seems to be deemed, unanimously, the one and only where an actual “revolution” is in the making.


To be sure, a cultural scene existed in Syria prior to the uprising. Even the country’s darkest times, marked by a tight control over artists and intellectuals’ creative expressions under Hafez al-Asad’s rule, witnessed the rise of a generation of talented cultural producers. As beautifully documented through the work of Lisa Wedeen and Miriam Cooke, this generation of writers and filmmakers had staunchly worked to push the boundaries of what was deemed possible or permissible at the time, sometimes producing remarkable works of art. During the first decade of the 2000s, under Bashar al-Asad’s presidency, however, the elite of cultural producers was mostly composed by people working for the tv industry, or by already well-established artists (several of whom were closely tied to the regime). Very few opportunities of experimenting and expressing themselves were given to the Syrian youth, indeed the most considerable part of the population demographically speaking. This youth carried a creative and innovative potential within the domain of arts and culture. Syria enjoyed relatively good music, art and theatre schools where young Syrians could study and experiment new formats and artistic languages; yet, this creativity was left behind closed doors, with very few opportunities to be displayed, performed, and discussed in public. It is mostly with the March 2011 uprising that this artistic potential has emerged, pushed both by a strong political cause – the uprising – and by an interactive technology – the Internet, particularly social networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube. •23•


During the first couple of years into the uprising, writers, scholars and journalists have celebrated the amazing outpouring of Syrian creativity, and its ability to exploit the potential of social networking sites to spread and reach out to a wider public with a clearly disruptive political message. This emerging creativity has been put into connection with the shaping of a self-conscious civil society movement, well aware that expressing itself through new creative formats could contribute to forming a powerful active citizenship.

Creative artists and activists Emerging Syrian artists have caught the world’s attention, such as Tammam Azzam. The young artist was already active inside Syria prior to the uprising; yet, it is his 2012-2013 series “Syrian Museum” – and particularly the tender, sensual painting ‘The Kiss’ by Gustav Klimt transported into Syria’s destroyed homes and walls – that has gained him international reputation. Art exhibitions have been put together, from Amsterdam to Copenhagen to Washington D.C. and Paris, to highlight Syrian creativity and the Syrian people’s resilience through arts and culture. User generated creativity has been widely celebrated; such as the posters, banners and slogans originating from the small village of Kafranbel, in northern Syria, with their dark humor and their ironic insights on international politics. And then, there was Da’esh. When the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” gained international attention with their brutal yet high-tech (and pretty “appealing”, in media terms) propaganda, even that little spotlight that, through arts and culture, was given to Syrian civil society, was turned off. Yet, the outpouring of Syrian creativity has never stopped; this is an ongoing phenomenon even right now, at a time when the media and the international community can only see two sides – the regime and Da’esh – being engaged in a violent battle for the control of Syria’s future. Dark humor and parody – features that have marked Syrian creativity throughout the history of the country’s cultural production – are now used to counteract Da’esh and its violent message. A good example is ‘Daya al Taseh’, a series of video sketches by Youssef Helali, Maen Watfe and Muhammad Damlakhy, lampooning life under the self-proclaimed “caliphate”. Parody is also employed by activists in campaigns to raise awareness on Syrian civil society being crushed by both the regime and Dae’sh: “same shit”, as the banners and posters designed and spread online by KeshMalek (‘Checkmate’) say.

‘The Kiss’ by Gustav Klimt interpreted by the artist Tammam Azzam. Source:



Digital activism In the past years, activists’ websites and repositories for user-generated creativity and civil awareness have boomed within the Syrian Internet. Lately, new online initiatives have been added to web platforms such as SyriaUntold and Dawlaty which in 2012-2013 pioneered the idea of archiving Syrian digital creativity and creating easy-to-access web repositories out of the Facebook “jungle” where the majority of Syrian creative works is buried.

The Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution is one of the latest additions to the rich universe of Syrian digital archives for arts and creativity. Graffiti, photos, films, posters and banners, music, all sorts and formats of digital creativity are stored on this web platform. There is also a section dedicated to the “critique of revolutionary art”, where newspapers’ articles and more scholarly oriented reflections are posted. And yet there is more to come: Zakera, the latest online platform dedicated to storing and preserving the memory of the Syrian uprising through the creative material that has been produced in these past years (videos, posters, songs, etc), is due to launch in a month, slightly after the fourth anniversary of the 15 March uprising. •25•


At the same time when initiatives for storing and preserving Syrian grassroots creativity are intensifying, with the aim of maintaining some attention on Syrian civil society movements and their incredible creativity and resilience; Syrian artists’ creative expressions are getting more mature. Lately, in the domain of cinema and experimental filmmaking, two extremely interesting works have caught international attention. Ziad Khalthoum’s ‘The immortal sergeant’, which premiered in August 2014 at Locarno International Film Festival, is an incredible account of the schizophrenia that Syrian civil society is obliged to live in on a daily basis.

Filmmaking In a Damascus divided between regime-controlled and rebel-held areas, life goes on, and so does filmmaking: Khalthoum’s camera savvily documents the changing moods of a city struggling to stay alive and human. Ammar al Beik’s ‘La Dolce Siria’ (‘The sweet Syria’), presented this year at Berlinale’s Forum Expanded, is a surreal tribute to Federico Fellini’s world set in contemporary Syria, where a circus supposed to bring joy to Syrian children turns into a pervert mechanism for the production of violence and fear. Despite being related to the current events in Syria and carrying a clear political stance, both works are, first of all, works of art. They are far from the “art of the Syrian uprising” types; pushing forward a much broader aesthetic and human question and, while doing so, attempting at finding a new language to tell their stories. To this extent, it is impossible to forget the lesson of Osama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s ‘Silvered Water – Syria’s Self Portrait’, presented last year at Cannes Film Festival. Mohammed is an established Syrian director living in exile who gets to rediscover his beloved (and lost) Syria through a young Kurdish woman filming for him in besieged Homs; and through the eyes of hundred thousands of Syrians, anonymous filmmakers who have sacrificed their lives to film and upload their visual documentation. ‘Silvered Water’ is an extremely sophisticated attempt at reading into a country’s personal and political history; at digging into the accumulation and the juxtaposition of digital memories, finally finding a way to tell the history of violence, and of the visual documentation of this very violence.



Image from

Syrian diaspora Signals that Syrians are moving beyond a sort of “instant” art as an immediate expression of the post-uprising moment, and reflecting within a broader aesthetic and political horizon, come from several domains and directions. To some extents, there is also a community of Syrian artists of a sort in the making. Syrian diaspora is now a harsh reality, with people of all classes and socio-economical backgrounds living scattered between Europe and the Middle East. While experiencing the living-in-exile situation, many artists have nevertheless recreated small communities, either through social networking sites – such as Facebook’s Syria Art – Syrian Artists page – or in real places. Berlin and Beirut are probably, right now, the most vibrant sites for Syrian contemporary art to happen, and for Syrian artists to gather. Especially Beirut, being so close – geographically and, to some extents, culturally – to Syria, is experiencing a boom of community-gatherings, exhibitions, public talks and private meetings revolving around Syrian art. Some of the most interesting contemporary Syrian artists live and work there, such as Yasser Safi with his incredibly powerful series of paintings evoking childish-like colored playgrounds haunted by adults’ twisted behaviors which place the act of killing and torturing within the most innocent yet pervert human gesture. Or like Abdel Karim Majdal al Beik with his mixed media works, and his most recent installation carrying the telling title of ‘Postponed Democracy’ as a reaction to the media hype for the so-called “Arab Springs” now turned into “winters”. Talented young Syrians are also part of this new artistic Beirut landscape in the making; visual artists such as Fadi al Hamwi, with his Francis Bacon-like atmosphere of human beings turning into animals, and animals being pervertedly humanised. Or performer Alina Ameer, with her powerful bathroom performance where her body bleeds while violently trying to brush away the dirtiness of decades of dictatorship, submission, and violence.



Images from the video by Alina Ameer

The Syrian Beirut-based arts and culture community offers a wide range of artistic disciplines and typologies of creative languages to reflect upon for those who are interested to understand where contemporary Syrian cultural production is heading. Not only visual arts and performances, but also music (including hard rock and metal, such as Tanjaret Daghet); filmmaking (watch out for Sara Fattahi’s upcoming documentary ‘Coma’ premiering at Nyon Film Festival ‘Visions du Réel’ in April 2015); and fiction-writing (Mohammad Dibo, one of the most promising Syrian journalists and intellectuals who penned a series of articles on al-Asad’s “secular sectarianism” has just published a sort of mémoires from Damascus whose title loosely translates into “As witnessing your own death”).

The concept of citizenship The gathering of this arts and culture community is facilitated by collective initiatives that are blossoming thanks to the personal efforts by committed Syrian individuals. A remarkable effort towards generating an intellectual debate (and promoting training sessions, publications, public meetings and conferences, etc) around the concept of citizenship has been initiated by Hassan Abbas, a professor of Arabic language and literature at the Institut du Proche Orient (IFPO) in Beirut. Abbas, who has been very active inside Syria since the start of the uprising, promoting humanitarian and citizen-related initiatives, has now moved to Beirut where he just launched a new study and research center aiming at creating knowledge and awareness on active citizenship. On the art side, it would be unfair not to remind of Raghad Mardini and her pioneering effort of putting together a community of Syrian artists around her amazingly beautiful art residency Aley, situated up in the mountains nearby Beirut. In a couple of years of activities, Mardini has gathered more than 50 Syrian artists, hosting them in her residency space and giving them the opportunity to produce and exhibit their artworks, but also to connect with fellow peers and initiate a debate revolving around creativity and artistic expressions in a state of turmoil and unrest.



What does it mean to make art and produce culture when your country is involved in a daily armed conflict? Does the creation of beauty and art have any meaning whatsoever if violence, killing and destruction are the daily bread of the Syrian human being? Can arts and culture contribute to make any change in Syrian society even when political change is unlikely? These questions are raised on a daily basis within the Syrian artistic community in Beirut, and elsewhere. The mere fact that they are being raised hints at a positive change in the making. Whether you call it “revolution” or not, it is definitively worth watching to see where this might be heading to.

Donatella Della Ratta is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Copenhagen focusing her research on the Syrian tv industry.



Syrian artists standing against tyranny The nationwide uprising that swept through Syria in March 2011 has created a rift between the country’s artists and intellectuals. Some of whom took the regime’s side, some preferred to remain neutral, while others chose to join the revolution since its early beginnings. However, their support of the uprising has had serious repercussions: assault, threat, arrests, exile and death. This is a list of Syrian artists who have been punished for resisting dictatorship. BY MOHAMMAD DIBO | 27 APRIL 2015

Artists murdered during the revolution • Bassel Shehadeh (1984-2012) Shehadeh was a Syrian filmmaker and computer engineer. He was one of the first participants in the revolution. Shehadeh was arrested in a crackdown on the artists’ and intellectuals’ demonstration on 13 June 2011. He was a pioneer in organising protests in Hama, Zabadani and Rastan. Shehadeh ended his journey in Homs, where he was filming a movie titled ‘I Will Cross Tomorrow’. On 28 May 2012, Shehadeh was killed during a government assault on the neighborhood of al-Safsafa in Homs, where he was buried according to his will.

• Wael Qastun (1966-2014) Qastun is a Syrian sculptor from Marmarita, Homs. Qastun’s sculptures focused on women and contemporary women’s issues. His artworks were exhibited in a number of art galleries. On 24 June 2014, Qastun was killed under torture in the military security branch in Homs. His family were asked to pick up his body from the military hospital of Homs.

• Fadi Murad (1980-2014) Murad was a Syrian painter who was detained on 8 January 2013, while returning from his work on the Mezze highway, in central Damascus. His family had no information on his whereabouts, until, on 7 April 2014, they received news of his death under torture in the military security branch in Damascus. •30•


• Imad Lathqani (1953-2014) Lathqani was a Syrian painter from the city of Hama. He graduated from Damascus University with an art degree in 1979. He received his PhD in the philosophy of art and artistic criticism from the Imperial Academy of Arts in Leningrad (Repin Institute) in 1986. Lathqani was a full-time professor at the faculty of architecture at Tishreen University, Latakia. He participated in dozens of art exhibitions, both individual and collective, in Syria, Lebanon and Russia. On the night of 23 July 2013, the artist was found dead in his apartment in Latakia.

Artists disappeared or still detained • Adnan Zira’i Zira’i is an actor and writer famous for the ‘Spray Man’ skit, an episode of the sketch-comedy show Buq’at Daw (Spotlight). The episode that was aired on state television before 2011, sparked a wave of spray men and women, who sprayed slogans of freedom on the walls during the Syrian revolution. Zira’i was arrested on 26 February 2012 by the state security branch in Aleppo. He spent one month in two different security branches until he was transferred to the state security branch in Kafr Sousa, Damascus. Legally, Adnan Zira’i, who has not been officially charged with any crime, should have been released on 26 April 2012. Nevertheless, he continues to be held in Kafr Sousa to this day. Furthermore, there is reliable evidence of torture against Zira’i, according to testimonies of inmates who were with him. • Leila Awad Awad is a Syrian actress from Aleppo and a member of the Syndicate of Syrian Artists. The actress attended numerous sit-ins and solidarity campaigns in support of the Syrian revolution. She also collaborated with fellow actress Yara Sabri in documenting the names of victims of arbitrary detention in Syria. On 11 December 2013, Awad was arrested at the Syrian-Lebanese borders, upon returning from Germany to see her only son. She was taken to the state security branch in Damascus, and ultimately to the Adra prison on 26 December 2013, where she is still being held. On 17 January 2014, Awad was tried in the court of terrorism, where she was convicted of the following charges: – Leaving the country illegally – Meeting with opposition forces abroad – Speaking against the regime and the state in her Facebook posts • Samar Kokash Kokash (b. Damascus, 1972) graduated with a degree of acting from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in 1995 in Damascus. Her parents are renowned Syrian director Alaa al-Din Kokash and Syrian actress Malak Sukkar. She has contributions in theatre, radio and television. Kokash was arrested on December 2013, by security branch 215 in Damascus, with no information on her whereabouts. On January 17, 2014, she was sentenced to 5 years in Adra prison by the court of terrorism on charges of “financing and promoting terrorism”. • Zaki Cordello Cordello is a Syrian actor and director, he graduated from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in 1984. Zaki was the former director of the Red Theater in Damascus. He had also worked at the National Theater for four years, with 20 theatrical performances. Codrello is considered a master of “shadow theater” in Syria. After his mentor, Abdul-Razzaq Thahabi, passed away in 1993, Cordello took it upon himself to preserve this traditional art. •31•


On 11 August 2012, he was arrested at his apartment in Dummar, a suburb of Damascus, with his son, actor Mehyar Cordello, his cousin and a friend. After their laptops were confiscated, the four men were taken to an unknown destination, with no information on their whereabouts whatsoever. • Nizar Jassem al-Hamad Al-Hamad is an animation artist with a degree from the Institute of Applied Arts in Damascus. He had been working as an assistant director in the animated series Adventure Island, when he was arrested in Damascus on 21 July 2012. There has been no information on his whereabouts since then. • Muhammed Tulaimat Tulaimat (b. Homs, 1941) is a Syrian modernist painter. He was kidnapped under mysterious circumstances on the way from his apartment to his studio in Uras, east of Homs. The artist’s wife paid six million Syrian pounds as ransom for her husband’s captors, who stole the money and disappeared, without returning Tulaimat. The Independent Assembly of Syrian Artists reported that the artist’s office and farm were ransacked soon after, along with hundreds of his paintings.

Formerly detained artists • Tareq Abdul-Hai Abdul-Hai (b. Sweida, 1967) is a Syrian painter, sculptor and photographer. He graduated with a degree of fine arts from Damascus University. He is also a member of the International Federation of Photographic Art, a member of the Photographic Art Club in Syria and a co-editor of a magazine published by the Federation of Syrian Artists in Sweida. Abdul-Hai was arrested by regime forces on three separate occasions. His first arrest was on 23 August 2011. The second was on 4 November 2012. He was also detained on 17 March 2013, to be released a month later, on 15 April 2013. He is currently based in his hometown Sweida. • Orwa Nyrabia Nyrabia (b. Damascus, 1977) is a Syrian documentary film producer, actor, writer and co-founder of DOX BOX International Documentary Film Festival in Syria. The fifth edition of the festival was canceled in protest of the Syrian regime’s crackdown on protesters during the Syrian uprising. Nyrabia was arrested at Damascus International Airport by Syrian authorities on 23 August 2012. He was released on 12 September 2012. • Kifah Ali Deeb Ali Deeb (b. Damascus,1982) is an award-winning painter and writer from Damascus. She was arrested on multiple occasions, the latest of which was in August 2013 after meeting with Mr. Mukhtar al-Lamani, the Damascus-based assistant of UN representative Lakhdar Brahimi. She was released hours later under pressure from the UN office. After receiving death threats, Ali Deeb left the country secretly to Lebanon, the UAE and then Germany, where she currently resides. • Youssef Abdelke Abdelke (b. Qamishli, 1951) is a renowned Syrian artist. In the late 1970s, he spent almost two years in prison for his involvement in the Communist Action Party. He studied printmaking at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus in 1976. He obtained a doctorate in Fine Arts at the University of Paris VIII in 1989. In 2005, he was allowed to return to Syria after twenty-five years of forced exile. On 18 July 2013, he was arrested at a checkpoint of the State Security Branch near Tartus, a coastal city in northern Syria. He was released a month later on 22 August 2013. •32•


• Mohammed Al Rashi Al Rashi is a Syrian artist and actor. He joined the anti-government protest movement early on, participating in a demonstration against the regime since 17 July 2011. He was detained on 8 December 2011 and released two days later. The artist is still based in Damascus. • Nidal Hasan Hasan (b. Tartus, 1973) is a Syrian filmmaker. He was detained for three days during the artists’ and intellectuals’ demonstration on 13 June 2011. The Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival had invited Hasan as an official guest in November 2011. He was arrested on 3 November 2011 while attempting to renew his passport to participate in the event. Hasan’s film “Three Stories of Life, Love and Death” had its world premier on 6 November 2011, while the filmmaker was in prison. Hasan was released on 22 December 2011. • May Skaf Skaf is a celebrated actress from Damascus, who starred in a long list of television series and movies. She joined the revolution from an early stage and was arrested briefly with a number of Syrian artists and intellectuals at the Midan demonstration, on 13 June 2011. Syrian security forces detained Skaf again in 2013, and she was forcibly removed from the country to Jordan, where she currently resides. • Rima Fleihan Fleihan is a screenplay writer and women’s rights activist. A month after the uprising began in March 2011, Rima Fleihan issued a petition condemning the crackdown on Daraa and asking for humanitarian access to deliver food, water and milk to suffering children in the city. Up to 700 people signed the petition, including writers, directors and journalists. On 13 July 2011, she was arrested in the artists’ and intellectuals’ demonstration in Midan district in Damascus. She was released after three days. Under threat, Fleihan was forced to flee the country to Jordan on foot, on 26 September 2011. • Jalal al-Tawil Al-Tawil is a Syrian actor from Damascus. He was one of the first actors to join the uprising, participating in the earliest demonstrations in Midan and Qabun districts in Damascus. The artist was brutally assaulted by regime forces on his way back from a protest on 19 December 2011. Security forces also arrested the actor after ambushing him at the Syrian-Jordanian border while attempting to flee the country. After being wounded by a bullet to the shoulder, al-Tawil was held at the military security branch in Daraa for ten days. He was released in January 2012, after the authorities forced him to appear on state television. • Mohammad Omar Oso Oso is an award-winning television actor and writer. On August 25, 2012, Security agents arrested Oso with members of his family, from their home in the western Damascus district of Mezze. He was released shortly after. • Reem Ghazzi Ghazzi (b. Damascus, 1973) is an actress and documentary filmmaker. She graduated from Damascus University in 1994 with a degree in English literature. She hold a BA in theatrical criticism from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus. She was arrested by the political security branch in Damascus on 27 November 2011. The artist was tried on charges of “undermining the prestige of the state, supporting and participating in demonstrations and being •33•


a member of a secret society”. She was released on bail on 8 January 2012. • Firas Fayyad Fayyad is a Syrian director who was arrested on April 30, 2011. He was released shortly after, only to be stopped at the Damascus International Airport in November of the same year. He was found innocent on charges of “spreading false news that could weaken the national morale, and belonging to an opposition party”, and was released on 20 February 2012. • Guevara Namer Namer is a photographer and film producer. Namer graduated from the Damascus Institute of Applied Arts in 2007 then joined the theater studies department at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus. She was arrested in the Midan district demonstration of artists and intellectuals on 13 July 2011 and released shortly after. On 7 December of the same year, she was stopped yet again at Damascus International Airport on her way to attend the Dubai International Film Festival. She was released a week later on 15 December 2011. • Itab al-Hammoud Al-Hammoud is a Syrian painter from the town of Qurayya, Sweida. She was arrested at the Syrian-Lebanese borders by the state security branch on 16 December and released on 29 December 2014. • Abeer Farhoud Farhoud (b. Damascus, 1987) is a Syrian painter and sculptor who graduated from the school of fine arts, in 2009. Farhoud was physically assaulted during a candle-light vigil for Syrian martyrs in Damascus during the early days of the uprising. On December 2012, she was arrested at a Damascus cafe during a training session with six other people. She was held at the Military Intelligence Branch 215 until her release on 10 March 2013. • Ruaa Jaafar Jaafar (b. Salamiyah, 1988) is a Syrian painter who graduated from the school of arts in Sweida in 2010. On 21 November 2012, Ruaa Jaafar, along with Rima Dali, Kinda and Lubna Zaour, dressed in bridal gowns and stood at the famous Medhat Pasha market in the heart of the Syrian capital, raising a red banner that read “Stop the killing, we want to build a country for all Syrians”. The four young women were arrested, to be released in an exchange of prisoners between the regime and the opposition on 9 January 2013. • Hazem Waked Waked is a Syrian painter from the province of Sweida. On 10 January 2014, security forces raid Waked’s apartment in Dummar looking for his friend, activist Maisa Saleh who had fled the country. He was arrested with Maryam Hayed, a volunteer in the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and journalist Shiyar Khalil. The three activists were forced to appear on state television, and “confess” to acting on orders of foreign powers. Waked was released on 18 December 2014. • Malas twins Mohammad and Ahmad Malas are two theatrical artists. The two brothers supported the uprising since its early stage and were arrested in the artists’ and intellectuals’ demonstration in Damascus in July 2011. After a series of assaults and harassments the twins fled Damascus to Paris where they are based at the moment.



Mohammad Dibo, current editor-in-chief of SyriaUntold, is a Syrian poet, writer and researcher interested in Syrian culture and economy. Mohammad’s latest work is an autobiographical book, ‘Like He Who Witnesses His Own Death’, about his experience in prison during the early days of the Syrian uprising. He is a regular contributor in many Arab and international newspapers. Translation from Arabic by Rua Zayat. This article was published in collaboration with SyriaUntold.




Musicians menaced, silenced and fleeing the country Burundian artists are confronted with ever-shrinking possibilities for open and free political speech. Well-known singers and band members are being targeted and, if possible, manipulated to change their artistic or political style. Several musicians have fled the country.


Fear of being assassinated is spreading among artists and journalists in Burundi. No one dares to speak out or stand up any longer. An international arrest warrant (‘mandat d’arrêt’) with an undisclosed list of names was issued by the procureur general and has made everyone scared. Since April 2015, the central African country Burundi has been going through political turmoil. President Pierre Nkurunziza was finishing his second term, and according to the country’s constitution he would not be eligible to run for a third term. Nkurunziza disputed and overruled both the constitution and the Arusha agreements from 2000, which had brought peace to the country that has been through more than three decades of civil war, and in July 2015, he won a new term in office after a contested election which was boycotted by the opposition. The last months since then have showed acts of violence and harsh repression against opposition members and civil society actors as well as media practitioners. Freedom of expression has been extremely limited, especially when five of the most popular private radio and television stations were attacked and burned during the month of May 2015. With the closing down of these stations, the new and upcoming generation of Burundian artists lost their outlets. Some of the artists were also engaged in the campaign against the third mandate of the president, mainly through songs that informed and sensitised the people of Burundi in their local Kirundi language. Some of these songs have been considered examples of expressions of hate speech, because they openly accuse and denounce the “others”. 


Reggae band threatened Apart from losing their main access to the airwaves, more is at stake for the musicians. Mentioning specific artists names might bring them in danger under these circumstances – which is also why most names have been removed from this article. The story about the famous and popular reggae band Lion Story is already out there, though, in numerous articles, blog posts and youtube video interviews. Long before the elections, in early 2015, Lion Story received regular threats because of the sharpness and openness of their lyrics. Some of their well-known songs dealt – in a symbolic, but highly understandable way – with issues such as corruption, political killings and harassments of members of political parties and civil society members. Some of their songs were used as the soundtrack of the May and June protests that were organised by the youths in the urban suburbs of the capital Bujumbura, where most street protests took place. On the other hand, it needs to be said that other songs also praised the president for all his results achieved during the last 10 years in power. With the political situation declining, week by week, the Burundian artists have been confronted with ever shrinking possibilities for open and free political speech. Due to the crisis almost no public concerts are being organised anymore, and in several areas, well-known singers and band members are being targeted and, if possible, manipulated to change their artistic or political style. Those who participated and supported the president did profit financially, but were on the other hand looked upon as “enemies” of the opposition and civil society and as a consequence dropped from playlists at private radio stations. 
 Artists as truth sayers For most of the youngsters involved in artistic, musical expressions, fear has taken over their lives. They fear the ruling political party will engage its youth members against them, using violence to silence the critics. Why? Because their songs could be seen as carriers of messages that inform about malpractices by the political parties. By using a specific national youth language, the songs “deconstruct” the political narratives used by political spearheads, and they denounce manipulators at nation-wide level. By doing so, these songs have the potential to warn and sensitise rural, young, and vulnerable citizens about the psychological and manipulative narrative which politicians use to engage them upon acts of belonging to “us”, and acts of violence against “them” – the others, the traitors. 
 Fleeing to Uganda and UK By the end of August 2015, the situation has evolved to a point that almost all artists are menaced in one way or another. Several musicians have fled abroad. Lion Story is probably the most famous one – “the prophet’s voice”, as they are often called, literally – in Kirundi. Several of their songs are directly targeting the party in power, CNDDFDD, and drew an antagonistic response from authorities: Lion’s Story’s studio was closed, and many of its concerts were abruptly cancelled. Some members found refuge in Uganda. According to International Business Times, one of the members is currently seeking for political asylum in the United Kingdom.

Fleeing to the US and Kenya Another artist has been declared an “enemy of the people”, mainly because his most famous songs are openly denouncing the assassinations and act of corruption of the political leaders in Burundi. He survived three attacks already and is at present in the United States with no security if he returns home. Authories are allegedly searching for the man who organised a concert with a controversial singer in the Muramvya •37•


province during the month of March 2015. An award-winning musician is currently being searched by the “Documentation”, which is the Burundian secret service, and this only for his song in which he refers to the need for politicians to first of all ask rural peasants their opinion before making any political decisions that are of concern to them. The singer recently fled to Kenya’s capital Nairobi. Another singer, who is well-known for his cultural songs and expressions, used to perform in a karaoke type of bar in Bujumbura. He has several times been refused to perform within his own bar that is extremely close to the place where the Burundian president plays football on a daily basis. Rumours go that they won’t let him perform anymore because he refused to sings songs of glory for the CNDD-FDD, the party of the president. He is also known for a very popular activist song in which he refers to some members of political parties who are “engaged in eating a lot themselves and never think of other that are hungry as well”. This particular singer was given the opportunity to participate in a musical festival in the United States, and he decided not to return to Burundi. 
 Engaged in political propaganda More singers have been confronted with problems for refusing to sing for political parties or joining campaigns. In 2010, a singer, who currently lives in Canada, performed almost all the songs for the presidential campaign. He refused to engage in favour of the president in the recent campaign, as he felt deceived by the politics of recent years. A similar story goes for a band which is known for their performances in the different karaoke bars of Bujumbura. Some members claim the band was obliged to perform songs in favour of president Nkurunziza. After having refused to perform, their bar was ordered to be closed down and some of the band members barely escaped personal attacks on them. Since late August 2015, the two artists have been back in Burundi. “We did not flee,” they said, stating that they only went to Rwanda to “broaden their horizons.” 
 Fear of becoming a target Yet another award-winning singer confirmed that he received threats, even without having composed songs with political connotations. He is related to a young movement leader of a coalition of youngsters that were campaigning against the third term of the president. The youth leader is currently in hiding in Rwanda. Five more known artists as well as an unnumbered amount of singers that are performing profane and gospel music, are travelling back and forth between Bujumbura and neighbouring Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Although they are not menaced in Burundi, they leave their country mainly out of fear of what is going to happen in the near future. A general fear has spread all over Burundi, and most musicians see themselves as one of the first that might become targets as the situation seems to be deteriorating and becoming increasingly dangerous. Most of them are in Rwanda, others in Uganda, and some are in the DR Congo or Tanzania. To round off this long list of persecuted musicians, the most recent one that fell out of grace with the president is a composer and the singer of a hymn praising the political party CNDD-FDD. Opposed to the third candidature of the president, he as well has had to leave the country and is currently living in Holland.

John Banram’s identity is known to Freemuse.



More about Lion Story: » Lion Story Reggae Family – profile on Reverb Nation » ‘Lion Story concert live Bujumbura’ published on on 20 August 2012

My Song: Lion Story battle Burundi’s injustices with reggae Published on on 7 February 2014

 More information about Burundi:

» International Business Times – 23 June 2015: Burundi: ‘Radical’ Lion Story reggae band member seeks UK political asylum in fear for life 
 » Committee to Protect Journalists – 26 August 2015: Silence in Burundi as violence forces independent press into exile Reports from Burundi 
 » PEN International – 5 August 2015: International press freedom organizations call on Burundi authorities to investigate attacks on journalists and human rights defenders



Demonstration in Novosibirsk on 5 April 2015 in support of cultural freedom, the Tannhauser opera and against censorship. Source: Igor Bolotin,


Cultural freedom under threat In this article Lena Jonson, Head of the Russia Programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm and author of the book ‘Art and protest in Putin’s Russia’, which was published in March 2015, describes that although censorship was forbidden by the Russian Constitution of 1993, since 2012 an informal ideological censorship has become more and more visible in the form of both self-censorship and administrative censorship. She analyses the new cultural policy since May 2012 and its consequences for cultural life and freedom of expression.


What is happening on Russia’s cultural scene? On the one hand, there are dynamic and interesting productions of theatre plays, films and art exhibitions. On the other hand, the number of scandals surrounding individual productions has increased of late. The ultra-conservative agenda of patriotism, orthodoxy and authoritarianism that Putin brought with him on his return to the presidency in May 2012 has drastically shifted state cultural policy. Russia’s war in Ukraine has added tension and polarised the political atmosphere in society, as the hunt for “internal enemies” and a domestic “fifth column” becomes a priority on state television. How is the new political situation influencing cultural life? How serious is the threat to cultural freedom in Putin’s Russia today? There is no formal censorship in Russia because it is forbidden by the Russian Constitution of 1993. Nonetheless, since 2012 an informal ideological censorship has become more and more visible in the form of both self-censorship and administrative censorship. This article analyses the new cultural policy since May 2012 and its consequences for •40•


cultural life and freedom of expression. A Litmus Test: Wagner’s Tannhauser opera in Novosibirsk I will illustrate the current atmosphere in the Russian society by looking more closely at the scandal surrounding the production of Wagner’s opera Tannhauser at the Novisibirsk State Academic Theatre for Opera and Ballet. This case includes all the remarkable components of the new situation – how the Ministry of Culture now directly intervenes in cultural life and the extent to which reactionary patriotic and religious groups are permitted to determine the destiny of theatre repertoires and cultural policy. The opera had its premiere in December 2014. In January 2015 the Metropolitan, the bishop of the region, declared that the production “offended the feelings of Orthodox believers” and took the theatre manager, Boris Mezdrich, and the director of the play, Timofei Kulyabin, to court. Two months later he had successfully instigated demonstrations by religious and patriotic fanatics outside the theatre, demanding that the opera be removed from the repertoire. The best known and most respected names in the world of Russian theatre – among them the leaders of key theatres such as Oleg Tabakov, Mark Zakharov, Lev Dodin, Galina Volchek, Dmitrii Bertman and Kirill Serebrennikov – stood up in support of the director and the manager, and for freedom of cultural expression. The preliminary investigation of the Novosibirsk district court found nothing criminal in the theatre production. However, the bishop did not give up, and persuaded the prosecutor to reopen the case. At this stage Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinskii intervened, criticising as unacceptable the way in which the director and manager had demonstrated a “lack of respect for traditional values” and demanding that they apologise for having offended the feelings of believers. When they refused to apologise, Mezdrich was fired. Medinskii ignored the ongoing judicial process by firing the manager without waiting for the result of the court case. For the local fanatics, however, this was not enough. On the day Mezdrich was fired, the bishop had called for a mass prayer to take place in the square outside the theatre. This turned into a political meeting, and demands were made for senior names on the cultural committee of the regional government to be fired, people accused of being liberals. As the witch-hunt continued, patriotic-Orthodox activists extended the campaign to Moscow. As a demonstrative act against the head of the Chekhov Theatre, Oleg Tabakov, who had supported the Novosibirsk manager and director, a pig’s head was placed outside the entrance of the theatre. What does this event tell us? The key phrase here is “offending the feelings of religious believers”. There is a kind of witch-hunt taking place in society, where groups of representatives of the Orthodox Church, extreme patrioticreligious organisations and reactionary Cossacks push Putin’s already conservative agenda further and further in a reactionary direction. These groups have the ear of the Putin regime and of the local representatives of his political party, United Russia, and are therefore able to influence decisions in the courts, the media and the local administration. But there are also voices of resistance to religious and patriotic fanaticism and in support of freedom of expression in cultural life. Putin’s new conservative agenda and cultural policy An authoritarian-conservative agenda had been coming for several years before it became official policy in May 2012. The appointment of Vladimir Medinskii as Minister of Culture was an excellent fit for the new agenda. By the time Putin gave his speech at the Valdai Club in September 2013, strongly emphasising the importance of identity in the spiritual, cultural and national senses and calling for a restoration of the Russian cultural code, a new state cultural policy was already in the making. Putin formulated the guidelines for this policy as: “Who are we?” and “Who do we want to become?” Medinskii was well-known as a conservative nationalist. His views were characterised by one critic as “Russian Weimar resentment”, meaning feelings of national indignation over the lost position of a once great power. He immediately tried to make an imprint on policy. In contrast to his predecessors, who had left the cultural sphere to •41•


fend for itself, Medinskii wanted to actively intervene in cultural life. He embarked on a reorganisation of cultural institutions. Citing economic efficiency and improved management, he started to merge, reorganise or close institutions and replaced respected directors with young, loyal managers. Sometimes, the entire staff of an institution resigned in protest, as was the case at the Museum of Cinema under Naum Kleiman. Medinskii deliberately used the allocation of resources as a carrot or stick to persuade institutions to follow state policy. Critics saw this as a clear effort to redesign cultural life according to the new conservative paradigm. Medinskii demonstrated early on an interest in hands-on decision-making, and the film sector became the first field in which he intervened directly. A combination of appointing loyal directors to cultural institutions, guiding the flow of monetary support and using expert councils to verify content was perceived as the model for how he would gain control over other cultural sectors too. He took control of the Fund for State Support to Film Production by subordinating it to the ministry in early 2013, and made patriotic films a priority. The first conflict took place over Milyi Khans, dorogoi Petr (Dear Hans, Dear Peter), a film by Aleksander Mindadze about the friendship and competition between a Russian and a German engineer during the now sensitive period of Soviet-Russian cooperation in the immediate pre-war period. The ministry sent the film to a military-historical council, which recommended rejecting it. Experts on the council argued that such cooperation could not have taken place just before the outbreak of war. Critics of the ministry’s decision concluded: “This case … shows that portraying historical events can be done only in the way the state remembers them. Otherwise, in the name of the ministry, the state will create as many expert councils as necessary in order to have its way”. Mindadze gave in to the ministry, changing the time in which the film was set in order to secure the financing. Contemporary art was also targeted by the ministry. The ministry tried to marginalise it by giving priority to academic and traditional folk art. Even though the ministry financed the large part of the Moscow biennale of contemporary art, and Medinskii even opened it in 2013, it was his words about its major project that were given most media attention: “I kept thinking: Why doesn’t anyone shout ‘the emperor is naked!’?”. “Why, under the label of contemporary art, do we have to see something abstract—cubist, clumsy, in the form of a pile of bricks? And what is more, it is paid for with public money! Not to mention that this is incomprehensible to the vast majority of the inhabitants of Russia”. There was strong reaction when in December 2014 Medinskii’s deputy, Vladimir Aristarkhov, announced that the ministry planned to sponsor art with a “positive impact on people”. That same month, the ministry’s fine art section, which had focused on contemporary art, was merged with the folk art section. Although the ministry provided no explanation for the reorganisation, the art world regarded it as a sign of the ministry’s negative attitude towards contemporary art and of a change in state cultural policy. Proposed guidelines for a new state cultural policy were published in the spring of 2014. The final document was signed by Putin in December 2014. Drafted by a group in the presidential administration in May, it was a cleaned up and modified version of a first draft published in April by the Ministry of Culture, which had met with a strong reaction. In spite of the more neutral wording and formulations compared to the original document, however, the major pillars remained. In order to understand its basic ideas, it is useful to discuss also the more outspoken, earlier versions of the document. First, Russia was described as a unique civilisation beyond the categories of “West” and “East”. This was an indirect way of declaring Russia different from Europe. The controversial formulation of the April document that “Russia is not Europe” had been abandoned, but the idea remained that Russia is based on a specific system of spiritual values, referred to as a “cultural-civilisational code”. Rejecting the “liberal-Western postulate”, this code embraces traditional Russian, national, patriotic and religious values. These values are characterised as “conservative” and rooted in Orthodox Christianity. While restating the key role of Orthodoxy, the final version of the document mentions the contributory role of other religions and non-Russian ethnic groups on Russian territory. •42•


Although the major task of state cultural policy was said to be to preserve the identity of Russian civilisation and its specific values, an interesting about-face took place in the presentation of Russia’s relationship with the European tradition. Putin’s notion that many Western countries had abandoned their roots in the Christian values of Western civilisation opened the way for Russia to be portrayed as the true defender of traditional European values. Consequently, in an interview in September 2014 Medinskii called Putin a “Russian European” defending traditional European values: “Many of our emperors were authentic Europeans”, he noted, “and nowadays, after an interruption of a century, a Russian European again stands as the head of Russia”. The Putin regime had obviously discovered the potential for partnerships with the “new right” authoritarian nationalists on the European political scene. Second, there is the belief in an instrumentalist view of culture—an educational function is attributed to it. The purpose of state cultural policy is “to steadily form a national mentality”, since strengthening the Russian value system and forming the moral orientation of the individual is considered the way to unify the nation. Third, there is a belief in an active role for the state in culture. The ministry is, in the name of the state, no longer “just a patron” of cultural activities but an investor, and in this capacity also the regulator of the system and of cultural institutions. The April document openly declared that “not everything that presents itself as ‘contemporary art’ can expect to receive state support”, and that no references to the freedom of creativity can legitimise “behaviour that is unacceptable from the perspective of the traditional Russian system of values”. Calls for tolerance needed to be cautiously scrutinised in order “not to accept the capitulation of Russian values to values alien to Russia”. Since this formulation bluntly indicated a censorship function, however, it was omitted in the final version. Fourth, there was a managerial approach to culture. Culture was not assigned a value in itself but regarded as an investment in the development of the country in a similar way as other state investments. The state therefore demanded to oversee the efficient investment of its capital. On 24 December 2014 President Putin signed the decree The Foundations of State Cultural Policy.This final version with modified formulations had the character of a compromise document, but the major thinking from the previous drafts was maintained.

Screendump of the home page of Ministry of Culture:

The document thus strengthened the conservative policy introduced after 2012. Culture had become a particular concern of the regime. In the tense political atmosphere of 2014 and 2015, this policy turned into an offensive against



cultural productions that did not fall in line with official policy. This approach was illustrated by Valentina Matvienko, Chairman of the Federal Council, who in 2013 argued: “Russia has long been in need of new cultural standards, since we have witnessed in the past ten years an intervention of ideas that are alien to our culture”. Thus, the conservatives launched their offensive.

The offensive on culture Existing informal censorship has an ideological character, where the official buzzwords are “offending the feelings of religious believers“ and “violating traditional Russian values”, interpreted as patriotism, orthodoxy, anti-liberalism, traditional family values and strong support for Putin as leader. These buzzwords have been used in all the conflicts and scandals in recent years. They have a legal aspect in those cases where violations of the Criminal or Administrative Code can be identified. “Offending the feelings of believers” can be interpreted as the criminal act of instigating splits between groups of people on the basis of their religious, ethnic or social belonging, according to article 282 of the Criminal Code which is part of the legislation against extremism. The organisers of the art exhibitions “Beware! Religion” in 2003 and “Forbidden Art” in 2007 were convicted under article 282 in 2005 and 2010. The verdict against Pussy Riot in 2012 was based on article 213 of the Criminal Code, on organised hooliganism. New legislation since the summer of 2012 has extended the scope for offences against religious feelings and traditional values in the Criminal and Administrative codes. “Violating traditional Russian values” is often code for accusations that cultural productions are “homosexual propaganda”, “immoral” by showing nakedness and “vulgar” by using street language or swearwords. Being unpatriotic can follow from accusations of “painting too black a picture of Russian social life” (chernukha), or criticising historical figures and “distorting” historical facts by discussing the dark sides of Russian history. Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film, ‘Leviathan’, was criticised for chernukha: there was too much drunkenness, corruption, legal arbitrariness and dirt. The Minister of Culture criticised the negative picture it painted of the Orthodox bishop and the Orthodox Church. Zvyagintsev’s film has not been banned in Russia but it reaches its Russian viewers mainly through the Internet and not the film distribution network. The conservative offensive works mainly by creating scandals in order to intimidate and threaten theatre managers, film directors, art curators and the organisers of various cultural events. It acts to a large extent through proxies of “offended citizens” or patriotic and religious citizens, which create loud demonstrations, disrupt or halt theatre performances and, of course, go to court. The mere fact that a play, film or art exhibition might end up in court or cause a scandal is often enough for managers, directors and curators who do not want to risk costly consequences for their future career and lives. In the past three years theatre has become a special target of the conservative offensive. In this regard it has replaced contemporary art, which had been singled out for attack in the first 12 years of the century. New plays in the style of New Russian Drama have been attacked, but more recently productions of the “classics” by Pushkin and Dostoevskii, among others, and Wagner’s opera have also fallen foul of the conservative offensive. Among the new plays criticised is Getting Frostbite (Otmorozki) by Zakhar Prilepin, at the Gogol Centre, which was accused of containing “extremist content with a demoralising (tletvornyi) influence, homosexual propaganda and paedophilia”. The Gogol Centre has been a particular target. Led by the dynamic theatre producer, Kirill Serebrennikov, a star of the New Russian Drama since the turn of the century, this Moscow theatre has long been a thorn in the flesh of the conservatives.



The same can be said of the small theatre, Teatr.Doc, famous for its documentary verbatim plays. Its plays about the night the lawyer Magnitskij was left to die in prison, One 18-2012, the trial of the Forbidden Art exhibition, Offended Feelings, the Pussy Riot trial , as well as a production based on a Dario Fo play, ‘BerlusPutin’ (2012), have all provoked patriotic Orthodox activists. As a result, the theatre lost its venue when the local authorities suddenly ended the lease and the theatre was forced to move. On occasion, the authorities have directly intervened to prevent theatre performances or the reading of plays. At the Open Book Festival in 2014, Aristarkhov warned in a letter to those responsible for the venue (The Central House of Artists) that there would be no financial support in future if readings of three particular plays took place. These plays had been branded “dangerous to the psychological health” and “homosexual propaganda” by a leading Russian newspaper. The readings were suspended. Even more remarkable, however, is the new trend of targeting innovative theatre productions of classical plays. The argument is that these productions are not loyal to the original intentions of the writer, and that the traditional way in which these plays are usually produced has not been followed. Among the targeted productions are several by Konstantin Bogomolov, such as Boris Godunov by Pushkin, The Brothers Karamazov after Dostoevskii and An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde. These were all praised by audiences and professional art critics but attacked by Orthodox and conservative groups. A performance of Wilde’s play was interrupted by two religious fanatics who climbed on the stage to accuse the producer of blasphemy. Also among the targeted performances was Lev Dodin’s The Queen of Spades by Pushkin.

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The new state cultural policy encourages criticism of innovative theatre and opera productions for deviating from traditional themes or forms and reinterpreting classic texts. The state and the church are in alliance in this regard. The theatre critic, Marina Davydova, discussing this new trend quoted a representative of the Orthodox Church and his criticism of Tannhauser: “the production [at the Novosibirsk theatre] is offending Wagner. Everything is distorted and has no relation to this classical work… The church is sometimes accused of fighting the arts. But the church is not against the arts but trying to defend them. Today we are in a situation where it is necessary to defend the classics, including Wagner”.



In line with this defence of “tradition”, the state Likhachev Institute (Heritage Institute) presented a study of whether a selection of films and theatre productions were distorting the texts and ideas of Pushkin. Productions by some of Russia’s most innovative theatre directors of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Ruslan and Ludmila, as well as Boris Godunov were assessed. The experts concluded that the productions could be characterised as “self-denial of the nation” and recommended that the Ministry of Culture should only finance productions that “do not destroy tradition but instead lead to the education of generations”.

Where is it all heading? Russian art and theatre critics argue that the “sacralisation” of the classics by clinging to traditional forms and interpretations of classic works is the result of an ongoing “total conservative revolution” that is taking place simultaneously in various sectors of society. They explain this sacralisation as fear of change, of loss of control and of portraying genuine situations and conditions. This fear is shared by the authorities and by large parts of the population. The defence against “distorted interpretations” of the classics, Russian history and traditional values, and the struggle against blasphemers and the offenders of believers’ feelings, turn out to be an ideological package that propagates loyalty to the state and the regime. Interesting in this regard are the words of Stanislav Govorukhin, head of the State Duma’s Committee on Culture, who on 25 March stated that offending the sacred objects of religion is equal to undermining the foundations of the state. This was the case before the 1917 February revolution, he argued, when the priest, the representative of the Church, and the police, the guardians of law and order, had become negative figures in Russian literature. The Russian commentator, Andrei Melnikov, concluded that, “with his words [Govorukhin] … definitively demonstrates how the concepts of the religiously sacral and the political foundations of the state have been confused in the minds of officials. There are worrying signs that formal censorship might be on its way back. The day after Mezdrich was fired the deputy head of the presidential administration, Magomedsalam Magomedov, said that it would be better to arrange preliminary screenings of plays in order to avoid scandals since the “repertoire of a theatre must not include productions which produce splits in society”. This was repeated by Medinskii’s deputy, Aristarkhov. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitrii Peskov, said that “the state has the right to expect from creative collectives that they make correct productions”. In mid-January, the Ministry of Culture said it was preparing a bill that would ban public distribution of films considered to be “defiling national culture, creating a threat to national unity and undermining the foundations of the constitutional order.” The argument that productions that might cause splits in society must be avoided, however, is always interpreted in support of people who have had their patriotic and Orthodox feelings offended. It does not support those affected by Stalin’s prison camps, for example, who feel offended by the new official Stalin rehabilitation. An even more worrying sign is that the authorities are prepared to allow a mob of extreme right patriots and Orthodox fanatics to decide the future of cultural life by threatening scandal and violence. In Krasnodar in southern Russia the local authorities cancelled at the last minute a concert by the popular hip-hop artist, Noize, which was due to take place in early April, after threats from extreme groups and Cossacks. These Cossack groups caused a scandal in 2012 around the art exhibition, “Icons”, curated by Marat Gelman. They later managed to halt plans to create a museum of contemporary art in the region. Now, the local administration represented by the deputy governor together with the police, security forces and procurator, met with activists and took the decision to cancel the concert. It is remarkable that the authorities give in to threats and take a stand in favour of one side in conflicts like this instead of upholding the authority of the state by defending the right of concert-goers to see a concert of their own choosing. There is still some way to go before Russia



gets back to its past, which involved articles 70 and 190 of the Soviet Criminal Code on anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. Unfortunately, however, there seem to be strong political forces pushing in that direction.

Noize – screendump of

That said, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. The cultural community reacted strongly to the scandal around the Tannhauser opera in Novosibirsk. Not only did leading names from the world of Russian theatre and film stand up for their principles, but the head of the Bolshoi Theatre immediately invited Kulyabin to produce operas at the Bolshoi. The Russian film Union (Kino soyuz) circulated a petition demanding that Boris Mezdrich be reinstated and Medinskii resign. A demonstration took place in Novosibirsk on 5 April of more than 3,000 people demanding the same. And the artists nominated for the prestigious ‘Innovatsiya’ premium of contemporary art in a public letter stood up in support of Tannhauser, cultural freedom and against the “clerical and reactionary policy of the Ministry of Culture”. These demands will hardly be met by the authorities but they are signs of resistance to Putin’s authoritarianconservative regime and to the threats to freedom of cultural expression — and as such they give hope of a possible future for Russian culture and society.

Lena Jonson is Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Russia Programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm. She was the Cultural Counsellor of the Swedish Embassy in Moscow 2005-2009. Author of several books and publications. Her latest book is ‘Art and Protest in Putin’s Russia’ (London and New York: Routledge) 2015.



Slimane El-Kamel and his painting ‘Mémoire-miroir’


The alternative voices: Artists in the Arab world Sandwiched between two of the most deadly terrorist attacks Tunisia has known in decades, several dozen artists from the Arab world gathered in Tunis to debate the link between art and violence. Many face censorship or deadly threats to their art and lives as their countries have been sucked into violence on a scale last experienced a century ago.


It’s a simple enough display: five Rubik’s cubes aligned under the cold glare of a white neon light. There’s one distinctive feature, however: the coloured squares originally conceived by Hungarian Ernö Rubik 41 years ago are now all black with moving horizontal lines of white tape transforming the cubes into a provocative representation of Mecca. The 2004 work is called ‘Brainteaser for a Moderate Muslim’, conceived by Moroccan Mounir Fatmi and described by critic Lillian Davies in the following words: “The optical exchange that takes place between mental image and physical object creates a bond reminiscent of Sufism. The ‘house of God’ is no longer at the centre but becomes an image to be played with.”



11 years later, ‘Brainteaser’ takes on an entirely new dimension. Arab artists are confronting a contemporary world in which revolution and war have shaken convictions to their foundations. As part of a collective work seeking to represent the new élan and contradictions in much of the Arab world, the Moroccan’s cube mirrors many of the convictions of Lina Lazaar, young curator of ‘All the World’s a Mosque’ (meaning: ‘The entire world is a mosque’).

Lina Lazaar “Nowadays, we must pick up the gauntlet thrown in our faces by the extremists.” Lazaar’s arms make a circular movement to embrace her giant installation. “To do this, I’ve tried to deconstruct and dissect all these superficial exterior symbols that define the Islam of today. We must go beyond the outer shell, le contenant, represented by the veil or the minaret, and plunge into what our religion truly contains, le contenu, enriched by the philosophies of Rumi and, more recently, the Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb (ed. one of the Arab world’s leading literary figures who died in November 2014, see You can read their enlightened vision on all the



walls here. The idea of these containers is to export them around the world to challenge the reductionist visions of Islam.” The polyglot, named one of the ten most influential women in Middle Eastern art paused and smiled as if a bit dazed at the realisation she had pulled it off. “We collected all these works in the space of three weeks. The artists shared our need to make an artistic statement as quickly as possible after the Bardo massacre two months ago. I think we pulled it off.” The hundreds of visitors filing out of the two-floor installation, appeared to concur. The Rubik’s cubes is on the first floor of a two-floor assembly of 22 bordeaux-coloured shipping containers assembled like giant Lego pieces with bridges and stairwells linking them together. According to the promotion, it aims for “an interplay between sacred space, religious ritual, cultural content and everyday life.” The result is an unlikely elegance to the 2,000m² assemblage set up in a parking lot of Carthage’s most famous theatre. The whole reflects Fatmi’s cubes: splayed open, exposing the doubts and vulnerability of a composite Arab community of artists that have rarely come together before. But also mirroring the unerring courage and defiance of artists who have not cowed to pressures of comformity and threat swirling inside and outside the Arab world.

Art in the face of violence ‘All the World’s a Mosque’ also attempted to reflect the spirit of reconciliation sought by the organisers of the third edition of Jaou. ‘Jaou’ is a Tunisian colloquial expression translating as ‘pleasure’ or ‘nice atmosphere’. According to its founder Kamel Lazaar – a Geneva-based Tunisian banking entrepreneur and, yes, Lina’s father – Jaou was initiated as a meeting of minds to overcome what he told me was “the often painful relationship between art and politics in the Islamic world.” Following so shortly after the bloody 18 March attack in the Bardo museum, this leitmotiv was replaced by an urgent need to assess the role of art in the face of violence.



Kamel Lazaar “This was a barbaric attack against our heritage,” underlines Kamel Lazaar in a frank exchange outside the conference room. “We had to react and there is nothing better than visual arts to counter this disease poisoning our lives. Artists have this capacity to heighten awareness, explain and thereby change perceptions. Paradoxically, in the difficult economic climate we’re experiencing here in Tunisia there has never been so many art galleries opened, debates and forums on the state of the arts in our country. And we take pride in being at the forefront of such reflections in the Arab world.”

Participants at the third edition of Jaou Kamel Lazaar’s words have been borne out by empirical studies published by Annabelle Boissier. The French social anthropologist from Aix-en-Provence’s LAMES research institute examined Tunisia’s artistic evolution between 2003 and 2013. At Jaou, Boissier underlined four trends over that decade: the number of Tunisian artists has doubled,



there are three times as many men involved, there was a sharp rise in artists born after 1980, and international exposure has also seen a steep climb. “But let’s not get carried away,” she says, “artists remain on the sidelines, even if they are respected for their intellectual pedigree and what they contributed to the revolution. New pressures are discouraging more from joining: nowadays, they no longer face as much censorship from official circles, but there is a degree of self-censorship and peer pressure which stymies their development.” Since 2011, academics have been scrutinising Tunisia’s artistic laboratory with growing interest: “The first two years of the revolution there was an incredible energy,” explains Rachida Triki, art critic, curator and university professor in Tunis. “Cultural associations and artists groups sprouted everywhere, including in the swathes of territory marginalised by the central government since independence. Regions like Kef, Sbeïtla and Bizerte have spawned women’s theatre, youth exhibitions, musical creations in rural towns where self-censorship and financial marginalisation had dominated for the previous 50 years. These were places forgotten by the political and cultural elite. That’s no longer the case. But with all the political uncertainties, this creative drive is running out of breath, artists are becoming frustrated, certain old bad habits – corruption, elitism – of the pre-revolution days are returning. Add to that the growing insecurity and catastrophic economic realities we’re experiencing, and you can imagine how challenging it is to be a Tunisian artist nowadays.”

“Artists are like turtles: slow but with beautiful resistant shells” These concerns were at the heart of the sometimes heated exchanges during the symposium. Participants argued that art in Tunisia continues to be dominated by the upper-middle classes, excluding the dynamic community of street artists as well as creators from the rural areas. Artists denounced laws and certain bureaucrats from the Ben Ali era working within administration who, they claim, continue to bar artistic expression and attempts at reform by the newly-elected representatives.

Mourad Sakli •52•


But it was the financial strangulation which appeared to pre-occupy many other artists present. Respected Tunisian film-maker Moncef Dhouib clashed openly with the recently-deposed Minister for Culture Mourad Sakli over “the impossible bureaucracy barring (artists) from subsidies” available at the Ministry. Dhouib claimed it nipped artistic projects in the bud and had forced dozens of film-makers and creative artists to abandon their careers. He explained: “There are 7,000 employees there overlooking 2,000 Tunisian artists and eating up over 70 per cent of a budget which is supposed to feed into our works!” Sakli, an internationally-recognised musician himself, roundly denied the charges, claiming the state budget for culture of 0.85 per cent was the highest in the Arab world, and that over 700 culture institutions had been established around the nation. “After the 2011 revolution,” he told the audience in the Bardo basement seminar room, “civil society became a lot more active and this is reflected in the cultural policies and new laws the successive governments have instigated.” Government authorities plead mitigating circumstances in explaining its difficulties in instigating meaningful legal, social and economic reforms to help artists. A debilitating international recession, steep drops in tourism revenue and a form of artistic anarchy have put a brake on several initiatives, they claim. “We’re still in the apprenticeship phase as far as freedom of expression and democratic processes are concerned,” insists Sakli after the symposium. “And that implies all the unfortunate abuses we’ve seen. There is work to do with the younger generations, from kindergarten upwards, in order to guarantee this responsibility towards artistic freedom.” For the former Carthage Festival director, a greater involvement from the private sector is also vital to guarantee artists the creative space they so crave. Sakli insists there are government subsidies and infrastructural support out there, but Tunisian artists are still grappling with the know-how to use them.

Olfa Feki



“That’s only in theory,” denounces Olfa Feki of the Maison de l’Image she cofounded in 2014. “These new laws are never applied, and artists are discouraged by the mind-numbing bureaucracy where projects are lost, you’re sent from post to post, people refuse to take any responsibility, there is a general paralysis. The only projects which seem to get speedy approval are linked to gastronomy or tourism.” Dhouib believes 80 per cent of an artist’s energy is spent trying to find public subsidies and several have given up as a result. “But we’re persuading the private sector to get more involved,” he says with a wry smile under his bushy pepper hair. His trademark moustache twitches. “It’s a slow process all this, but we’re still here, an open conversation with a top politician like this shows we’re changing little by little. My symbol has always been the turtle: we creators are slow but have a beautiful shell that’s resistant.”

“Without censorship we have nothing to lean on” Not all Tunisian artists share this cautious optimism. And the challenges to their artistic freedom do not necessarily only come from ultra-conservative religious groups. The latter made headlines back in 2012 when their followers attacked an exhibit in La Marsa because artist Mohammed Ben Slama used ants to spell out the word ‘Allah’. By a quirk of the calendar, the Jaou symposium coincided with ‘L’Autre(s)’, an exhibition in central Paris organised by two Tunisian artists, Sonia Said and Jaleleddine Abidi. The modest event centred on the visions of war and peace by a dozen artists from the Arab world. At the opening, Abidi was scathing about the artist’s lot in contemporary Tunisia: “Corruption has become rampant,” he tells me, “artists have to circumvent the state administration and find new ways of getting their artworks into the public eye. We have created alternative networks which do not depend on public money. Painting is one thing but theatre has become the best form of communicating widely, usually in the street or far from the major cities.” Before leaving his homeland, Abidi had devoted his energy to working with local youth in the isolated western region around the Jebel Chaambi mountains. From his exiled home of Paris, the 33-year-old has an unusual take on the realities for artists since the 2011 revolution: “There is currently no limit to our freedom of expression in Tunisia. And this handicaps the artist. In the past, they used censorship as a trampoline, it set up the walls we tried to break through. Now that’s gone, we’ve got nothing to lean on.” Invited painter Houda Ajili believes there is a question of class hampering Tunisia’s artist community currently. “There is an elite group based in the outskirts of Tunis, Sidi Bou Said, La Marsa and its Café Saf Saf,” she explains during her visit to Paris. The curator of the Salon d’Automne International en Tunisie is scathing: “There is a union of fine artists with about 500 members in Tunisia. Only ten percent really fructified after Ben Ali’s overthrow. Those others, artists on a Sunday, have nothing to do with art. They took advantage of the revolution, while a minority lived it firsthand, on the barricades. I didn’t touch a paintbrush for three years, I didn’t have time, I was in the streets all the time soaking it all up.”



Said Aïdi, Health Minister Selective government support Ajili survives thanks to grants from abroad and a Commission of Purchase set up by Tunisia’s Ministry of Culture. This structure uses its budget of 1 billion dinars a year (450,000€) to purchase up to two works per artist. Newlyappointed Minister for Health Said Aïdi sympathises with the frustrations of many in Tunisia’s artistic community. We met at an exhibition supported by Jaou called ‘Réminiscences’ where new artists were showing their works in a hangar in Tunis’ outskirts normally reserved for industrial wares. “Of course people are impatient,” he says. “This society is searching for a new identity, it’s lived through an earthquake. Even if it’s a positive one, the revolution must grow into something new and the government cannot intervene, civil society must regulate itself. Unless, of course, there’s a personal attack, slander, and so on, and we have laws to counter this. We must grow, and we can only do that if there is free expression which can be articulated whilst respecting those around us.” We pause in front of a collage by Slimane El-Kamel called ‘Mémoire-miroir’. The painting is what the artist calls a metaphoric map. On it, a Salafist is placed next to a naked woman and a copy of The Origin of the World, the female sex first drawn by Gustave Courbit. “This is an extraordinary tableau,” comments Aïdi. “It reflects the Tunisia we love: open-minded, full of the colours we have and the audacity to mix modernism and a heritage which is several thousand years old.” His face turns somber: “The consequences of frustration and impatience can be terrible. As Health Minister, I’ve observed an increase in suicide attempts recently. It’s only through culture and education that we can bridge the divides that are present in Tunisian society. In the past, the youth couldn’t express their talent, let alone share it. Yet culture must be shared or it becomes schizophrenic. Nowadays, you can have artists like El-Kamel challenging us without fear of censorship or repression. And that can be the cement to unite us.”

From the street to art galleries This role for artists was powerfully articulated by academic and artist Nama Khalil. Her exhaustive paper ‘Art and •55•


the Arab Awakening’, published in Foreign Policy in Focus exactly three years ago has lost none of its resonance. Acknowledging that Tunisia has been at the forefront of the artistic upheavals witnessed throughout much of the Arab world, Khalil insists artists “are making art that engages in critical discussions about politics, religion, culture nationalism and identity.” The US-based academic, a fine artist herself, pursues: “They are questioning the relationship between the state and cultural production and imagining new ways for culture to transform society.” Khalil explains the longstanding animosity towards ministries of culture in Arab nations, which usually saught to defend state ideology. When the revolutions swept through the region, the artists took their works into the streets, new public spaces where their artistic activism reflected and inspired the uprisings. Nowadays, she concludes, “art creates a dialogue between the artist and the audience. Under the old authoritarian systems, this dialogue was often uni-dimensional. As a result of the tumult in the Arab world, the dialogue has expanded considerably. In fact, it has helped to foster a more vibrant civil society and to point the way toward more durable democratic institutions.” At the cutting edge, Khalil claims, are the street artists whose ubiquitous symbol during the Tunisian uprising was the upraised fist. “Tunisian revolutionary art was expressed primarily in street and poster art and inspired street paintings in Libya and beyond.” At May’s Réminiscences exhibition, Slimane El-Kamel cuts a shy figure, looking like someone who had ambled into the hangar accidentally after a kick-about in one of the capital’s dusty backstreets. Yet he is very much a living example of Khalil’s reflections. El-Kamel was part of a group of youth in Sidi Bouzid where Tunisia’s revolution was sparked off 17 December 2010 by Mohammed Bouazizi’s immolation. Within days, El-Kamel and his artist friends dove into the uprising body and soul. “Bouazizi’s sacrifice tore away the fabrics of illusion around us,” he tells me shyly. “I read a lot about this. As a result, my work has become anchored in a sociological approach to art. It’s partly inspired by Guy Debord (ed., French philosopher, founder of the International Situationist movement in the 1950s) and his book ‘Société du Spectacle’. But I’ve added a local flavour. In my works, I like to make elements meet for the first time, like that Taliban posing next to the anonymous vagina painted by Courbit. I hope it creates poetry, something between love and war, life and death, indifference and commitment, reality and tv-reality.” Tunisia’s post-revolutionary administrations do not always sit comfortably with El-Kamel’s approach, however. “It’s not easy, I continue to be pressured, and my work has often been refused or censored. But I’m able to teach students my vision at an arts institute so I don’t depend on the state to live. This frees me.”

Street artists at the forefront Since Ben Ali’s overthrow in 2011, Tunisian artists have been cautiously toying with taboos. At times this has led to violent confrontations as witnessed in the June 2012 riots mentioned earlier. At the time, Sofiane Ouissi, co-director of the biennial art festival Dream City, suggested to reporters the following explanation: “Under the old censorship and oppression – it was conspicuous; we could locate it; it was clear for us. But now, since it was displaced, it has come into the public space, you never know where dictatorship is going to emerge.”



This has not discouraged artists challenging these public spaces. As Luce Lacquaniti amply describes in his book ‘The Walls of Tunis: Signs of Revolt’ collectives such as Zwewla and Ahl El Kahf continue to invest walls throughout much of the capital with political and social slogans. According to the photo-journalist, they did much to chronicle the historic upheavals and challenge the cliches: “For Zwewla,” Lacquaniti tells a journalist, “it’s not about secularists, Islamists or politics. It’s about the redistribution of wealth, more employment and economic growth, especially in the more marginal regions of Tunisia.”

Oumaima Manet

Oumaima Manet (in the middle) and fellow dancers



26-year-old dancer Oumaima Manai is convinced this streetwise energy has not dwindled in the intervening fourand-a-half years since the revolution, but nor have the tensions. The choreographer began her precocious career in the Ballet National de Tunis as a five-year-old and is currently one of the country’s leading dancers. “We appropriate the space accorded to us in the street,” she tells me at the Bardo museum where the brutal slaying of 22 people occurred on 18 March 2015. Together with her two dancing accomplices, she contemplates the bullet-hole still visible in a glass containing encasing a young Bacchus statue. She shakes her head and turns to me. “The street provides us direct contact with the population. People don’t choose to come to see us, they don’t always accept it with grace, of course. But there are always ways of side-stepping their reprobation.” Street performances are still a new and disputed phenomenon, insists Manai: “They question our vision of the body. You feel that tension just by walking in the streets here, and it’s especially centred on the feminine body, its shapes. But that’s a debate raging throughout the Arab world, our relationship with the body.” Her recent work ‘Tounsi’ metamorphosises this questioning into a solo around a ‘bonbonne de gaz’, a large blue gas container commonly used in Tunisian kitchens for cooking: “It symbolises the domesticised woman,” says Manai who emphasises that she does not anchor her work in the 2011 revolution. “But it’s also an explosive object. I like working with calculated risks. The bonbonne can be a partner or it can blow up. It’s a way for me to explore the body in a different way.” For Hela Ammar, “artists here are fighters and they have to battle it out to survive.” This Tunisian artistphotographer allies her creativity with a hardnosed career in law. At the Jaoui symposium Ammar presented photos comparing the 2011 revolution with pictures of demonstrations dating back to the 1920s. “History just repeats itself,” she tells the attendance, “the same demands and slogans were used a century ago.” Later, she elaborates to me, standing next to one of her giant photos which part of an exhibition called ‘Traces… Fragments d’une Tunisie contemporaine’: “We struggle but it’s great because there’s none of that formatting that plagues artists in the West.” Ammar quotes willingly the names of Atef Maatallah, Ibrahim Mattous, Ismaël and Fakhri el Ghazel as artists with works that centre on injustice and iniquity in today’s Tunisia. Along with these young creators, her own works are currently seducing art critics abroad, with a landmark exhibition in Marseille enjoying respectable success. These are necessary international outlets at a time of unceasing turbulence in this small nation. “I have a feeling we’re living Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilisation within our society,” exclaims Ghazi Mrabet, one of the country’s most high-profile human rights lawyers and cofounder of the Al Sajin 52 (‘Prisoner 52’) collective aiming at reforming one of Tunisia’s most hotly-debated laws, N°92-52 (see below, ‘Controversial law’). Mrabet has spent years defending artists, particularly musicians, in cases centred on freedom of expression. “There are two forces going head-to-head here: the secular (laïc) vision turned towards the modern world, espousing the great ideas of the French revolution. And another current that is based on an extreme interpretation of Islam that has been imported from the Orient. They are converging here, it’s something we live in a crazy way every day. We are discovering these two radically different Tunisia’s at the same time. It’s tough but somehow exciting to live through.”



Ghrazi Mrabet

Note: The artists had been invited in May 205 to Jaou, for a three-day symposium which also exhibited their visions of modern art in the face of the seismic upheavals in much of the Arab world. The artists were from a wide swathe of Arab states, stretching from Morocco to Iraq, via Bahrein, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, as well as their respective diasporas. The symposium set in the Bardo museum climaxed with the inauguration of an audacious itinerant installation, All the World’s a Mosque. This labyrinthine exhibit conjugated works by 26 artists who had answered the organisers’ urgent call for another vision of what Islam is today.



Floating over the 26 works is the deep voice of singer Ghalia Benali. The call to prayer by the Belgian Tunisian singer is also groundbreaking: no woman apart from Egyptian diva Um Qalthoum has sung the call publicly before. “And even then,” Benali explains, “Qalthoum deepened her voice to sound like a man.” She adds: “I took such pleasure recording it that I couldn’t sleep afterwards. I chose a segment called Rast. For us Muslims Rast has a special significance because it’s the first sentence you hear when you enter this world. Your father usually whispers it into your ear when you’re born.” And Benali twirls away down a corridor to the beat of her prayer.

Controversial law One of Tunisia’s most controversial laws, No. 92-52, was concocted under the Ben Ali regime to combat the use, trafficking or promotion of all drugs. This legislation condemned those found guilty of possessing drugs to one to five years in prison and a heavy fine. Opponents at the time denounced abuses of this law by the ruling party, police and magistrates who they claimed systematically planted bogus proof of drug taking to muzzle dissident voices, particularly outspoken youth leaders. Uniquely, law No. 52 harbours an article, no. 12, which stipulated that no attenuating circumstances can be considered by judges when sentencing. Such widespread abuses were rarely criticised despite the repeated flouting of freedom of speech they incurred. 23 years later, the former military strongman has fled but much of the legislation is alive and thriving: according to human rights NGOs like Human Rights Watch (HRW), almost a third of the 25,000 Tunisians behind bars have been sentenced under this law. “Most of these are simple consumers,” claims the former director-general of prisons Habib Sboui, quoted in the French daily Libération. Dozens of those incarcerated have been artists, mainly musicians and street artists, who were found guilty of consumption of zatla, the local slang word for hashish. Authorities claim they introduced legislation this summer which will soften the punishment and allow judges to accept attenuating circumstance. A claim local human rights organisations are contesting, asserting it could even prove worse for freedom of artistic expression.

Daniel Brown is a journalist based in France and Vice-chair of Freemuse. All photos © and courtesy of the author EXCEPT the third photo showing the exhibition ‘All the World’s a Mosque’ in daylight which is © and courtesy of Kamel Lazaar Foundation.



Hip-hoppers pose on Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis


Musicians confronted with censorship and repression Of Tunisia’s entire artistic community, the musicians – and in particular urban rappers – have borne the brunt of the state’s censorship and repression. A wide legal arsenal has been used to drag musicians into court and throw them unceremoniously into gaol.


In Tunisia, there are two kinds of rappers. First, there are ones like El General and Mos Anif who captured broad international interest at the outset of the 2010-2011 overthrow of General Zinedine Ben Ali. At the time, their popularity resided in texts denouncing both corruption and social injustice. Yet they were couched in a profound respect for Tunisia’s traditional moral and religious values and were noted for their absence of verbal violence, swear words or insults. El General was briefly thrown in prison on 24 December 2010 and became something of a symbol of Ben Ali’s repressive policies on culture. Then there are the underground rappers who go by the names of Weld El 15, Madou MC, Phénix, Klay BBJ, Bendir Man, Hamzaoui Med Amine and Spoiled Boy. Their rap is an abrasive yet festive description of their experiences of ongoing police violence, urban poverty and political corruption. These urban poets claim the ills of the Ben Ali era have stretched on unabated into the five years since Tunisia’s revolution. Their texts take off the gloves in describing police abuse and political connivance. The words are drawn from ghetto slang and are violent, torrid and hardcore. “The violence is rooted in direct insults of the police,” writes Mohammed Fliti, a Tunisian doctoral student whose thesis is on the link between politics and rap in his homeland Fliti continues: “Rap has become an essential feature of Tunisia’s music scene. It is rap which best expresses the anger and sense of confusion amongst the youth… Nowadays, it centres on questions of social justice.” •61•


Which could go some way to explaining the ambivalent positioning both of successive governments and the wider public to their music. Some of the country’s most notorious rappers – Weld El 15, Phénix, Kafon, Madou MC – have been arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences, their music banned from radio and television. They were charged with crimes as diverse as plotting against Tunisia to consumption of illegal drugs. Some have been forced into exile in France or even joined the ranks of the Islamic State in Syria. According to independent blogger Olfa Riahi, their popularity has not translated itself into support from the population in their struggle against the state. “They criticise not only the government but the extremely repressive laws in Tunisia on cannabis consumption,” Riahi recently told Lilia Blaise of the Tunisian weeklyRéalité. “And this stance does not really seduce the wider general public.” Pernicious censorship of the poor Of all Tunisia’s artistic community, musicians, and in particular, urban rappers have borne the brunt of the state’s censorship and repression. A wide legal arsenal, particularly Article 121 of the Penal Code has been used to drag musicians into court and throw them unceremoniously into gaol. (See Daniel Brown’s article on Artistic freedom – Tunisia walks a narrow tightrope). Rappers are also targetted through abusive use of the anti-marijuana law 52 (ibid). But for percussion virtuoso Imed Alibi, there is a more pernicious form of censorship. “The cultural authorities of our country are dead-set against what you could call the ‘music of the poor’, as well as music from rural regions,” he explains in the quiet and spacious cultural centre Dar al Finun which he helps to run in central Tunis. “We call it “mezwed”. This is popular music where women sing accapella, then are joined by the bendir frame drum, our own tabla tijaniya (ed. See and the mezwed wind instrument which gives the music its name. But this popular style is frowned on by the Ministry of Culture where bureaucrats prefer to subsidise commercial garbage for the elite in cities like Hammamet, Sousse and Tunis.” The 37-year-old has played with a plethora of international stars ranging from Justin Adams to Zé Luis Nasciemento, Michel Marre and Hamid Bouchnak. But he is committed to breaking what he calls “a corrupt form of using public funds” in order to finance some of Tunisia’s most prestigious events and festivals. “The Carthage Festival sells tickets at a price equivalent to three days salary for an olive picker,” he exclaims. “This elitism is creating tensions, it’s becoming urgent to address what is causing them. The youth are giving up hope, they’re marginalised, there’s no places to perform or see concerts in rural regions like Maknassy where the revolution began. Our culture has to be decentralised or it will starve.” Sentenced in absentia The disillusionment has spread to the top names in hip-hop, seen as standard-bearers for the generation that emerged during the 2011 uprising. After repeated brushes with the law, top rapper Emino shocked the music community in March 2013 by joining the ranks of Islamic State in Syria. Whilst the likes of Weld El 15, real name Alaa Eddine Yacoubi, and his childhood friend Madou MC have exiled themselves to France. “What do you expect?” asks the rappers’ lawyer, the flamboyant Ghazi Mrabet. “They have been charged with crimes ranging from plotting against the state and participating in a rebellion, to conspiracy to commit violence against public officials and verbally abusing civil servants (ed., in French: outrage à un fonctionnaire publique), in this case the police force. Some offences are punishable by seven years behind bars. Not to mention the most widely-used law against the youth of this country, possession of cannabis and its promotion through channels like their musical lyrics. The infamous Law 52.” This 23-year-old law condemned consumers and peddlers of cannabis to a year in prison, while Law 53 did not allow judges to consider attenuating circumstances. The latter was modified in May 2015 to allowing the judicial body to admit such circumstances. However, the recent incarceration of Klay BBJ for “possession and use” of cannabis •62•


underlines the relatively limited impact of the new legislation. (See article on Rapper Klay BBJ released from custody). Whilst serving an eight-month sentence under Law 52, Weld El composed Boulicia Kleb or The Police Are Dogs. “Every civil servant of (the Ministry of) the Interior is a corrupt shit,” he raps. “He sits up for his generals, this dog.” “Weld El went too far,” admits Madou MC, who began the new underground rap movement with his childhood pal eleven years ago. Madou and three fellow-rappers spent six months in gaol in 2013 because Weld El dedicated a music clip of the Boulicia Kleb song to them. “Many policemen even helped him when he was hiding from the authorities. Look, my dad’s a cop, he actually understands what we rappers are trying to do. They’re not all dogs…”

Madou MC on Avenue Bourguiba We are sitting on the picturesque Avenue Bourguiba, central Tunis, just days before Madou leaves for France, a fiveyear work permit in his pocket. Nearby, a group of young hip-hoppers from the popular southern ghetto of Kabbaria are practising their art on the steps of the municipal theatre. Many of Tunisia’s most popular underground artists, including Madou, are from there. One of them breaks away to salute Madou and thank him. “This is what gives me hope,” the 26-year-old confides afterwards, “Here’s a posse (ed. a rap group and its followers) called KBBA, 12 rappers, a couple beatmakers and a raggamuffin guy. They’ll pick up where we left off. It’s tough for us, we live in what you call galère in French, something like hell, but there’s always hope.” We return to the Weld El affair. Madou is not bitter but admits that he can no longer work with his old friend. “Because he dedicated that clip to us, the judge was convinced we were all in it together. But I had nothing to do with it, none of us did. You know,” he pursues, “I’m not a politician, I don’t use double-speak, I just say it the way it is. My rap is nothing new, just a reminder of the government’s promises to the youth. I also remind my generation that they can do things, they can save their lives. They just have to get off their asses.” Madou chuckles when I ask for details of his court case. “I wasn’t in the country when they tried me. I didn’t even know about it, I wasn’t invited to my own trial. I was in Morocco when friends called me up and said: ‘Hey, you’ve just been convicted to six months at the Mournagaya prison, in southeast Tunis.’ Yeah, I was surprised. I hesitated a long time before finally handing myself in.” He pauses before saying matter-of-factedly: “It’s not much fun to be cooped up 22 hours a day in one of Tunisia’s most notorious prisons. There were 40-50 of us in a cell made for ten…”



Madou MC Like a ton of bricks French Tunisian film-maker Hind Meddeb has been chronicling the surge in urban music since the Arab uprisings began. (See Victor Salama’s article on Tunisia and Egypt: Music Censorship After the Spring). She is the daughter of one of Tunisia’s best-known philosophers, the recently-departed Abdelwahab Meddeb, and has modernised her father’s iconoclastic approach to Arab culture. After groundbreaking documentaries on the links between music and politics in Morocco, Lebanon and notably Egypt, (see: Electro Chaabi), she turned her attention to her homeland. After four years of coverage, Meddeb is putting her finishing touches on Tunisia Clash, focussing on underground rappers like Madou MC who have been targetted by the police and successive administrations.

Hind Meddeb, film-maker “There are obvious parallels between Egypt and Tunisia,” the 37-year-old explains with characteristic intensity. “Young musicians suddenly enjoyed a huge amount of artistic freedom for a couple years and used it to compose



songs on daily ghetto life in raw but humorous language. It never got played on radio or TV, but it was huge on social media. Then the authorities fell on them like a ton of bricks.” Hind is no distant observer. During Weld El’s trial in 2013 she reacted to the rapper’s sentencing by standing up in court and screaming “Shitty country! Now I really understand what Weld said in his songs!” She was expelled from the court, arrested and later given a four-month sentence for outrage against a magistrate. Thanks to a personal intervention by French president François Hollande, this was suspended, but it has marked the young film-maker. “The police were really scary. They used tear gas against us, threw me into a crowded cell, then intimidated me into signing a document I didn’t really have time to read. It was only much later I found out I had been accused of insulting and physically attacking the police. It was ludicrous.” Meddeb’s eyes flash angrily. The case continues to prey on her mind, but she says it’s nothing next to the pressures on the country’s youth. “They feel they have got nothing out of this revolution. They’re censored, thrown in gaol on trumped-up charges and can find nowhere to play. I try to show this in Tunisia Clash. It’s a fly-on-the-wall sort of film, going into rural Tunisia as well as the poorer neighbourhoods of the cities. And you really see that these musicians are echo chambers for the aspirations of the younger generations, a catharsis.” Rappers as citizens? Mourid Sakli begs to differ. Whilst the former minister of culture in the 2014-2015 government deplores the ‘excesses’ of the justice system and its use of Law 52 against the rappers, he brushes off Meddeb’s accusations of censorship and repression. “The military and police are doing an extraordinary job in Tunisia,” he said in an exchange at the Bardo museum, site of the murderous rampage by gunmen on 18 March 2015. “They are under constant pressure. And when you have a rapper who goes on stage and starts insulting them like Weld El 15 did in a concert in Hammamett, they obviously get a little defensive. But all these problems have been quickly resolved, it’s over.” Sakli is also a specialist in what he calls neo-traditional Tunisian music and is quick to defend the rappers’ contribution to the revolution. “They accompanied the uprising more than any other musical community. They did this in two ways: directly through their lyrical denunciations of the Ben Ali’s politics. And indirectly by mixing their music with films and video clips that showed incredible imagination. And you always feel that very Tunisian characteristic, humour. In the most important moments of our history that’s always been there.” “These young revolutionary artists have to work to become citizens,” says Sonia M’Barek emphatically. She is one of Tunisia’s best-known malouf singers. Since 2014, Mbarek has taken up the heavy mantle of directing the country’s most prestigious music festival in Carthage, the FIC (Festival International de Carthage). “We’re living a delicate moment, with Tunisians growing increasingly disillusioned about the benefits of this revolution. It’s driving them towards a radicalisation and this is where musicians and other artists can be useful: we can build bridges between different classes and visions. So that people can be more tolerant with each other and understand where they’re coming from.” Mbarek acknowledges the impatience expressed by rappers but cautions on the effects their words can have on the disenfranchised youth. “Rap is a direct and hard way of communicating, a bit too raw for my taste. Other music styles use more metaphoric and poetic ways of expressing change. Whilst I’m against limiting freedom of expression, there’s a question of respecting your neighbour. That freedom stops where the freedom of the other begins.” What the singer deplores with a degree of passion is the precipitation of Tunisia’s revolution. “Our country needed a cultural revolution before a political one.” Mbarek clenches her fist with the word ‘before’, pauses, sips her coffee in the La Marsa cafe we meet in, then continues. “We’re still waiting for those new ideas, and education has really dipped in the past decade. There’s no new ideology accompanying the political and economic transformations. It makes young people restless, they have no patience to let it form naturally. So, there’s a real malaise, they’re •65•


becoming desperate, have stopped voting, and are joining the ranks of extremists. Or they’re expressing this unease through rap songs.”

Sonia M’Barek

Mbarek hopes her festival will help transmit messages of tolerance to counter the obscurantist ideology reaching out from internet networks. “We’re going to take the festival into the forgotten parts of Tunisia next year autumn (ed. The festival usually takes place in July-August). It will be multi-disciplinary and political, with a small ‘p’. And the hip-hop culture, in all its diversity, has a huge role to play in this. It’s vital: if these divisions deepen, upheavals will almost come naturally and could wash away all the gains we’ve won in the past four years.”

Daniel Brown is a journalist based in France and Vice-chair of Freemuse. Photos by Daniel Brown.

More information: » Revolutionary Arab Rap – 22 October 2011: El Général, Hip Hop, and the Tunisian Revolution




The political legacy of muzzling artists In June 2015, Israeli artists made a collective roar against their government over its arts funding policy which bans dissident artists. Like everywhere else in the world, the government of Israel can choose which artists to support with public funding. It can ban, expel and censor artists, according to its own political agenda. The exclusivity of the Israeli case, however, is the rigidity with which culture and its artistic expression is governed as well as the lack of alternative, politically-independent, ‘unlobbied’ funding opportunities for especially Mizrahim (Arab Jews) and Palestinian artists.


“We, the signatories below, are the voices you are trying to silence. We hope that Israel will not deteriorate into a country in which artists that express their views are put on a ‘black list’.”

Over 2,000 Israeli artists signed this petition, warning against anti-democratic measures by their government, which go against freedom of expression. Amongst the signatories are prominent figures from the film, theatre, cinema, dance, literature and music industries who believe that artists are being silenced for views not complying with those espoused by Israel’s right-wing government. The petition was launched in June 2015, following the Israeli minister of culture and sport, Miri Regev, had demanded a re-examination of the criteria for state funded art.



On a Bethlehem wall near the Palestine Heritage centre an image of an armoured dove of peace was created by graffiti artist Banksy. Israeli artists whose work has, amongst other things, been perceived as sympathetic to the Palestinian cause have faced censorship by their government. Photo: Pawel Ryszawa. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

“I decide the criteria; I can decide which institutions get money,” Regev said. “The artists will not dictate me.” Her statement came a day after she suspended funding to the theatre group in Jaffa, El-Mina, as the Arab-Israeli theatre manager had refused to perform in a settlement in the Jordan Valley. Like everywhere else in the world, the government of Israel can choose which artists to support with public funding. It can ban, expel and censor artists, according to its own political agenda. The exclusivity of the Israeli case, however, is the rigidity with which culture and its artistic expression is governed as well as the lack of alternative, politicallyindependent, ‘un-lobbied’ funding opportunities for especially Mizrahim (Arab Jews) and Palestinian artists. Furthermore, according to several academic works on the matter (T. Feder & Katz-Gerro:2015, Florida:2014, Penslar:2005 et. al) the misrepresentation of such political, cultural project as democratic and pluralist, makes their cultural identity project exceptionally political. In a desperate attempt to close off any artistic questioning to the state’s hegemonic cultural discourse – limiting the vital space for the artist as social commentary or critique – the Israeli government has gone from casting its cultural agenda as pluralist to recently, outright dictating a culture, without having to listen to artists or indeed, people’s culture, as the comment above suggests. Since the 2000s and the Second Intifada, the approach of allowing, in order to ‘manage’, dissent artistic expressions through structural space and a veneer of a somewhat pluralist ideology, has become replaced by a more direct closing off of any government critique as well as institutions that plans to enable such outlet. This has made artists rebel, sign petitions, self-disenfranchise or worse, starting self-censorship, in order to survive. A risky – perhaps unwise – move for any government. The shift from allowing (certain) political dissent to not claiming to represent culture at all, is being criticised by Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) saying that it “torments a dangerous atmosphere that will deter artists from producing critical creations that do not align with the establishment view. It is the very ministers who are supposed to sanctify free expression and creation that are in fact sending forth a diametrically opposed message,” •68•


Dan Yakir, chief council of the ACRI explained to the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), but “the threat is to Israeli democracy as a whole.”

The art of representing Since its establishment in 1948, the state of Israel has taken political issue with culture. Being a self-proclaimed religious (Jewish) state, culture has become regulated through a nation state structure, according to a secular idea of nationalism and has become a tool to manifest a certain political trajectory. One which is deemed strong enough by the current government to sustain the foundation of the young state in its precarious position, amidst its geographically surrounding Arab ‘Others’. In the early days of Israel, the Mizrahim and Arab culture was considered and represented as ‘backward’ and ‘traditional’ – a culture which had to be allowed, but also ‘dealt with,’ for the sake of creating a singular cultural identity. The weakness of cultivating a homogenous idea of culture on ethnically plural territory, was discovered in the 1990s and replaced by a more pluralist acceptance of the Arab and Mizrahim who became better recognised as (secondary, yet) citizens of Israel. Socially and economically at the periphery of Israel, Arabs and Mizrahim were initially seen as a potential for civil dissident and separatism. So, the new ‘melting pot’ ideology, including multiculturalism has never been lived out in the still three-tiered cultural funding hierarchy between Ashkenazim, Mizrahim and Arab cultural projects. In the case of Israel, the funding of ‘ethnic art’ has worked to reproduce the socio-political hierarchy through cultural norms, according to the works of sociologists Tal Feder and Tally Katz-Gerro, published earlier this year. It shows that the centre, being Ashkinazim, art projects still received the majority of the funding. Today, Orientalism persists in the cultural identity discourse of the Israeli government. The immaturity of the state, fear from surrounding countries as well as the internal repercussions from such fear, works to ‘purify’ from within, giving no space for contestation. Orientalism is ripe in Israel’s utilisation of American ‘war on terror’ and has also had repercussions for Arab art in Israel. Recently, the Education Minister Naftali Bennett, took the decision to withdraw funding from the Arab play ‘A Parallel Of Time’ telling the story of Walid Daka, an Arab-Israeli man imprisoned for abducting and murdering Israeli soldier Moshe Tamam in 1984. He received a life sentence. “The question here is whether the Ministry of Education in Israel should pay for schoolchildren to go see a play that shows sympathy to a murderer and a terrorist… And my answer is no; I wouldn’t expect America to send its school children to a play that shows sympathy with Osama Bin Laden and so the same thing will not happen in Israel,” Bennett told Associated Press earlier this summer. As the artists petitioned against Regev and Bennett’s openly political culture discourse, he commented that “the signatories do not know me” and that it was “a bit ‘un-civilized’ to make frightening statements [referring to the petition] about potential McCarthyism that are entirely baseless.” “I support pluralism and have no desire to interfere with culture and arts,” the education minister told Associate Press. The theatre’s program describes the play as “an attempt to discover the man behind the prisoner, and not the cliché that turns him into a symbol and a statistic, which leads one to forget that he is a person with a life story, desires and dreams,” according to Ynet, an Israeli news website. Israel has a history of suppressing and uprooting the Arab heritage on the Israeli-Palestinian land both economically, politically, historically and culturally. Since culture is fluid and does not always reflect or respect borders, force or intellectual re-writings of territorial ancestry; internal traces of Arab or Palestinian-ness is heavily cracked down upon through other means. By regulating public institutions’ programs, censoring or banning ‘inappropriate’ performances that go against the Israeli right-wing discourse, is one of such ways.



Five Broken Cameras (2011) According to Guy Dividi, one of the directors of the documentary film ‘5 Broken Cameras,’ the main issue in Israel is not direct censorship, but rather putting pressure on institutions, not to present and not to finance certain kind of pieces, films and plays that criticise Israel’s politics. “Of course the main problem is that [there is] less and less ability for artists and institutions to defy this, partly because of the general support the public gives to the government, whereas criticising artists and cultural institutions are condemned,” he told me. An example of such control of public institution is the case of the Al-Midan theatre, which had its funding frozen from June this year due to a ‘controversial’ play, it wanted to stage. ‘A Parallel Time’ is written by and based on the story of Walid Daka, who is serving time in Israeli prison after being convicted of involvement in the kidnapping and murder of IDF soldier Moshe Tamam in 1984. “Art is meant to encourage critical thinking, not protect Israel’s image,” civil rights groups had protested. As a public institution, such indirect censorship is highly criticised by the World Association for Newspapers and News Publishers, WAN-IFRA, which described such ‘soft’ censorship as unrepresentative. Following a public outcry, the following month, Haifa council decided to unfreeze its funding. WAN-IFRA and ACRI thus both call for the establishment of independent institution from the state, to determine equal voicing artists, should the state want to preserve its democratic veneer. This is due to the fact that Israeli art is heavily dependent on public funding and often runs the risk of having a ‘central’ production of art culture which is heavily funded and ‘exported’ out to the periphery in which Mizrahim are positioned. The centre-periphery distribution of funds is still leaning towards the Ashkinazim, and with an art scene that is heavily dependent on public funds or showcasing in public institutions (Feder & Gerro: 2015), this re-circulates pre-existing ethnic hierarchy within Israel. As long as this ethnic hierarchy is accepted and cast as ‘natural’, such hegemony will continue to disenfranchise Mizrahim socially, politically and geographically – being, termed in postcolonial critical theory, a ‘subaltern’. Along the lines of the philosophical anthropologist Gayatri Spivak, the subaltern has no voice as she has no listener. Artists, the Mizrahim and Arab in particular, may not be muzzled directly, but the indirect structural down-prioritisation of funding their art or closing public institutions for showcasing it, will make them subaltern, voiceless. The indirect censorship does have a very disenfranchising effect on a specific – already peripheral – group of Israeli society. In order to present itself as a democracy one would assume an equal voicing across ethnic lines should necessitate any justification of its self-image as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East.’



Managing voices of dissent Another government tool to ‘civilize’ Israel, is to allow but define and manage voices of dissent from within. Along the lines of the late French philosopher Louis Althusser, a discourse become more hegemonic (unquestionable) when it is institutionalized and people are given the sense of agency towards it. That is, by showing (a false sense of) choice, here exhibited in the plurality and allowance of (some) critical art. Selectively, the government shows its contestants to their homogenised idea of Israeli culture, defining them so as to better control the cultural dynamisms. Furthermore, allowing dissent voices can make Israel come across as more liberal and democratic. An example of this, can be seen in the case of ‘5 Broken Cameras’, a documentary directed by Guy Davidi and Emad Burnat. The film is critical of the occupation of Palestine and the brutality of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), and is Palestinian. Due to its huge success, the Israeli government wanted to call it Israeli. Subsequently, the media in Israel started focusing on the controversy around the film, rather than the film’s message, whilst diplomats were promoting the film abroad as Israeli. “No media, no channel, no program actually dealt with what the film is showing,” Guy Davidi told HuffPost Live. “They shift the discussion not to deal with what the film is showing but to deal with what we did to the Israeli image, or to the Israeli soldiers’ image and the military image. And that’s disturbing for me.” Davidi further said to Huffington Post that his movie was not an ‘Israeli film’, as the government was trying to use him “to show the good face of Israel,” allowing him to show critique. Thus, through structural funding inequalities and indirect or direct censorship, the government can attempt to ‘manage’ cultural identity. According to the Israeli historian Benny Morris, Israel as project cannot succeed without uprooting Palestinian-ness/Arab-ness. Just as government funding does not have to be reflective of the reality of Israeli cultural identity, as according to Regev’s transparent remark about censorship; cultural identity is not limited to reflect government funding and can struggle against it. Notwithstanding this, the government does have the capacity to export a certain image of Israeli culture – how can people allow or resist this?

Art as Palestinian resistance The popular film ‘Villa Touma’ was showed at international film festivals, but its director Suha Arraf said, she has been ‘blacklisted’ by the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sports, after she submitted Villa Touma to the Venice Film Festival as a Palestinian film. The Israeli-Arab filmmaker who spent $396,000 in public funding for a film labeled ‘Palestinian’ was seen as “unacceptable” by the government and subsequently demanded the filmmaker to pay the money back. “We were astounded to hear of the intention to present the film, that was made by Israeli producers and benefited from the support of the State of Israel, at the festival as something that represents Palestine,” the ministry said in a statement. The Culture and Sports Minister at the time, Limor Livnat, told the Israeli Newspaper Haaretz, the decision to recall funding for the film came after members of Israel’s film council deemed Villa Touma ‘a misuse’ of public funds. Arraf who is an Israeli citizen resisted the demand, “the whole of my film, from the first word to the end, is in Arabic. All my actresses are Palestinian. The story itself takes place in Ramallah. How do they want me to present it as an Israeli film? I don’t understand. It doesn’t make sense,” she said to the Independent last summer, when the funding was demanded to be retracted. Despite subsequently listing her film as ‘stateless’, according to the Jerusalem Post, an Israeli government committee ordered by Bennett, ruled that Arraf must pay back the $150,000, but in installments.



Larissa Sansour: ‘Nation Estate – Main Lobby’, C-print, 75x150cm, 2012. Photo © and courtesy of the artist.

Under siege, occupied and silenced for decades by Israeli and other international efforts, Palestinian art is an interesting and powerful voice to transcend across its heavily guarded borders. I spoke to Larissa Sansour, a Palestinian artist whose work is political. One of her works ‘The Nation Estate’ project is a 9-minute sci-fi short film and a photo series shows, in her own words “a clinically dystopian, yet humorous approach to the deadlock in the Middle East.” Herein she proposes a ‘vertical solution’ to Palestinian statehood. In her project, Palestinians have their state in the shape of a single skyscraper called ‘the Nation Estate’. One colossal high-rise houses the entire Palestinian population – “now finally living the high life”. She told me she had been nominated for the Lacoste Elysée Prize, a photo award managed by Swiss Musée de l’Elysée and sponsored by French clothing brand Lacoste.

‘Too pro-Palestinian’ Larissa Sansour was taken aback due to the expression of her work but was pleased that the provisional sketches, she presented up to the event, was complimented by the museum. Following a senior Lacoste representative had reviewed the sketches, she was eliminated from the competition. She responded to the museum director that “this particular piece was not even outspokenly anti-Israeli.” But was told that Lacoste saw it as ‘too pro-Palestinian’ for the brand to support. “It didn’t stop at that,” she told me. A few days after receiving the news, she was also asked to sign a joint press release with the museum and Lacoste. “It said that I had withdrawn voluntarily from the competition in order to pursue other interests. So not only did they censor me, they also wanted me to help them cover up the censorship,” Sansour said. The censorship backfired as Sansour made her own press statement, and the museum had to side with the freedom of expression, compensating her with a solo exhibition, instead, as the competition got cancelled. This is not the first time, Sansour has experienced censorship as she explains the art world in Israel/Palestine suffer from severe cuts and seeks to partner up with private institutions, many of whom have certain interest and whom perhaps are not completely ‘un-lobbyable.’ “Historically, private business has always been an engine for artistic production. It’s really just a matter of agreeing on the proper terms for this relationship,” Sansour explained.



Larissa Sansour: ‘Nation Estate – Jerusalem Floor’, C-print, 75x150cm, 2012. Photo © and courtesy of the artist.

According to Sansour, both through dependency on public fund or through partnering up with private institutions, one runs (different) “risks and degrees of instrumentalisation of the artwork.” The dialogue is opening up for Palestinian art, but censorship persists – also abroad in the US, for example. One has to continue to be observant of freedom of art in relation to the continuing naming or expression of Palestinian art or cause as being ‘controversial’ or ‘radical’. As naming remains a potent tool of defining or managing dissent voices, and to justifying a subaltern position of Arab, Palestinian or Mizrahim voices.

The popularity for (some) Arab culture – a political ‘numbing mechanism’?



Stills from the A-WA music video ‘Habib Galbi’, published on on 7 March 2015.

A-WA is a Yemini group which is currently popular at an on-repeat level at Israeli radio stations. Much unlike the previously very restricted Arab culture within Israel A-WA is now only part of a much bigger transformation of Israeli popular culture. I spoke to Professor of Modern Israel Studies, Derek Penslar, who explained how, in fact, the past year has seen ‘an explosion’ of Mizrahi-flavoured pop music, “Dudu Tassa, drawing on his family’s Iraqi roots; Rita Yahan-Farouz Kleinstein, who has taken to recording in Persian and is popular in Iran as well as Israel; or Eden Bat-Zakan whose light-hearted hit single, featuring Mizrahi youth and a Mizrahi musical style, is called ‘Queen of the Roses’.” These days, Mizrahi music is totally mainstream. Peer Tasi’s hit single ‘Derekh Hashalom’, about a tender romantic encounter between a man and woman in down market, largely Mizrahi southern Tel Aviv, has 24 million views on YouTube.

‘Derekh Hashalom’ by Peer Tasi. Published on on 25 October 2014.



“The social-political undertone of this music emerges from a gay Mizrahi fusion video, ‘This Isn’t Europe’, which mocks the Ashkenazic Israeli love of northern Europe” Penslar said. The Israeli broadcasted art which usually gives a good idea about what the state would allow to create a sense of belonging or community, is somehow striving towards a non-Arabic, non-Muslim, Mediterranean discourse. Penslar explained: “As the song tells Mizrahi Israeli youth, ‘You’re not from London or Amsterdam / Your face, honey, is from Bat Yam’. Culturally, Israel is not simply a western outpost – it is not only in but in some ways of the Near East.” I asked Penslar whether the hype about Arab music could have a numbing effect on the internal inequality and lack of Jewish-Palestinian solution. “Mizrahi tend to vote hawkish. Cultural propinquity does not, in and of itself, attenuate hatred,” he said, “the recent cultural transformations in Israel are not superficial.” Despite the significant gaps in economic and political power that separate Ashkenazic and Mizrahi Jews, and between Israeli-Jewish from Palestinian society, Penslar argues that “cultural transformations demand that we theorise a new kind of antipathy, not between Europeanised Israelis and Palestinians, but between two native Middle Eastern peoples, both deeply rooted in the physical environment (…) Israelis and Palestinians – they will either live together or die together.” Indeed culture knows and respects no borders, but should Israel want to maintain its appeal as the only (chosen) democracy of the Middle East, there is a need to acknowledge that soft censorship can subalternate the Mizrahim, as it did more physically to the Palestinians within and outside Israel. The issues of representing culture, allowing certain expressions thereof – silencing others – is a precarious territory; if one has not yet admitted it as pure political fuel, such as Regev, Minister of Culture, did quite recently: “The government doesn’t have to support culture. I can decide where the money goes.” Art has become a thorny political affair as the powers awarded the state, are given under a false perception of a democracy of equal voicing, claiming cultural representation. One cannot expect to represent something as dynamic, plural and fluid as culture – one can only expect it to push for its ‘production’ – one which can suit its political agenda. It is in the name of culture, the government can re-circulate internal socio-political inequalities and numb people’s critical thought but it is culture, which by definition, can go beyond borders and intermix, regardless of state intervention. It is naïve of citizens to expect democratically fair distribution of government funding based on demographics, as it seems naive on behalf of governments to expect to successfully control a production of culture that complies and fuels their political agenda – without resistance.

Henriette Holm is a researcher with Middle East Monitor and a research associate at Independent Academic Research Studies Institute, IARS. She recently earned her Master in Near and Middle East studies from SOAS and holds a BA in Anthropology from Sussex University. Her work focuses on the Near and Middle East region, on the themes of gender, citizenship, religion, politics and art with a specific focus on Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. She is currently based in Beirut from where she freelances and researches advocacy strategies for Palestinian rights.

Sources: Althusser, L. (2006). Ideology and ideological state apparatuses (notes towards an investigation). The anthropology of the state: A reader, 86-111. Feder, T., & Katz-Gerro, T. (2015). The cultural hierarchy in funding: Government funding of the performing arts based on ethnic and geographic distinctions. Poetics, 49, 76-95. Florida, R. (2014). The Rise of the Creative Class – Revisited: Revised and Expanded. Basic books. Spivak, G. C. (1988). Can the subaltern speak?



Songhoy Blues. Photo by Andy Morgan


Three years after the music ban When the religious music ban in the northern part of Mali was lifted in 2013, Andy Morgan wrote the book ‘Music, Conflict and Culture in Mali’. Here is his account of what has happened in the country since then. BY ANDY MORGAN | 14 DECEMBER 2015

One of the accusations often levelled at the West is that distance has numbed it to the suffering caused by terrorism and religious intolerance in faraway places. The Paris attacks of 13 November 2015 brought many feelings home to roost and gave France a bitter taste of what people in Baghdad, Mogadishu or Maiduguri have experienced with horrific regularity. The murder of so many innocents at the Bataclan, one of Paris’ best-loved and most revered music venues, was ‘justified’ by ISIS / Daesh in a statement which declared that the venue was hosting a “profligate prostitution party” that night. This misjudgement brought home a new flavour of extreme religious hatred that had never been expressed with anything like the same violence in Europe before, at least not since the 17th century: the hatred of music and all its sensual by-products. Atrocities of this scale always throw the workings of fate and irony into sharp relief. The night before The Eagles of Death Metal’s fatal appearance, the stage of the Bataclan was occupied by the French electro-house legend St Germain, whose latest album Real Blues is an elegant sonic homage to the deep roots of the blues in Mali and West Africa. St Germain spent many months in southern Mali recording traditional hunter musicians and masters of the kamel’n’goni, balafon and kora. On Saturday 12 November he was joined on stage at the Bataclan by the great Malian diva Nahawa Doumbia. Why the irony? Because apart from Afghanistan during the reign of the Taleban, Mali is the only country in recent



history where music has been banned by religious extremists. Not even Saudi Arabia has had to endure this joyless fate. The ban became official in August 2012 when a spokesman for the jihadist group MUJAO went on the radio in the eastern town of Gao to proclaim that all ‘Satan’s music’ – in other words, everything except Qur’anic chanting – was henceforward forbidden in the two-thirds of the country then under occupation by armed jihadi groups. It officially came to an end in February 2013 when the north of Mali was finally liberated by the French army.

Music in Bamako – economic crisis Almost three years later, it’s hard to ascertain precisely what effect the ban has had on a country where music has long been the milk, blood and water of daily existence. The answer depends on the region, culture and social stratum in question. In the capital Bamako and the south, which were mercifully spared from extremist occupation but suffered a military coup and the deep political and economic crisis that followed, the ban has left few traces, at least in the spirit of modern urban musicians. “The Islamists are the last thing that Malians are worried about right now,” says Bassekou Kouyaté, the great Malian griot from Segou. “After the civil war came the economic crisis and to hear music, to go and see concerts, you need a bit of money. It’s an economic problem. You can’t say that it’s the jihadists who are stopping people playing music.” Mamou Daffé, founder and director of the Festival on the Niger in Segou, concedes that war and insecurity have made life difficult for musicians and music promoters, but insists that Mali’s musical spirit remains defiantly alive. “The music ban and the advance of religious conservatism have merely put the brakes on certain initiatives and projects in the northern part of the country, but they haven’t diminished the morale of Malian people,” he says. “The attitude of Malians towards music hasn’t changed one iota. They’re still great music-lovers.” After being forced to cancel its 2013 edition due to the heat of battle between the French and Malian armies and lingering Islamist mujahedeen in the north, the Festival on the Niger celebrated its 10th birthday in February 2014 with a bumper programme and record attendance. Daffé is busy preparing for the 2016 edition of the festival, which is due to take in Segou from 3 to 7 February 2016. He’s also developing plans to stage itinerant Festival on the Niger events in major Malian cities, up and downstream, including Bamako, Djenné, Mopti and Gao in 2017. Even the terrorist attack on the luxury Radisson Blu hotel in downtown Bamako on 20 November 2015 seem to have dealt only a short-lived blow to Mali’s musical spirit. “Many concerts were cancelled,” Daffé tells me, “as was an important conference of the International Organisation of Francophone countries, which included a musical programme… everything stopped!” But only for a short period it seems. “We were closed for three days after the attack,” says Corinne Micaelli who programmes the French Institute Bamako, one of the capital’s most steadfast music venues. “Our cultural programme – including a TV Festival, our weekly concert in ‘Le Patio’, a play by Sirafily Diango and a show by Kasse Mady Diabaté – were cancelled for a whole week… But bars like the Bla Bla and Radio Libre have already reopened. Things are starting again for us this week [seven days after Radisson attack] and I’m really looking forward to it.” The very fact that so many events were affected by the Radisson Blu attack was, in a strange way, a testament to the growing confidence of Mali’s cultural activists. After the dearth of 2013, when the six month long state of emergency and the almost daily news of jihadist attacks in the north relegated culture to bottom of most agendas, Mali is beginning to reclaim its former status as a West African cultural powerhouse. This year, in early November, Bamako hailed the return of Les Rencontres de Bamako, a massive festival of photography curated by the Nigerian Bisi Silva. Like every other cultural event, Les Rencontres was forced to cancel its 2013 edition. But in 2014, Silva went to the Festival on the Niger and realised that any further postponement would be defeatist. “When I was in Bamako last year, I felt the sadness in the air, “she told the French newspaper, Le Monde. “The artists breathed in that sadness because there weren’t any projects to feed their daily existence.” But then Silva saw the crowds dancing at the Festival on the Niger, and the entire diplomatic community, the ministry of •77•


culture, the mayors of Segou and Timbuktu, all fighting back with culture rather than AK-47s and RPGs. “I felt the need to carry on,” she said. “I was fascinated by the resistance of those people… In Mali, culture is really considered as a tool of development.”

Culture is radicalised In times of conflict and uncertainty, culture is radicalised. Artists develop new muscles, and events radiate a higher sense of purpose. The Afro-Reggae superstar Tiken Jah Fakoly promoted a huge festival this October in the little town of Siby, just outside Bamako, which he called the Festival Historique Manding. Its stated aim was to reinforce the pride of West African youth in their history and the ties between the sedentary Bambara people of the south and the semi-nomadic Touareg of the north. In Timbuktu, a city that was firmly under the cosh of the Islamic police three years ago, a ‘Artistic and Cultural Weekend’ was slated to take place on the weekend of 21 and 22 November 2015. It had to be cancelled in the wake of the Bamako hotel attack. The organisers wanted to “reunite the daughters and sons of the Timbuktu region around the sounds of music, dance, storytelling, song, conferences, awareness-raising theatrical sketches, cookery competitions, and a story-telling grand prix with a first prize donated by MINUSMA.” MINUSMA takes culture very seriously and is the first UN peace-keeping mission to employ a full time team to look after cultural affairs, which is in itself a tribute to Mali’s artistic energy. More and more events dot the horizon. Bamako’s first Festival of Jazz since the beginning of the conflict in 2012 is due to take place in December 2015, with Inna Modja, Archie Shepp, Will Calhoun, Bassekou Kouyaté, Habib Koité, Toumani Diabaté and the ubiquitous Cheick Tidiane Seck heading the bill. Inna Modja’s video clip for her song ‘Tombouctou’ – a stylish black and white homage to the pioneering Malian photographer Malick Sidibé – features an image of the young singer bare-chested with the word ‘Freedom’ splattered across her breasts with white paint; it’s as bold a riposte to the religious puritans as could be imagined. Next January will hopefully see the launch of a new acoustic festival organised by kora maestro Toumani Diabaté and local cultural activist Fatoumata Sow. Rumours about that Damon Albarn will be performing alongside Toumani, Fatou and the young turks of the Malian music scene: Songhoy Blues.

Rap music rules Meanwhile Malian rap continues to fill stadiums and palaces of culture. It’s pulling power outstrips that of every other style of music, and every political figure in the land. Only the country’s charismatic Islamic preachers can draw the same crowds. “Rap is what’s working in Mali right now,” says Abdoulaye Diallo, manager of Mylmo, one of Mali’s most prolific rap stars. “It’s youth music and it dominates the whole world, not just Mali. But Malian youth are only listening to Malian rap now, whereas before we used to listen to a lot of American or French rap.” On the downside, rap has introduced the very ‘un-Malian’ habit of posse-baiting and ‘clash’ aggression in the landscape of Malian youth culture, with Bamako’s southsiders’ and ‘northsiders’ regularly slinging insults at each other at gigs and on social media. On the upside, Malian rappers have provided the starkest, smartest and most courageous voice of protest in Malian music over the past decade and a half. Thanks to its overriding popularity, rap has also helped to forge badly needed new business models of record production and income generation, models that are turning mobile phone companies into the new record labels and concert promoters of Africa. Mylmo has signed a lucrative sponsorship contract with Orange Mali, and his new releases are only available from Orange shops, paid for with the online payment system Orange Money. Other rappers have signed up with Malitel or Sotelma. The smartphone is Mali’s new all purpose creative tool; the SIM card its cultural battleground. But what about piracy? What about all the téléchargeurs along Bamako’s Fankélé Diarra St, hunched over their •78•


laptops, happily ripping playlists from Spotify, iTunes or Pandora and despatching them to mobile phones or USB stick for a few hundred FCFA. “There’s a lot of bluetooth piracy,” Diallo admits, “but it sometimes helps us too. If we release an album and sell 1000 copies, that’s very small. But if via bluetooth, many more people get to hear it, then thanks to that we can get big audiences at our concerts all over Mali.”

K7 on knees The Malian Federation of Musicians (FEDAMA) don’t agree. In June 2014, a ministerial decree granted them a levy worth 500 FCFA (about EUR 0.80) on every new SIM card sold by the mobile phone companies. But the Patronat du Mali, that country’s confederation of business leaders, challenged the decision in court and won. FEDAMA lost their appeal this October. Meanwhile Mali K7, the old record label once part-owned by Ali Farka Toure, is on its knees. “Days can go by without the presses working,” the new owner Boubacar Traoré told the website Maliactu. It seems that Malian musicians will have to carry on relying on weddings, tabeski feasts, a diminishing number of paid gigs and, for the lucky few, international tours to earn their living. So the challenges facing Malian culture are multiple. Its record industry continues to die a slow death. The low level violence in the centre and north, and the unwelcome southward move of jihadism, increase the difficulties of staging cultural events a hundred fold. The steady rise in petty crime in Bamako and other major cities discourages cultural participation and nightlife. The absence of foreigners – notwithstanding those western artists courageous enough to keep coming to Bamako, like St Germain, rockers Midnight Ravers, French pop duo Lilly Wood and The Prick and Damon Albarn – saps the ability of Malian artists to make the connections and launch themselves on the international circuit. But the bars are still open. Bands are still playing in the recessed corners of capital, almost every night, without much fanfare or international attention. Bajani ‘bloc’ parties still animate the street corners. Festivals and Cultural Weekends are still being dreamed up by groups of young activists hungry for a better future, with their mission statements and yearning for peace. Malian music, so deeply rooted in everyday life, is proving tenacious. The music ban has even had its silver linings. One is the immense international success of the Songhoy Blues. Three members of the band come from the northern towns of Diré and Gao and they owe their very existence to the conflict that drove them south to Bamako, where they met and formed a band to bring some musical relief to other northern exiles like them. That crucial international connection was made because Africa Express decided to go to Bamako in October 2013 and seek out new artists for collaboration. As the band’s bassist Oumar Touré often says, “without the crisis, we would never have existed at all.”

Collective altruism Another unexpected benefit is a noticeable resurgence of collective altruism amongst Mali’s musicians, exemplified by the 2013 recording of ‘Mali-Ko’, which starred the cream of Mali’s musical talent in a we-are-Mali style moment of togetherness and national affirmation. There have been numerous other collaborations, benefit gigs and fund-raising telethons over the past two years. There are also signs that the more enlightened members of the country’s political class are rediscovering the value of Malian culture, and realising that music, dance and theatre have a valuable role to play in educating, building peace and cementing national cohesion, just as they did in the 1960s and 70s with the Semaines de la Jeunesse and the Biennales. Mali’s Ministry of Reconciliation recently organised a caravan called Azalaï, which travelled from Kayes in the far southwest of the country up to Kidal in the north east giving talks, hosting debates, staging small concerts, all in support of the peace process. Music has become Mali’s only soft power around the globe, and it was only when the world woke up to the learn that •79•


music had been banned in this most musical of nations that the depths of Mali turmoil and suffering became real for many. It was the music ban that impelled documentary film maker Johanna Schwartz to start work on the project that was to to become They Will Have To Kill Us First, a film that follows four musical protagonists from northern Mali – Songhoy Blues, Khaira Arby, Fadimata ‘Disco’ Walet Oumar and Moussa ag Sidi – as they come to terms with the ban and the wider conflict. The film was premiered in London back in October and is gathering in glowing reviews. It’s set for a major release in the USA March 2016.

Khaira Arby. Photo by Andy Morgan But whilst there are silver linings, and clear signs of revival in the major cities of the south, this feeling of slow renaissance is by no means universal. Mali’s most famous musical event, the Festival in the Desert, is still in exile. For the past three years, the Festival has teamed up with the Festival on the Niger and the Festival Taragalte in southern Morocco to organise caravans of peace that have travelled through Morocco, Mauritania, southern Mali and Burkina Faso. Next year, the dream is to bring the caravan to Segou, Djenné and Mopti before ending up in Timbuktu with a small concert featuring local artists. But the fully fledged Festival in the milky white dunes of Essakane is still some years away, at least. “There are different opinions: some say, the situation is getting better. One can do a Festival in Timbuktu, no problem,” explains festival director Manny Ansar. “People are waiting for the return of the festival so much – the population, ourselves, our friends. But I don’t want a return that goes badly wrong. Because as you know, you can deploy thousands of soldiers, you can get all the armed movements – The Plateforme, the CMA, all of them – to give us their guarantee. And the government too. But nothing can stop a few Islamists coming along and sabotaging the event. You understand. Or attacking foreigners. Honestly, that’s what scares me.”

Foreign cash flow In the eastern city of Gao, which was the ‘capital’ of an independent jihadi-controlled state for ten whole months in 2012, a war-economy has taken hold. Thanks to the military infrastructure projects, the presence of immense UN, French and Malian military bases, as well as scores of security and NGO personnel, the city is reaping a deceptive economic boom. Many local people have found temporary work as translators, guides, cooks and construction workers. This false gold has even attracted southerners desperate for income of any form, among them prostitutes and drug dealers hoping for rich pickings from the foreign presence. Local traffickers, whose stock in trade is illegal



fuel, illegal migrants, black market food-stuffs, car-parts, and occasionally hashish or cocaine, are disgruntled at the sums extorted from them by the local armed groups. Techno-afrobeat from Nigeria booms in the few bars and shebeens. The streets are unsafe at night. Moussa ag Sidi, a local Gao musician and one of the stars of the film ‘They Will Have Have To Kill Us First’, says that things are getting better. He returned to live in Gao about a year and a half ago, after a spell in exile staying with his cousin Jimmy ‘The Rebel’, aka Hassan el Mehdi, a Touareg clan leader who’s married to Disco, the lead singer of Tartit Ensemble. Even though the Islamic police kept a close eye on him during the occupation, ordering to shave off his dreadlocks and refrain from playing music, it was the arrival of the Malian army that finally made his mind up to leave. Such are the complexities of life in northern Mali. “I get by with my music, little by little.” he says, “There have been many concerts here in Gao, on Independence Square, La Maison des Arts et de la Culture and other places. Gao has a good atmosphere now, and it’s been like that for a while. I recently played at a concert organised by the youth of Djebok, a concert for peace. We often organise events here in Gao, or out in the bush, in the villages. We do stuff together, for the people – whether its for GATIA[1], for the MNLA[2], for Mali or for Azawad. All those are the same children of the same country. As far as I’m concerned, they’re all my brothers, my people, my race, my ethnicity.” Further north, the situation is more disturbing. Reports from the Kidal region tell of the slow retreat of musical life. The lingering presence of Salafist hardliners who were once members of AQIM or Ansar Dine, and have since turned their coats and taken positions of authority since the French intervention, makes people fearful of outward public displays of cultural joy and music-making. Even more worrying, there’s evidence that the hardline puritanical ethos of the Salafists has infected local attitudes. People have less of an appetite for music than before.

It is all about security “There are no concerts in Kidal,” says Ahmed ag Kaedi, a guitarist from Kidal and leader of the band Amanar. “The few musicians who want to play guitar go off and do it in hiding somewhere. It’s all about security. And it’s not just guitar music that’s affected. Even out in the bush, the iswat[3], the tindé[4], the camel-dancing, all of that has almost stopped. The attitude of the beardies[5] has infected a lot of people. They’re are scared now. That’s really really hard for us, because in the past all pleasure was based around music.” Traditionally in September and October, after the rains have come and gone, the nomads celebrated the rebirth of the land and the greenness of the pastures with music, singing and poetry. But this year, all that joy was muted or nonexistent, even though the great feast of Tabaski[6] fell within the period. “It was a really timid festivity, really exhausted,” Ahmed says. “Because the only thing that people did was sacrifice the sheep, eat meat and hang around. Normally out in the bush, in the days leading up to the festivities, there would be tindé, camel racing and people preparing for whole months. This time it was just a jihadist party, you know.” Ahmed isn’t only concerned about traditional music, but Touareg music as a whole. “It’s like we’ve been cut at our roots,” he says. “Because that iswat, and that tindé was what inspired us, and gave us the desire to transpose that music to the electric guitar, and to give it some value in the wider world. So when you see that right there, at the source, there’s nothing left, well I fear a blockage. When you see nothing at the foundations, I don’t think we can build much on top of it.” In the past, distance and remoteness always isolated, and in some ways protected Tamashek culture. Chris Kirkley, music producer and founder of the ground-breaking blog-cum-record label Sahel Sounds sees the ability of musicians in the desert to escape prying eyes and find freedom in the immensity of the desert as crucial to their survival: “I think that’s one of the most interesting effects of the prohibition [of music]. There aren’t so many westerners travelling up north. There aren’t as many shows happening. But at the same time we’ve had this huge growth of independent publishing for bands. So you get artists like Groupe Adagh de Kidal or Kader Tahani from Tamanrasset using social •81•


media and YouTube to launch their careers, solely on the Internet. Even if there’s a potential risk with playing a concert, in places like Kidal, they can go off into the desert, film themselves playing and publish it on Facebook.” The puritanical erosion of traditional music making isn’t confined to the far north east of Mali. Even in the south west, in the lush and verdant forests and savannah of the Wassoulou region, reformist hardline Islam is turning people against their own traditional culture.

Creeping conservatism “What’s really affecting the Wassoulou area is a kind of creeping conservatism, as well as just money,” says Paul Chandler, founder of the Instruments 4 Africa NGO that goes out into rural areas to record and archive local music. “They’re transitioning from a kind of collective system of living, to one of money and individualism. All that, combined with religious conservatism, is taking its toll. There are imams coming into villages saying ‘What you’re doing isn’t good.’ There’s this judgement and critique of everything related to their animist past, which amounts to a lot of their art. It’s amazing how much of the culture is being left behind and isn’t being passed on to the next generation. It’s really alarming actually.” These moralising imams were often born and raised in the village to which they later return with reformist ideas gleaned from Salafist mosques and madrassas in the larger cities, or the ‘video’ sermons of conservative preachers. Money from the Middle East finances a large part of this Salafist network in West Africa. Will there be a backlash? Will Mali’s intellectual elite wake up to what is being lost? Or are we condemned to watch a dismal repeat of the cultural damage wrought by zealous Methodist or Wee Free preachers in the rural parts of Wales and Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps in twenty, fifty or a hundred years time, song collectors – the Malian equivalent of Cecil Sharpe – will fan out from Bamako to find the last few wizened guardians of Mali’s dying rural culture in a desperate effort to record their musical treasure for future generations. Pray God it doesn’t come to that.

Andy Morgan writes on the politics and society of West Africa and the Sahara. He has contributed reports about the Touareg and the crisis in northern Mali to The Guardian, The Independent, Al Jazeera, CNN, BBC Focus On Africa and is the author of ‘Music, Conflict and Culture in Mali’, published by Freemuse in May 2013. In 2010, Andy Morgan ended a seven-year stint as manager of the Touareg rockers Tinariwen and a 29-year stretch in the music industry to concentrate on journalism and writing. During his career in the music business, Andy Morgan worked for a wide range of music companies.

Notes: [1]

Groupe Autodefense Touareg Imghad et Alliés – A pro-government Touareg militia


Mouvement Nationale pour la Liberation de l’Azawad – Anti-government rebel force


A traditional form of poetry sung by young unmarried men and women


The traditional drum made from a mortar and goatskin, played almost exclusively by women.


i.e the Islamists.

[6] Local

name of Eid al-Adha or ‘Festival of the Sacrifice’.




The spear of the N-word BY DEJI BRYCE OLUKOTUN | 21 JANUARY 2015

In May 2012, a man walked into a South African art gallery and vandalised a painting, portraying President Jacob Zuma naked, that was entitled The Spear of the Nation. He was quietly apprehended by security and did not resist. A few minutes later, another man approached the painting and besmirched it with black paint. He was also arrested, though more violently. The title of the painting played upon the name of the armed liberation group of the African National Congress during apartheid, Umkhonto we Sizwe, which literally translated meant the “Spear of the Nation.” But in the painting the “spear” was President Jacob’s penis, a reference to his four wives and his trial for rape, for which he was acquitted. Artist Brett Murray explained: “The Spear has a dual purpose: it is a work of protest or resistance art, and it is a satirical piece.” Before the Spear incident it is likely that only a handful of people would have viewed the painting at all. The piece is well executed, and its choice of color and tone allude to Soviet propaganda pieces. But it wasn’t groundbreaking stuff, and Murray’s rendering of Zuma’s penis was generous, to say the least. The government claimed that the painting caused “hurt and pain to many South Africans” and that it had violated the “right to human dignity” of the president. As a result, Brett Murray and his gallery assistant received death threats from a church. But there was a silver lining: he became a household name in the country, and P-Diddy, the entertainment mogul, even bought one of his paintings. The painting was never officially banned, and the government was unsuccessful in its attempt to force a newspaper to take down an image of the painting from its website. The government clearly violated South Africa’s own liberal Constitution by demanding the removal of the painting, and, in making the issue a matter of national concern, it directly caused physical harm to the painting and psychological harm to Murray and his assistant, who both had to flee their homes. It was an example of free expression being used as a pretext to silence a critical voice in the name of tradition.



But the Spear controversy also implicated questions surrounding race, especially given South Africa’s complicated history. Brett Murray was a white South African painting a black South African. It begs the question of who can depict a member of a different ethnic group, especially in an unflattering or ironic manner. When is it appropriate? Stoking even more controversy, Brett Murray later published a book in which he appears in black face on the cover. This caused a few chuckles in the country, but did not spark the same level of concern as his painting. Black face has a similar connotation in South Africa as in the U.S., because the tradition was brought to South Africa by Americansin the 1800s. In short, it is usually used humorously by whites to depict stereotyped versions of blacks but it is extremely rare to see it today and most people view it as a bizarre relic from a different time. In the U.S., blackface has more or less disappeared, and its history was notably satirised by director Spike Lee in his 2001 film Bamboozled. In the film he uses blackface to demonstrate that the underlying structures of racism still exist in the entertainment industry. In Europe, several high profile art exhibits dealing with racial stereotypes have recently caught headlines. These include a strange art opening in which Swedish artist Makode Linde baked a cake that looked like a stereotypical African — black skin, red lips — to commemorate the 75th anniversary of an arts organisation. The artist then asked the culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, who was in attendance, to eat a slice. For some reason the minister obliged and the image coursed around international social media, leading to calls that the minister should be sacked. The artist, who is mixed race like me, explained that he was drawing attention to racial stereotypes through his own concept of Afromantics, but many viewers assumed the exhibit was about Female Genital Mutilation. He sparked outrage amongst black and whites alike. In 2014, two other art exhibits were criticised for depicting black stereotypes in Britain and Sweden. In London’s Barbican art gallery, artist Brett Williams featured live performances by blacks who were shackled and caged. Brett Williams is a white South African artist like Brett Murray. Swedish artist Dan Park held an exhibit in which he portrayed three black activists with nooses around their necks and Roma people as thieves. This was the second time that Dan Park had created controversial posters, and this time he had targeted Jallow Mamadou, an anti-racism activist and a member of Sweden’s leftist Vänsterpartiet party. The art gallery was looted and he was sentenced to six months in prison for inciting hatred. The difference between Park’s poster and Brett Murray’s painting of Zuma is that there appeared to be no satirical element, and instead Park seemed to attack already marginalised minorities in the country, none of whom were elected public officials. Blackface isn’t just the subject of art pieces. In Holland, two million social media users signed a petition in favor of Zwarte Piet “Black Pete,” a character who in Dutch lore helped Santa Claus out of the chimney to help distribute presents. The tradition features whites painting their faces with soot and donning large gold earrings. Minority groups and whites have protested against Black Pete, even leading to the United Nations Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights calling attention to the practice. Opponents suggested compromising to change the color of Pete from black to green, but this has not yet happened. Instead some 60 protesters were arrested for failing to remain within approved protest zones. The police doubled the injustice, because instead of arresting the people dressed as Zwarte Piet, which would have been impossible and included children, they exercised their authority to arrest people in an act of civil disobedience. In August, a lawyer representing the movement against Zwarte Piet received death threats and decided to quit. It’s not the first time that people have suggested changing the color of an important cultural figure in the name of tolerance. In 1964, Roald Dahl published Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In the original book, as journalist Layla Eplett explained to me, Roald Dahl’s Oompa Loompas were African pygmies hired to work in his factory for all the chocolate they could eat, which they loved and craved. The NAACP, an American civil society group, threatened to boycott the 1971 film version starring Gene Wilder, so the film studio changed the skin color of the Oompa Loompas from black to orange. Roald Dahl then altered the text of a new edition of the book so that they no longer came from Africa. Neither the original book nor the movie were officially banned, instead the author had succumbed to public pressure against stereotypes. •84•


In the U.S., a debate has raged over the use of the term “nigger,” and whether it should be banned entirely. The NAACP held an official “funeral” for the N-word in Detroit in 2007, deciding that the term no longer had any positive value for race relations or tolerance in the U.S. But the word persists today, so much so that the National Football League, the most popular sports league in America, proposed banning its athletes and officials from using the term on the playing field. Piers Morgan, a U.S. television personality who gained notoriety as a tabloid journalist in the UK under Rupert Murdoch, also wrote an op-ed about how blacks should shoulder the responsibility to eliminate the Nword because they are the most frequent users of the term. I have my personal views on the matter. I grew up in a small town which was once a center of the Ku Klux Klan in New Jersey, but by the time we moved there the Klan was gone and our neighbors were generally very welcoming. Nigger with an “r” is a term I dislike intensely and I believe it has no value other than as a cultural relic. I didn’t really hear the term “nigga” — with an “a” — until I started listening to hip-hop, and the term clearly had a different meaning from “nigger.” My white friends would occasionally rhyme words by Dr Dre or Snoop Dogg, but they sounded ridiculous, mostly because it’s hard to rhyme with rhythm, but also because we grew up in the suburbs and couldn’t make the words sound like the rap artists. When I moved to New York, I heard black kids saying nigga in all kinds of contexts. The word is versatile: it can be used as an insult, a complement, a term of endearment, or even a punch line to a joke, depending on the situation. Still, most people use the word “son” much more frequently than “nigga,” as in “listen to me, son” instead of “listen to me, nigga.” Despite my skin color I do not believe I have any right to use the N-word and I don’t want to. My feeling is that you shouldn’t say it unless you grew up using the term in your community and you were raised using the term with black people hearing you use it. The last part is an important caveat, because it doesn’t matter to me if you and your brother called each other nigga in the house if you did not have some sort of approval by black people — because in any other context you would be offending someone. This is not nearly as complicated a dilemma as Piers Morgan makes it sound. If you are white, in my opinion, you should never use the word, except in limited circumstances explicitly defined and approved by blacks on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, you should never assume that anyone of color would want to hear the N-word. As journalist Ta Nehisi Coates explained, a “separate and unequal standard for black people is always wrong. And the desire to ban the word ‘nigger’ is not anti-racism, it is finishing school.” Author Rebecca Carroll clarified: “White people don’t get to use that word — and they don’t get to bar black people from using that word by pretending that they just want other white people to stop.” I understand how strange the controversy over the N-word may seem to someone outside America. When I lived in South Africa, I had drinks with a white man who told me he wanted apartheid to return and I let it roll off my shoulders to keep the conversation going. But when a man carrying a motorcycle helmet painted with the Confederate flag walked into a restaurant where I was eating, I grew very upset. You see, he had brought an American symbol into the context. I also understand that many people listen to hip-hop out of curiosity about African Americans, so it seems unfair to ask them to only sing parts of the lyrics they like but not others. Author Junot Diaz, who is Dominican-American, explained that the concern with word might be overblown: What’s funny is that this is a conversation that interests the middle class and the upper classes in our communities — but talk to kids where I grew up or where I’m living now and that’s not really what’s at the top of their priorities. They’re wondering why they’ve been abandoned educationally, politically, culturally — why living in these urban zones is so very bad for your goddamn health. Our uncomfortable limbo with the N-word is the cost of a marginalised group re-appropriating a term that once served to marginalise it. It’s like reversing the course of a river; it’s natural that there should be whirlpools and eddies where some would find it too treacherous to swim. But what I’m suggesting are just rules of thumb for the N-word. I am calling for individuals to make personal choices about how they behave, and to err on the side of inclusion and tolerance for minorities. I’m also a creative artist. I do •85•


not believe that the N-word should be banned from writing or art. This is mostly for practical reasons — when I worked for the writers’ organisation PEN, I learned that the censorship of artistic expression always has a major chilling effect on other, valid kinds of expression. For example, what about an artist wrestling with her experience of racism in art? Is art not an excellent way for her to explore her thoughts about the N-word? The fact is that most art is never viewed by many people, and most abhorrent content is outweighed by much more benign or even benevolent content. Boycotting is a different strategy that can be helpful. In the examples of both Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Brett Williams’ exhibit of human slaves at the Barbican Gallery in London, activists attempted to boycott the works. Boycotts have the ability to take money out of the creator’s pockets and simultaneously to build public awareness about the injustice. I think this is an acceptable form of protest provided it is not used against the vulnerable. For art, boycotts are better than calling for the full power of the state, which could stomp its jackboots in people’s faces and lock them in prison with little discretion. How does the digital age change all this? Some of it is the same-for every revolting swastika, there are ten thousand videos of cats leaping into boxes or babies taking their first steps. But an important argument in Piers Morgan’s article, mentioned above, is that the N-word is used almost 500,000 times per day on Twitter. Social media brings immediacy and can, in certain cases, incite harm or even violence, and not just because the president of a country doesn’t like to be imagined naked. In France in 2012, a Jewish student group called on authorities to investigate the use of the hashtag #unbonjuif (a good Jew), which was being used as an anti-Semitic slur on Twitter. A French court ordered Twitter to hand over the identifying information of the people who had posted the Tweets to the authorities in July 2013 after prolonged legal battles. The case demonstrated the importance of social media companies like Facebook and Twitter today, which allow users to block or report abusive users, but which do not, generally, have to proactively police their content because of the large volume passing through their servers. The user bases of these companies now rival the world’s largest countries — with Facebook having 1.3 billion users in 2014 — so expression on their networks can have real effects on the ground. As the French case shows, their decisions become even more acute in the face of local laws relating to incitement to violence and national hatred. There are genuine risks to free expression when governments ban speech because of religion or national hatred. Laws to protect against discrimination can be used to jail dissident voices. Take the case of Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani, who was forced into exile after one of his cartoons sparked protests that resulted in a government crackdown. He was blamed for the crackdown on the basis of spreading national hatred with his cartoon — but he didn’t kill the protesters, the government did. To address this issue, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights adopted its Rabat Plan of Action in 2012. Among many thoughtful recommendations, the plan suggests that in deciding whether to punish speech for incitement, the state must consider the context, speaker, intent, content, extent of the speech, and likelihood of harm of any speech. This is because international law requires any impingement on freedom of expression to be proportionate. Importantly, those who are wronged by incitement should receive access to a remedy and should be made whole again for their suffering. Applying these recommendations by the UN is a positive step forward, but not easily workable on the internet in real time. The reason is the sheer volume of content that passes through social media. One hundred hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every single minute. No individual could possibly police all that content, which is why users are asked to alert companies about offending Tweets, posts, and videos. The decisions these companies make are shaping free expression on a global scale. But the lines are increasingly blurring. This past month, racial tensions in the U.S. have been stretched by the failure of two grand juries to decide to prosecute police officers for killing unarmed black men. Social media related to the killings helped spur the outrage against racial injustice, including video of the death of Eric Garner, a man who was



choked to death on camera by a police officer in a borough of New York City. His last words “I can’t breathe” have since become a slogan for live social protest and an Internet meme at the same time. There are also problems with identity. Some protesters may be excited to loudly announce on Twitter that they are supporting nationwide protests, while others may prefer to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals at work or in their communities. Yet companies like Facebook do not have viable opportunities to create anonymous accounts — a problem for dissidents and sexual minorities. So race and protest immediately bring up concerns about privacy as well. What happens if the government requests your information from Twitter after a protest, as it successfully did with the protester Malcolm Harris in the Occupy unrest in New York in 2012? What should the government do if a user Tweets racist or incendiary information to intentionally cause panic during a protest? Social media will remain an important part of this very painful realisation about the war on African Americans and ethnic minorities through mass incarceration and discriminatory police practices. Technology can be part of the solution, but there is no guarantee that it will solve all these problems. We should be cautious in pressing for laws to outlaw racist speech that could better be accomplished by coding by engineers at social media companies; at the same time, we need to be hyper vigilant and cautious about empowering those coders with too much power to decide too much about our lives. What lessons can we draw? 1. If you become president, it’s better not to grow upset if someone imagines you naked. It’s certainly better than the reverse, as this image of George W. Bush painting himself in the bath attests. 2. Face paint is best left for clowns, which are creepy enough in their own right without blackface stereotypes. 3. You should never use the N-word, unless of course you can. 4. And remember to think twice before you Tweet. Someone might actually be listening. The government definitely is.

Deji Bryce Olukotun is the author of ‘Nigerians in Space’, a novel out now from Unnamed Press. He is an attorney who fights for digital rights at the organisation Access. Twitter: @dejiridoo




Rap group’s concerts cancelled after free speech controversies Hip-hop flirting with political violence causes controversy and debate around the world. The Swedes have recently been having a thorough public discussion about where to draw the line between illegal hate speech on one side, and artists’ democratic right to express themselves on the other. Here is a run-down of Kartellen’s free speech journey in Sweden so far, as they keep challenging and are being tried on what it means to be committing a hate speech crime.

BY MIK AIDT | 6 MAY 2015 The Swedish hip-hop group Kartellen is often referred to as one of the most popular hip-hop bands in the country – and according to the lifestyle magazine Rodeo Magazine it is also “Sweden’s most controversial hip-hop group”. The band and its song lyrics have been featured and discussed in almost every Swedish media outlet. Members of the band have been convicted of serious crimes such as larceny, murder conspiracy and some of Sweden’s most high-profile robberies, and their lead singer has been convicted for hate speech. Their rap songs are all about segregation and class inequalities, but they are being critised for glorifying a life of crime and violence. The band members, on the other hand, feel they are being censored and have said that Swedish police tries to intimidate the band to silence. Convicted of hate speech assault Kartellen was formed in 2008 in a Finnish prison by a Leo “Kinesen” (“the Chinese”) Carmona, who serves a life sentence for accessory to murder. Carmona, who grew up in Sweden early in life felt like an outsider and became a severe criminal. In the Finnish prison he started writing lyrics about young people like himself and connected to old friends outside the prison – one of them a younger rapper Sebbe Staxx (real name: Sebastian Stakset) who had a



similar background. Already at the age of 12, Sebbe Staxx had won his first rap battle. This was however followed by years with criminal activities and drug abuse, and he was also convicted for various crimes. In May 2012, Sebbe Staxx made a statement on Twitter in which he threatened the Sweden Democrats’ party leader Jimmie Åkesson. The politician reported the threat to the Swedish Security Service, and Sebastian Staxx was convicted of assault in January 2013.

Kartellen feat Timbuktu: ‘Svarta Duvor & Vissna Liljor’ (2013) Published on on 13 December 2014

Banned on public radio Then in November 2013, Kartellen released the song ‘Svarta duvor och vissna liljor’ (‘Black Doves & Wilted Lilies’) – a collaboration between Kartellen and the rapper Timbuktu (real name: Jason Diakité). It created heated debate in the Swedish media, as it contains a text line by Timbuktu that could be perceived as yet another threat to Jimmie Åkesson, saying Jimmie should be beaten yellow and blue (the Swedish expression ‘yellow and blue’ is the equivalent of the English colloquialism ‘black and blue’, but also are the colours of the Swedish flag) and pulled up in a flag pole. Sebbe even added that he’d want to “put the Sweden Democrats in a coma”. The song was reported to police by the Sweden Democrats party and though the prosecutor chose not to bring it to trial, the controversy and the discussions about the song made it all the way to the Swedish Parliament. The public radio channel P3 decided not to play the controversial song unless when followed by a comment which put the lyrics into perspective. In May 2014, the Swedish Church (Svenska Kyrkan) in Kungälv near Gothenburg announced they withdrew from a youth event where Kartellen would be involved. According to a representative the church did not want to be seen as supportive of “a message that is about violence as a method and where human life is being violated”.

“Palme [former Swedish Prime Minister who was assassinated in 1986] got a neck shot, SD [Sweden Democrats] got a jackpot The people became the butts in [former Minister of Finance] Anders Borg’s ashtray •89•


Fuck them, plowed the welfare with a tractor Left us with poor education and a cash fund And so, the whip will blow until we walk in line Pound Jimmie [party leader of SD] yellow & blue, hoist him into a flagpole The country we now live in is more tortuous than the king Go to [the upperclass suburb] Djursholm and ask every imaginable kid From the frying pan into the strange playgrounds and swings Stone-throwing masses and slant-talking tongues Mamma Svea [slang for ‘Sweden’] has become ice cold – to SMHI [Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute] Give it twenty winters more and too late we’ll understand Social Democracy” Excerpt from ‘Black Doves & Wilted Lilies’ Rough translation from Swedish to English language by the author

Ultimatum and boycott in Borlänge In June 2014, Dalarnas Tidningar (Dalarna Newspapers) pulled out as sponsor of the festival ‘Peace & Love’ in Borlänge on 4–5 July after the organisers announced that Kartellen would be performing at the festival. Initially, Dalarnas Tidningar had placed an ultimatum stating that unless Kartellen’s concert was cancelled – because their lyrics were “not in line with democracy and equal rights” – then the newspaper consortium would suspend its cooperation with the festival. In response to this ultimatum, a section of the artists engaged to perform at the festival rallied in support of their colleagues. They declared an artists’ boycot of the festival and cancelled their performances. The punk band INVSN spearheaded an open letter to the Peace & Love festival organisers, entitled ‘We are Kartellen’. The letter ends with a question: “We are cursed with the Sweden Democrats and Jimmie Åkesson sitting in parliament advocating a policy that is exclusionary and undemocratic and that origines from a neo-Nazi legacy. We talk about this at every gig we play and in every interview we do, and in the lyrics we write. We may not do it the same way as Kartellen. But we stand behind their fight. Can we still play at your festival?” On Twitter, the veteran musician Stefan Sundström summarised his point of view, saying: “[The Swedish media conglomerate] Mittmedias’ dictatorship over Peace and Love, where they poke Kartellen, is a scary crime against freedom of expression. Time to stop. I want to get off!” – and he later elaborated in an interview: “This is a solidarity thing. Next time it could be me who gets censored. I am against violence, but I don’t have a problem with Kartellen.” Eventually, the festival organisers announced that they, Kartellen, again would be welcome at the festival, and Sebbe Staxx wrote in his blog that the band decided to play there after receiving a ‘genuine apology’ from the festival. Concert cancelled in Linköping In August 2014, Kartellen was booked to perform at the festival ‘Keep It Loud’ in Linköping on 16 August, when a majority in the city council voted to pull the funding for the festival unless the rap group’s concert was cancelled. They argued that tax payers money should not be used to pay a music group that gloryfies and advocates for political violence. Instead the municipality were to pay a cancellation compensation fee of over $10,000 because the decision was made only one week before the scheduled event. Kartellen said they were being censored and denied that they were gloryfying violence: “In our videos, all we are doing is showing an authentic picture of Sweden,” told Sebastian Stakset in an interview with the Swedish public broadcaster SR. “Municipal tax money has been used to censor Sweden’s most popular rap group,” he wrote on Kartellen’s Facebook page. •90•


“We will not accept being oppressed by these kinds of undemocratic acts of censorship,” frontman Sebastian Stakset said, offering to play for free if a gig would be organised. A few weeks later it was announced that Kartellen would perform for free at The Garden Society Park in Linköping on 31 August 2014, organised by the youth wing of Vänsterpartiet (‘The Leftist Party’) in Sweden. Public debate about free speech principles The controversy over these incidents sparked a heated debate in Swedish mainstream media about artistic freedom of expression. For instance, Sam Sundberg wrote in Svenska Dagbladet: “Alarming amounts of people do not understand the concept of freedom of expression. A sponsor that does not want to support an event that engages artists with criminal background and violence-glorifying lyrics can never reasonably be described as a threat to freedom of expression. A threat to freedom of expression is, in contrast, when you threaten people because of their opinions.” “Is this art?” one angry columnist asked when Kartellen had just released their song ‘Black Doves & Wilted Lilies’. Freemuse asked Civil Rights Defenders in Stockholm: “Is this hate speech?” Civil rights group: “This is not hate speech” “We do not consider songs like ‘Svarta duvor och vissna liljor’ to contain anything that falls under the definition of hate speech simply because the object in question does not belong to a protected group of people. One could argue that it would fall under the penal code as assault, but then the context [the fact that this is being expressed through music and song] would have to been taken into consideration, and I doubt that a court of justice would find it to be a crime in the end,” Executive Director of Civil Rights Defenders in Stockholm, Robert Hårdh, replied. In 2005, Civil Rights Defenders published a report on ‘Hate speech – the borderline between hate propaganda and freedom of expression’. (Original title in Swedish language: ‘Hatets språk – gränsen mellan hatpropaganda och yttrandefrihet’) Alfons Karabuda, who is president of the European Composer and Songwriter Alliance and executive chairman of SKAP, the Swedish Society of Songwriters, Composers and Authors, told Freemuse that while he is not commenting on individual cases, his general observation is that whenever a society feels threatened, the question of what is considered artistic free speech and what is considered hate speech will accommodate strong voices in favor of both sides. “What is considered artistic free speech and what is considered hate speech will not always be defined on a level of principals, but according to each individual situation. It is, therefore, important to stick to principals while keeping the rational discourse running,” he said. “I don’t think the music of Kartellen can be classified as hate music or hate speech,” said Krister Malm, member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, and co-founder and member of the Executive Board of Freemuse. “Personally I think Kartellen’s music is a mild case of gangsta rap. The content of their criticism of Sweden Democrats is not different from criticism aired by politicians and others opposed to the views of the Sweden Democrats. The difference is in the wording. Kartellen and Timbuktu use the language of gangsta rap with a joking twist. It’s the bragging of rappers giving it a finger,” Krister Malm told Freemuse.

Experience of darkness On 3 September 2014, Sebbe Staxx wrote on Kartellen’s Facebook page which has received over 60,000 ‘likes’: “I get many questions about how I can say that I am against violence because of my criminal records and the substance of our lyrics. The thing is that I understand your questioning this. The truth is that I found myself in the



dark for many years and that I have been anything but a role model for young people. But the fact is that I have a lot of young people who actually look up to me now. (…) I have realised that my place is not in politics but in the future I will use my experience of darkness to give presentations to young people and give hope to young people who currently are in a situation where I once was. I understand that not everyone is willing to give such a man like me a second chance. That’s okay. Because Jesus gave me a second chance! Love and peace be upon you all! ” More than 2,000 people clicked ‘like’ below this particular message. In March 2015, Sebbe Staxx published a autobiography in which he tells about his teenage-years in the Stockholm suburb Bagarmossen – and about the success of Kartellen. “I’m only 28 years old but I feel sometimes that I have already lived several lives,” he says. » More information in Swedish language about the book by Sebbe Staxx, ‘Musiken, Brotten, Beroendet’ (‘The Music, The Crimes, The Drug Abuse’) Revolutionary Front In October 2013, Kartellen published a video for the song ‘Underklassmusik’ (‘Underclass Music’) which had been produced in collaboration with the left-wing group Revolutionära Fronten (‘Revolutionary Front’). The video showed authentic footage of politically motivated vandalism and assaults while the lyrics speak of prostitution, poverty and crime. “You see me as a criminal,” goes one of the hooklines. On their Facebook page, Revolutionary Front writes: “We have wiped out more than 10 neo-Nazi organisations. Though we share the same failures as the liberal anti-fascism, we can also point to some victories. Moreover, we have succeeded, with the help of our domestic capital, to break into the extreme right hegemony and actually been able to hold conversations with active Nazis with discussions about the economy, society and reasons to drop out. We build resistance, economically, culturally and socially, towards this development.”

The text on the banner says, roughly translated: “Our generation grew up in high storey stair cases, don’t force the next generation to do the same.”



Kartellen featuring Aleks: ‘Underklassmusik’ Published on on 7 October 2013.

Mik Aidt is a journalist and web editor of Freemuse.

Sources: Freemuse – 19 December 2013: Sweden: Public broadcaster excludes hit rap song from playlists Because of ‘violent lyrics’ and a ‘stance against the Sweden Democrats and the Moderates’, the song ‘Black Doves and Wilted Lilies’ (‘Svarta duvor och vissna liljor’) by Timbuktu (real name: Jason Diakité) and Sebbe Staxx (real name: Sebastian Stakset) will not be included on the national Swedish radio’s playlists and is thus practically banned from the main music channel, SR P3. The Local – 3 December 2013: Riksdag snub after anti-Sweden Democrat song “Lyrics interpreted as an invite to assault the anti-immigration Sweden Democrat leader have caused a political stir, prompting the speaker of parliament to boycott a Riksdag ceremony where singer Jason Diakité, also known as Timbuktu, will receive an anti-racism award.”

European No Hate Speech campaign: The Youth Department of the Council of Europe runs a No Hate Speech Movement and

Forthcoming book by Benjamin Teitelbaum: ‘Lions of the North: Music and the New Nordic Radical Nationalism’. Oxford University Press



Nathalia Edenmont: Excerpt of ‘Devotion’ – 2009 © Nathalia Edenmont/BUS, courtesy Wetterling Gallery


Art under threat Several Swedish artists live under constant threat from nazis and extreme rightwing groups. For years, they have been subjected to threats, harassment and attacks directed at their art and themselves. The artists despair at the inability of the state to protect them.

BY SANNA SAMUELSSON | 12 MAY 2015 One artist who chooses to remain anonymous has been regularly harassed by nazis from the 1990s to the present day. The threats come in waves, triggered by media attention to the artist and themes in the artist’s work. A swastika was painted on the artist’s door, there were disturbing telephone calls and emails and the artist’s Facebook account was hacked. Mail order goods were delivered in the name of the artist. Nazis would attend the artist’s exhibitions and review them in extreme rightwing forums. “It’s definitely organised. There must be a list or something where your name gets added. A lot of things happen suddenly and in a short space of time,” says the artist. The way threats come has changed since the 1990s, says the artist. These days there is less overt organisation but a greater online base and social media input. It’s still aggressive but in a different way. People threaten violence while manifesting a lack of knowledge. Their criticism is not verbally sophisticated. The artist has neither made a formal complaint to the police nor gone to the media, for fear of provoking more attacks. “I don’t want to give them that, since I know they want the publicity. I keep it quiet,” says the artist. But the police have been helpful in checking the mail to filter out faeces, pornography, and bizarre orders for guns and furniture in the artist’s name. The police have also filtered the artist’s email on occasion. The threats have not stopped the artist from creating works on “sensitive subjects” but have certainly caused the artist to occasionally think twice, especially when the artist’s children were young.



“I haven’t sacrificed much but I would have liked to have known more. I’m interested in a range of things. Sometimes the subject matter provokes people, sometimes not.”

Rightwing extremism on the rise Extreme rightwing activity in Sweden has increased considerably in recent years according to a recent report by Expo, the Swedish anti-racist magazine. The increase has come after a decline in the years up to 2012. The increase has principally been in activities such as propaganda dissemination, demonstrations and rallies. Nazi violence has visibly risen in [Stockholm suburb] Kärrtorp, Malmö and Jönköping in the past year. Nazi organisations Svenskarnas Parti (the Party of the Swedes) and Svenska Motståndsrörelsen (the Swedish Resistance Movement) have both increased their membership according to Expo. Increased activity can be ascribed partly to an election year, especially since Svenskarnas Parti had candidates in several local elections. In 2014, the party was represented at the annual summer political showcase at Almedalen on Gotland island and gained permission to hold rallies in downtown Visby, the island’s main city. They are beginning to be seen in places that were not long ago closed to them. The development is also linked to an increased nazi and fascist presence in the rest of Europe. In Sweden, the increase is most visible in the success of the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna). The party has become more active in culture politics. The Sweden Democrats have strongly focused on preserving cultural heritage at the cost of supporting contemporary culture. Leading Sweden Democats have publicly attacked contemporary art. Sweden Democrat Member of Parliament Margareta Larsson was quoted as saying in a parliamentary debate in June 2014 that Carolina Falkholt, an artist, should be incarcerated for creating a highly stylised mural depicting a vagina for a school canteen. The crime, according to Larsson, was sexual harassment of minors.

Mural depicting a vagina by Carolina Falkholt. © Photo by Carolina Falkholt posted on Instagram

The politics of culture have always been vital for xenophobic, nationalistic, racist, nazi and fascist movements and parties.



Several Swedish nazi websites have published lengthy articles and columns on art, often in historical perspective but also contemporaneous. Neither is it coincidental that Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto scrutinised the role of culture. His “2083 – A European Declaration of Independence”, even cautioned of the difficulties of targeting wellprotected intended victims, harder to approach than the less-protected. He noted that “Marxist artists” often lack bodyguard protection, as do media personalities, politicians associated with multiculturalism, journalists, professors and chairs of voluntary organisations. Art under threat Artists Dror Feiler and Gunilla Sköld Feiler found a swastika painted on their door in May 2013. This was after Dror Feiler’s name and picture had been displayed in nazi online forums following his participation in a protest march against Svenskarnas Parti in Jönköping that same month. To paint the swastika, the nazis had first to gain entry to an apartment block and climb several flights to the Feilers’ apartment. Feiler discovered the vandalism when he went to take out rubbish the next morning. He felt repelled. Feiler was also verbally attacked while walking in Malmö not long after. A few men in a car followed him, shouting “Communist bastard”, “bloody Jew” and “pig”. Feiler filed an official police complaint. The police recorded the incident as harassment rather than hate crime. “I’m not sure the police are taking this seriously. I still haven’t been debriefed,” says Feiler.

Dror Feiler – arrested by the police during a musical protest at Sweden Democrats rally prior to the EU election, May 2014. Posted on Facebook on 24 August 2014

It is still unclear who the attackers were but it is probably no coincidence that the incident happened immediately after the online forums had posted his name. “There are extreme rightwing groups that have targeted artists, Jews, HBTQ people and leftwingers – all those they consider degenerate and strange. It might also have been idiots who were fired up by newspaper reports. It’s hard to know,” says Feiler. A number of artists and art exhibitions have been attacked by nazis in Sweden since the turn of the century. Some artists live under constant threat. One of them is artist Nathalia Edenmont, whose exhibition, Still Life, at the Wetterling Gallery in Stockholm was vandalised in 2004. Four masked men walked into the gallery in broad daylight and ripped down her photographs. When someone tried to intervene, that person was assaulted with a baseball bat. The exhibition had previously been called controversial in the media because of the dead animals in Edenmont’s pictures. •96•


“I’m not sure the police are taking this seriously. I still haven’t been debriefed.” / Dror Feiler

The police initially believed animal rights activists to be behind the assault but it turned out to be neo-nazis. “Support members” of a group called Nationell Ungdom (National Youth), with connections to Svenska Motståndsrörelsen, later claimed responsibility for the attack. According to a nazi website, Nordfront, the exhibition showed “remarkable repugnance”. Edenmont had an “anti-Nature temperament” which in some way connected to communism. The article explained that art should express “the people’s soul”. “Healthy art” is uplifting and character-building. “Un-healthy art” expresses the individual artist’s “degenerate character” or craving for attention. This is the kind of art that Sweden’s “culture elite” have lavished praise on in recent times, surreptitiously “destroying a genuine culture”. The text empathised with any individuals who might feel impelled to take action against this “cultural oppression”. Nathalia Edenmont reported the attack to the police. Silence followed. The investigation was abandoned.

Nathalia Edenmont: ‘Not Amused’ – © Nathalia Edenmont/BUS, courtesy Wetterling Gallery

“They tell me they want to cut me into pieces” / Nathalia Edenmont

“The worst threats I’ve had came this year, after my exhibition at the Galerie der Stadt Tuttlingen in Germany. I have had threats in England and Germany that showed a deep hatred for women. They tell me they want to cut me into pieces,” says Nathalia Edenmont. She filed another formal complaint. Again the investigation was abandoned, but then the police called, months later, to say they had taken up the case again.



“It was on their initiative. I don’t know. They called me in the middle of summer and talked for an hour. I was surprised. I hope it leads somewhere and that things don’t get worse,” says Edenmont. She carries an alarm with her constantly. At first it was programmed to alert two security guards, now it will bring armed police officers. She has to pay for the security alarm. But Edenmount won’t let threats change her art. “It doesn’t affect me at all. I’ve been criticised so much and had so many threats that I’ve had to tune out. I wouldn’t be able to develop as an artist otherwise,” says Edenmont.

Makode Linde. Facebook event-page header for the Taboo Fetish exhibition opening

“Nothing, that’s what the rule of law has given me” / Makode Linde

Another artist frequently targeted by threats is Makode Linde. Late one July evening in 2013 when he was putting the finishing touches on his Taboo Fetish exhibition, due to open in a few days at a venue in Strömstad, an aggressive man walked in, carrying a Swedish flag. When asked to leave, he attacked Linde, screaming “fag bastards” and that he himself was “a taxpayer” and threatening to return with 30 others. It took 45 minutes for the police to arrive. “The police are understaffed and are doing the best they can, I told myself. Then I read what the police chief said,” remembers Linde, who filed a formal complaint but the investigation took time. The local police chief, Henrik Rörberg, summarising the year in the Strömstads Tidning newspaper, dismissed the attack as “insignificant [ren skitsak]”. He was later forced to apologise when the LGBT magazine QX highlighted the quote. In an interview, it became apparent that Rörberg had not expected that Linde would see the comment. The attack in Strömstad was one of the only assaults directed specifically at Makode Linde’s art but the homophobic component was obvious, yet it was not registered as a hate crime. “The police have never labelled any of the attacks on me hate crimes. Even if the attackers call me “bloody queer” and “nigger bastard” and I’ve been careful to include that in my complaints. For a police chief to call it ‘insignificant’ is odd when Swedish law takes hate crime seriously,” says Linde. But he always files complaints, out of principle and because it’s his duty, even if it’s not easy. “The police don’t believe what you tell them. Online, people doubt you and you get called all kinds of names. People say you’re making it up for the publicity,” says Linde. •98•


Despite his formal complaints, he has had no official support, except for one time when he had to be evacuated from his apartment in connection with what became known as “the chicken trial”. He had been charged with cruelty to animals after taking chickens to a nightclub. His address was posted on a chat site, Flashback, and stayed up for a full day. “Someone posted a butchering chart of me. I was attacked in my home at the time so it’s hard not to put two and two together,” says Linde. He reported the incident to the police but the case was quickly dropped. He offered to bring police the door handle, which presumably had fingerprints since the man had pulled on it. The police weren’t interested. “Nothing, that’s what the rule of law has given me,” says Linde.

“I see it as affirmation that my art is important” / Joanna Rytel

Vandalised art exhibitions Artist Joanna Rytel was one of the feminists mentioned by terrorist and massmurderer Anders Behring Breivik in his manifesto, ‘2083 – A European Declaration of Independence’. The reason was an agitprop action (‘Gubbslem’) by an art group she belonged to, Unfucked Pussy, at the Miss Sweden contest in 2001, and for her public opinions on white men. Breivik cited her as an example of how Western feminists are paving the way for an alleged Muslim invasion by making white men weak. Rytel has received hate mail from abroad after the Breivik trial. Her name has been posted in extreme rightwing forums. The threats increase when she has had media exposure, she says. Her identity has been protected for years. Following the widely publicised feminist protest (‘Gubbslem’) she made a formal complaint against a man who had made a threatening phone call. She says the police did nothing and she has not bothered to file complaints since. Rytel has herself been the object of a police complaint by nazis, alleging that her statements regarding white men amount to hate crime. She says the threats have made her slightly paranoid, making her uneasy if someone is walking behind her late in the evening, but that her art has not been affected. “I see it as affirmation that my art is important,” says Rytel.

‘En annan verklighet’. Press photo by Ingrid Holmberg. Courtesy Doctors Without Borders/Sweden •99•


Several art exhibitions in Sweden have been vandalised by nazis in recent years. Andres Serrano’s exhibition, A History of Sex, in Lund in 2007 was trashed by masked men. Nazis claimed responsibility. “Against decadence, perversion, for the people and for edifying culture” was their proclamation on a nazi website. An exhibition in the Gallerian shopping mall in Stockholm by Doctors Without Borders in 2013 was attacked by nazis. They threw smoke bombs and leaflets into an area showing a 3D installation on a refugee camp in Sudan by filmmakers Peter Norrman and Anders Birgersson.

Police failure Many artists Konstnären has spoken to strongly doubt the ability and willingness of the police to investigate this kind of crime. Investigations are dropped, plaintiffs are not questioned and possible evidence is ignored. Ulf Haquinius, the police officer responsible for coordinating victim complaints in Stockholm province, says there is no special support for artists or culture. All formal complaints are treated in the same way. However, he emphasises the usefulness of filing complaints, regardless of a victim’s lack of confidence in the ability of the police to act. The police need to document threats and violence to assess risk. “When something big happens – say, on the tenth time – previous complaints have their value. If there are none, the police can’t see the background,” says Ulf Haquinius. The police base risk assessment also on the vulnerability factor of the person targeted, such as where the person lives, the person’s social situation, and how he or she travels. Different types of protection can be authorised by the public prosecutor, such as alarm phones and restraining orders. The police have to concentrate on investigation rather than protection, Haquinius points out. But they also have a duty to inform people about what external society can provide. Cases might be dropped because of weak evidence or lack of witnesses, but also because in many regions, the police are overwhelmed with work, says Ulf Haquinius. “The police have to put energy into this. They can knock on doors or compare images from previous incidents. But the inflow of cases is like a handbasin constantly running over. If there’s nothing solid to go on, they rarely take it further, says Haquinius.

Action plan Swedish local authorities are responsible for the safety of citizens and support for them if they’re under threat. This is true for women subject to violence from men as well as for artists who have been threatened. Local authorities should help relocate people and compensate for lost earnings. But in reality, it does not work like that. Stockholm’s city council has started mapping threats to culture workers, especially female. This follows a public debate about online hate and the threats against the Turteatern theatre in Stockholm and actor Andrea Edwards after the performance of “The SCUM [Society for Cutting Up Men] Manifesto”. Stockholm city councillor Madeleine Sjöstedt, in an opinion piece for the Svenska Dagbladet daily in 2013, wrote that protection of artistic freedom was at the core of her Liberal Party’s (Folkpartiet) culture politics. The goal was an action plan to reinforce artistic freedoms. In early 2013, Stockholm’s city council and its culture administration carried out a survey of those applying to the culture administration for grants, receiving 134 responses. Of those, about 12% were artists and the majority working with dance or theatre. Seven percent of the respondents said they had been threatened in connection with their work in the preceding year. Three percent reported multiple threats. Most of the threats were face-to-face; fewer than expected were via telephone or online. Many of those surveyed said they had been scared but none wanted to alter their themes or change profession because of the threats.



The responses were scarce and the outcome uncertain. Madeleine Sjöstedt expessed surprise over the meagre result, even though that itself was positive. But she felt that it differed from the reality that she had witnessed among cultural workers. She still believes in the need for an action plan. “Culture workers are the first to be affected by totalitarian ideas. A culture war is being waged in Europe. There is a need for heightened awareness in many parts of Sweden,” says Sjöstedt. The Stockholm survey is a good example of local government reacting to threats against artists and culture workers, if it leads to concrete measures. Transit Kulturinkubator, a voluntary consultancy for culture workers, is currently looking at how people in the arts can be given protection if threatened in connecion with their work. The aim is a checklist of advice and recommendations for those who have received threats.

Artistic freedom curtailed That nazis are both provoked by and drawn to art is nothing new. They regularly write about art on their websites, more than other forms of culture. This is probably because art, by its nature, is confrontational. It is visible, whether the viewer wishes it or not. The way nazis view art is also relevant: art should shape the soul of the people and have a character-building effect. The artists written about by nazis on their websites are often the ones subject to threats in what appears to be a trigger effect for extreme rightwing threats, hate mail and comments. With increasing media exposure and political influence for the Sweden Democrats, artistic freedom risks restriction. SD pronouncements on “provocative” modern art are similar to the rhetoric of the more openly nazi groups who fulminate against art they consider offensive or “unsound”. If developments continue in line with the last two years, it is not unlikely that we will see more vandalism of art and threats to artists. So it is especially worrying that the police and local government have not been able to support artists and culture workers at risk. The signal this sends, as can be inferred from the testimony of the artists in this article, is that an artist, a culture worker or public figure, stands alone against violence, that it is the artist’s own fault, if the art is too provocative or the subject matter too daring. This applies particularly to artists under attack for both their artistic expression and their political stance, or background, gender or appearance. For them, the signals from society and the police are very clear when crimes are neither properly investigated nor filed as hate crimes. When society fails them, it remains for the affected artists to either tone down their art or political involvement or live with the threats and violence. Neither alternative is acceptable in a democracy that places value on artistic freedom and freedom of expression.

Sanna Samuelsson is a Swedish freelance journalist. Translation by Kim Loughran. Published in collaboration with Konstnären (The Artist) – a Swedish art magazine published by KRO, the Swedish Artists’ National Organisation, and KIF, the Association of Swedish Craftsmen and Industrial Designers.




Punk music and Shari’a law Punks face the tightening grip of Shari’a law in north Sumatra. This is documented in ‘Street Punk! Banda Aceh’ – a film about a punk community that refuses to die. Freemuse asked the film’s production team, director Maria Bakkalapulo and producer Niall Macaulay to tell about the struggle.


Punk’s freedom of expression and resistance to injustice clashes worldwide with political and religious dogma. Under the tightening grip of Shari’a law in north Sumatra’s Aceh province, punks causing minor transgressions are used as scapegoats to distract attention from the crippling issue in Indonesia – rampant corruption. Life would be much easier if the punks conformed, but this small community refuses to be destroyed. Punk first took root in Jakarta in the mid-1990’s — when the music’s rebellious spirit perfectly soundtracked the hostility most young people directed toward then President Suharto’s dictatorial regime. The Exploited, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Discharge – bootleg cassettes of classic punk rock migrated across the whole archipelago through tape sharing. Armed with ukuleles, punks spread their lyrical message on the streets, trains and buses, giving the marginalized masses a voice in a country where the media is heavily slanted and people have little faith in their government. In Banda Aceh, punk rock refuses to die. It means everything to this community, far from where the movement was born, they naturally recognise themselves reflected in its politics and substance. Their desire for freedom from judgement, and to live life on their own terms. If you want to find a hang out and ‘people watch’ in Aceh’s capital, Banda Aceh, you might head to Peunayong, a city center junction, sit yourself at a hawker stall in a plastic low-riding chair and order some beef sate, washed down with a blended avocado drink. After a while, you’ll get serenaded by small groups of punks strumming their ukuleles, singing songs table-side. Drop them a 10,000 rupiah note – equivalent to US$1 – and you are contributing to probably the only meal they will get that day. This is a normal night where people linger into the wee hours, sip on coffee or fresh fruit juices and smoke endless clove cigarettes. •102•


Alcohol is banned in Aceh, as are public shows of affection between couples, and there is little to entertain, one hears almost no music anywhere, except where a tv might be tuned to a bland soap opera or talent show. Here, one night in November 2013, a fight broke out, and a group of the punks were taken to jail, accused of attacking a man who they said insulted them. Several of the punks were held for months without proof of any crime – their accuser never came to court. Whether guilty or not, they were painted in the local press as lowlifes of society, criminals by default. In Aceh, to be a punk is to be branded a ‘social disease.’

“Re-education” – Aceh style Accused of drug possession, beaten, arrested and sent off to prison to be ‘re-educated’ and purged of his punk ways, Yudi now walks a free man outside the prison where he spent months. He says he was sentenced without any proof of crime or warrant. Yudi was quickly confronted by the other inmates. “So, you’re a punk, you reject religion?” Yudi told them that, no, he doesn’t. Yudi prays every day. “It’s only when the inmates began to know me bit by bit that they started to want to mingle more with me. Initially they looked down on us,” Yudi says emotionally. In prison, Yudi suffered more beatings and became depressed. “It was their purpose to ‘re-educate’ us to become better, but better for them is not better for us,” Yudi says with a look of great anguish in his face. “They said, ‘what is this punk lifestyle? Punk is Jewish culture, punk is a western culture.’ But I said ‘I know who I am, I know what I’m doing, and I know all the consequences, so I think we should all mind our own business to better ourselves.’ They said, ‘ah, it’s useless talking to you’.” In the story, “The Punks of the Tsunami Museum” Post-disaster Indonesia (see link below) featured in the Autumn 2014 issue of Planet:The Welsh Internationalist, Yudi wrote these words while imprisoned: ‘Law is only a show for the upper class, while for ordinary people, it is terrifying, Why do I think like that? Because everything happens because from Money is, in fact, capable of challenging even Godly powers.This is a place where justice can be bought and engineered by those who regulate the system, Because of this I resist the authoritarian system that exists in this country. Because the policies of the powerful are good for only a small group of people, essentially we can draw the conclusion that ordinary people are the victims of their policies. What is crystal clear here is that justice can be bought with money.’ It was Yudi’s friends and especially his girlfriend (her name being withheld for her protection) rallying support and legal help that eventually led to Yudi’s release. Marjaana Jauhola, Academy Research Fellow in Gender Studies at the



University of Helsinki, was with Yudi’s girlfriend during this period and was asked to not let her father know about her part in the punk community. Despite Yudi’s girlfriend’s father being an intelligence officer with the army, she hides her relationship with Yudi. But her father surely knew what was going on, especially when “her father persuaded her to apply for the police force which I took as an direct way of telling his daughter to change her life,” describes Jauhola. “She was worried how it would affect her relationship with her boyfriend (Yudi) and the rest of the punk community.” Aceh is both a fascinating and a tragic place. It is where Islam first came to Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. In 2001, Aceh became the only province in Indonesia authorized to enforce Shari’a, or Islamic law, as part of a “special autonomy” arranged by the central government to appease the Free Aceh Movement (or GAM), separatists seeking independence. Then, of course, that horrible day on December 26, 2004 when a massive undersea earthquake triggered an Indian Ocean tsunami that killed an estimated 167,000 people in Aceh alone. In the aftermath of the tsunami, a peace deal finally brought the end to the decades long civil war. In the wake of the deadliest natural disaster on record, the once isolated people of Aceh opened up to outside assistance, while also turning inward to their faith to find answers, paving the way for hard-line Shari’a law to grow in influence. Women must be covered in public, no tight clothing is allowed, or they face embarrassing or serious consequences from the Shari’a police that patrol the city. Unmarried women and men have very restricted contact with each other, the existence of homosexuality is denied. Caning as a form of punishment is becoming more and more common. The only cinema has been closed down and music is generally censored — only pre-approved concerts are allowed, women and men in the audience are kept separated and music (other than religious music) is rarely heard in public places. Curfews are enforced where women are not allowed out after 11 pm and a pervading sense of abject boredom amongst the people. The regression of Aceh’s society into Shari’a law seems unstoppable, and an ongoing crackdown has driven punks in Aceh further underground.

Museum street punks Yudi and his friends call themselves the Museum Street Punks, they gather at the Aceh Tsunami Museum, a memorial and evacuation site, one of the only public places that tolerates the punks. The Aceh punks became known worldwide on December 20, 2011 when sixty-four were taken away by the police and their gig, which they had set up to fundraise for orphanages, was ended. They were punished for being punk – subjected to a “re-education” regimen that included



having their mohawks shaved, and their clothes burned. They were forced nearly naked into a lake to wash themselves – symbolic of authorities that see them as morally unclean. Though most of the punks that were arrested were male, there were some females. Declaring yourself a punk if you’re female adds a whole new layer to complexity. “It may first appear that there are none, as they take good care of not being overly visible for non-punk community as that would cause them a lot of unwanted attention, even harassment by the general public, security, or police,” explains Marjaana Jauhola, Academy Research Fellow in Gender Studies at the University of Helsinki who has been spending a great deal of time immersing herself and learning about the punk community in Aceh. “On the surface you’ll meet young women who wear jilbabs covering their hair, long sleeve shirts or coats, long trousers or skirts,”Jauhola continues “yet, underneath this you’ll find tattoos, punk t-shirts, DIY bracelets, dreadlocks, punk styled short hair and so on.” Their punk identity is only revealed to those they trust at gigs and other punk-organized events. Though they take special care to leave the events early, “to secure their ‘honor’ or reputation,” says Jauhola. To be branded a punk in Aceh is often associated with immoral behavior. To declare yourself a punk to your family is not acceptable if you’re a female. “For most women, hiding their “punk-ness” in the public is also extended to home sphere. There seems to be a degree of distancing oneself from the declared punk identity in order to protect oneself at home: hanging out does not mean I am one and thus, self declarations of being a female punk in front of the parents, or in general, is rare, although some adults have tried cutting the links between the females and the male punk community by not allowing them to hang around in the city, establishing curfews and not allowing the girls to use motorbikes at night time,” Marjaana Jauhola describes. “As the Shari’a policing and raids in Banda Aceh specifically control female clothing and behavior, only few girlfriends would hang out late evenings.” In Banda Aceh, Mayor Illiza Sa’Aduddin says Shari’a teaches the Acehnese to be better Muslims and is a necessary part of rebuilding Aceh after the tsunami. She is proudly on a ‘personal crusade’ against the punk community and believes their way of of life does not belong in Aceh, while she turns a blind eye to the wholesale devastation of the province’s forests making fortunes for corrupt individuals. Targeted by patrolling Shari’a police, who say they are responding to complaints from locals, Banda Aceh’s punks make a useful political distraction. Muhammad Shyahril is a Shari’a police officer who met up with us when he was off duty at a local coffee shop. He has been been on patrol when punks were arrested and feels it is justified. “You can see culturally this doesn’t fit in Aceh,” says Shyahril. “The law states that if they disturb the order of society, we have the authority to punish them. The problem arises when they appear in their ragged clothes, the people report to us that there’s a bunch of punks that disturb them, maybe they’re afraid of them, perhaps the punks stole their food or their goods because they are unemployed. They sleep wherever, eat whatever they found, sometimes they don’t eat. They’re dirty, so we receive reports such as these every day and it grows,” concludes Shyahril. Having failed to get their way, the authorities are now attempting to recruit college students and civilians into helping rid the city of punks.

A sense of equality Caplex turns up for our interview ready to take on the world, head held high, in his studded leather jacket and his black Dr. Marten boots. He is a singer and songwriter, his lyrics unflinchingly taking apart the hypocrisy of Aceh. His boiling anger at the state combined with his sharp mind produces some truly inspiring music. Caplex lost most of his family in the deadly tsunami. Since, the punk community has become his family. “We eat together, earn money together, we enjoy together, there is a sense of equality,” explains Caplex. “We go through suffering together, we struggle together. I myself am friends with the punks not because of material possession, we don’t discriminate between the rich or the poor, anyone can join in the punk community.” It is scenarios like this, when you’ve lost everything and you are constantly being harassed by authorities, where punk has a highly relevant meaning.



Back in Peunayong, the sun sets as the call to prayer echoes far and wide, and all ages gather at the mosque for prayers and to listen to sermons. Sumatra’s dramatic towering clouds glow in the setting sun, the hawkers set up their wares under countless fluorescent lamps, and the cycle starts again. The punks converge in an alley in Peunayong to play music, share ideas, do a bit of DIY artwork, smoke cigarettes, eat fried rice communally. It’s a rare vibrant place to be in this suffocating society. The punks go out in groups to play songs to earn money to eat. Every night is unpredictable, though, and the punks are constantly watched, always under threat.

Under great duress, the punk community tries to survive, keeping their spirit alive with their edgy, raw in-your face music that lashes out at authority and society that tells them their way is wrong. In the song Street Punk by Botol Kosoenk (or Empty Bottle), the punks fight back in song: ‘Street punk, street punk. Never give up. Street punk, street punk. Will always move on. / We always take abuse. Entering right and coming out left. What you say is meaningless. Because to us, you are a loser./Street punk, street punk. Never give up. Street punk, street punk. Will always move on. / The hypocrisy is stabbing your own belly. Too many words but unused. Our scream will hit you. To make you aware, and know shame. / Street punk, street punk. Never give up. Street punk, street punk. Will always move on … ‘ from Street Punk by Botol Kosoenk (or Empty Bottle) It also doesn’t help that the local media portrays the punks badly. Azriana Manalu is a human rights lawyer with LBH Apik Aceh. “In Aceh there is a bad stigma against punk. So, people hate them, and the media only publishes negative stories about the punks without confirming the truth,” says critically Manalu. “When they understand how to advocate themselves, perhaps they will have the rights to answer. It’s a violation against journalistic ethics, the negative stories were published negatively without being confirmed.” What do the Aceh punks want? Scooby, one of the punks once at the core of the movement here, puts his opinion “We want freedom, freedom in creating, in expressing ourselves. But the way we Acehnese interact in the community is more difficult, especially because in Aceh the Shari’a law is implemented strictly. We only hope that we can be accepted, that’s enough,” exclaims Scooby. “That we can live in unity with others, after all, we’re also human. We’re the same, it’s only that we have a different way of thinking, different way of living.” In a surprising volte-face, Scooby is no longer punk, and now follows Hizb ut-Tahrir. A pan-Islamic group, banned in a number of countries, it is



gaining a stronger presence in the region, and Scooby is willing to help them recruit from the young punks, although so far his efforts seem to be rejected. There are curious parallels between the anti-state message of punk and such Muslim extremism which also seeks to deconstruct democratic principles, and when democracy is a badly implemented as it is in Aceh, its easy to paint it as a deceptive and unfair form of government. Hizb ut-Tahrir believes in uniting all Muslim countries under a single caliphate, ruled by one elected leader and governed under Shari’a law. They have been accused of promoting racism, anti-Semitic hatred and terrorism. As Indonesia’s economy prospers, many are left behind. In the capital, Jakarta, the gap between rich and poor continues to grow more extreme – luxury malls and condominiums serve the wealthy while the majority suffer pollution, poverty and the barriers of corruption. Aceh too is changing rapidly. With accusations of human rights abuses in the enforcement of Shari’a law, foreign investment in the province has lagged behind the rest of the country, holding Aceh back from healthy economic growth and throwing it deeper into poverty and despair. In Banda Aceh, punk rock unites and empowers the disenfranchised. In a course of a year over a series of trips to Banda Aceh, a film crew of three – Maria Bakkalapulo, Niall Macaulay and Wayan Tilik – documented this incredible community in the film Street Punk! Banda Aceh. Screening at festivals this year, we look into the lives of the Aceh punks and find out their stories. The film looks at how the province is changing, and witness its punk community adapt, exist and find their identity in one of the most restricted regions of the country.

Maria Bakkalapulo is an American journalist and ethnomusicologist. She has contributed to the BBC, MTV Iggy, Noisey / VICE, The World (BBC/ WGBH-Boston), CBC, NPR, National Geographic Music, Songlines Magazine, TIME Magazine, The Wire Magazine, Marketplace, Going Places (Malaysia Airlines) and more. Niall Macaulay is a Scottish videographer, producer, sound recordist and photographer. His work has been used by the BBC, MTV Iggy, Noisey/VICE, The World, Songlines Magazine, The Wire Magazine, National Geographic Music and more. Niall is also the technical director for the Rainforest World Music Festival and Borneo Jazz, both in Sarawak, Borneo.

‘Street Punk! Banda Aceh’ can be viewed here:

Facebook: For more on Marjaana Jauhola’s time with the Aceh punks, please check out:

Photo essay and story by Marjaana Jauhola and Yudi Bolong featured in Planet 2014: ‘The Punks of the Tsunami Museum: Post-disaster Indonesia’:




Freemuse Statistics on Artistic Freedom of Expression Violations 2015 Freemuse focuses on music, visual arts, cinema/films (fictional), theatre (including performance art), literature (fiction) and dance. The statistics cover artists who were attacked, persecuted, killed, abducted, detained, prosecuted, imprisoned and censored within a calendar year. The statistics even cover attacks and censorship of artistic productions, venues and events. Read the full report ‘Art Under Threat: Attacks on artistic freedom 2015’ on








Profile for Freemuse Organisation

Targeting the arts 2015  

INSIGHT articles about controversies and conflicts over art in 2015

Targeting the arts 2015  

INSIGHT articles about controversies and conflicts over art in 2015

Profile for freemuse