Artist Alert: March 2014

Artist Alert: March 2014 - Civic Space

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

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


Namibia: Paolo Bozzi withdraws work from Namibian exhibition after criticism

2 March: Noted Italian photographer Paolo Bozzi was due to exhibit on 3 March but withdrew his photographic series Namibia Sun Pictures after the National Art Gallery of Namibia (NAGN) objected to images of what appeared to be underage girls in his photographs.

NAGN contended that the girls were not old enough to consent to being photographed and attempted to negotiate with Bozzi to withdraw these photographs from the series. Instead, the artist withdrew the entire series.

NAGN has denied that its actions amounted to censorship, pointing out that it was Bozzi’s decision to withdraw the entire photo series. However, critics have noted the arbitrary nature of NAGN’s request, stressing that the move comes in an atmosphere of increasing tension for artists in Namibia. 


USA: Georgia university censors art installation on white supremacist

14 March: Kennesaw State University, Georgia, has announced that it will reinstall an art installation by Ruth Stanford highlighting the racist writings of author Corra Mae Harris. The move follows criticism of the university for removing the artwork from the university’s art museum before the opening on 1 March.

The university previously defended its decision to remove the piece by stating that it did not fit with the “celebratory atmosphere” of the opening event. However, it was suggested that the university was attempting to downplay its connection to Harris, a prolific writer whose work has been marred by its racist undertones.

Kennesaw State University purchased Harris’s homestead as part of its acquisition programme in 2009. Stanford stated that while she is happy that her work is going back in the show, she still believes that the university is attempting to avoid a discussion about censorship.

USA: Book critical of Scientology on sale after two-year ban

29 March: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard by British author Russell Miller was published in 1987, and has not been available in the USA since the Church of Scientology sued in order to get it banned 27 years ago. The book challenges a number of facts about the founder of Scientology, the late Mr Hubbard, such as the claim that he was a nuclear physicist and a doctor. It also investigates claims he made about his prosperous childhood in Montana and travels in Asia. Now, for the first time in almost three decades, the book is available for sale in the USA, unaltered apart from an updated introduction.

Asia Pacific

China: Rolling Stones prevented from playing Honky Tonk Women at Shanghai concert

13 March: According to a post on The Rolling Stones’ official Twitter feed, Chinese censors apparently prevented them from playing their hit song Honky Tonk Women at their Shanghai gig.

During the concert, the Stones tweeted: “About now we’d usually play something like Honky Tonk Women, we played it last time we were here in 2006, but it’s been vetoed…”

Chinese censors have been known to prevent songs that contain controversial lyrics, but the group did not explain why the song was deemed unsuitable.

China: Ban placed on sale of Tibetan singer’s music

28 March: Chinese authorities in Qinghai have enforced a ban on the sale of a Tibetan singer’s DVD for “politically restricted content”. Copies of Gar Samdup Tsering’s album, Tsebar ki Marmey (Lifelong Butter Lamp), have been confiscated or destroyed by the authorities following raids on music stores. Local shopowners have been warned against selling Samdup’s album, and local TV channels and nightclubs have been told not to invite him to perform. Samdup has also been banned from performing at a concert scheduled in Qinghai.

Japan: Gay artist’s HIV awareness billboard censored

10 March: A billboard designed by artist Poko Murata, which advertised the AIDS pharmaceutical company Viiv Healthcare, has been censored by local government. The billboard presented a ring of Japanese men alongside the text, “There are people living with and without HIV: and we’re all already living together.”

Murata received a complaint from the Shinjuku district office, claiming that his billboard was “contrary to public order and morality”, as one man was pictured in his underwear. Murata redrew the man in a slightly unzipped pair of shorts, but the office were not satisfied as the man’s underwear was still visible. Murata considers the complaint “an obvious prejudice and discrimination against gays.” A clothed version of Murata’s sign was placed over the original in mid-March.

Malaysia: Edition of Ultraman comic banned over use of word ‘Allah’

7 March: A translation of the March issue of the popular Japanese comic Ultraman was banned from sale in Malaysia over the use of the word ‘Allah’.

Authorities took issue with the word ‘Allah’ being used in translation to convey how Ultraman is seen as a god or elder for all Ultra heroes.

Malaysian authorities condemned the way that the comic book hero was equated with Allah. They said that the use of the word was liable to “confuse Muslim youth and damage their faith”.

The controversy comes at a time when the Malaysian government is locked in a battle with the Catholic Church in Malaysia over use of the word ‘Allah’. The Malaysian government claims that only Muslims can use the Arabic translation of the word ‘God’.

Pakistan: Horror film banned

27 March: The horror film Ragini MMS 2 has been banned in the province of Punjab. The Deputy Chairman of the Punjab Censorship Board, Umza Peerzada, asserts that this is the first film to be banned outright, as it is “pornography” and could not simply be cut. The film has been certified for screening in Sindh and Islamabad after editing, but several cinemas are still refusing to screen the film.

Since 2010, institutions such as censorship boards have been devolved to the provinces, allowing for disparity between provinces.

Europe & Central Asia

Russia: Punk singer’s video removed from the internet

1 March: Russian punk bands have been speaking out against Russia’s annexing of the Crimea. Following the unanimous vote in support of Putin’s plans to intervene in Ukraine, popular Russian singer-songwriter Zemfira posted a live video on her website in which she sang a song by Ukrainian band, Okean Elzy. Introducing the song, she pledged her support for the Ukrainian people. Prior to this, Okean Elzy’s concerts in Russia, planned for March, were cancelled, officially for financial and technical reasons.

Zemfira’s video was removed from her website on 10 March. In response, she posted a clip from the Russian film Stalingrad, with her cover of the Kino song Legend played over battle sequences and images of a destroyed city. Zemfira’s website is no longer live – it says that is being rebuilt.

Russia: State broadcaster edits out Jared Leto’s Oscar acceptance speech

2 March: Despite being one of the most talked about moments of the Oscars award show, Jared Leto’s acceptance speech was not broadcast in Russia. It was edited out by the Russian state broadcaster.

Leto won an Oscar for his performance as a transgender woman in the critically-acclaimed Dallas Buyers Club. In his speech, the actor touched on a number of issues including LGBT rights and the current situation in Ukraine and Venezuela.

Channel One decided not to air the five-hour awards show live on the night, stating that more time was needed for live coverage of events in Ukraine. A 90-minute edited version was aired the following morning.

The channel denied that it specifically edited out the speech, stating that it received an official pre-edited version from the rights-holder.

Turkey: Film Nymphomaniac banned

14 March: Danish director Lars Von Trier’s controversial film Nymphomaniac was banned in Turkey due to sex scenes and nudity. The first part was planned to be screened in Turkey on 14 March, the second part on 21 March. Nymphomaniac tells the story of a woman’s sexual awakening from childhood to the age of 50. Due to its sexual nature, the film was expected to be given an 18 certificate, but Turkey’s cinema board banned the film by a majority vote on 24 March. The board’s general director Cem Erkul stated: “This film is in the porn category” and “depicts extreme violence against women”. Yamac Okur, a member of the board, opposes the decision as it is “tantamount to censorship”.

UK: Artwork depicting Jesus vetoed by TFL

29 March: Artist Antony Micallef described Transport for London (TfL)’s decision not to display his work on London tube station posters as “censorship”. The artwork was commissioned by the organisation Art Below as part of their Stations of the Cross project, and was to hang in St Marylebone Church during Lent.

The painting shows a bound Jesus being judged by a Pop Idol-style jury, exploring the idea of how Jesus would be judged in 2014. “Kill your Idol” is written on the judge’s desk, and Micallef offered to remove if it was an issue.

The Church of England has welcomed the image, but TfL stated that the poster did not comply with their advertising policy and could cause widespread or serious offence to members of the public.

Middle East & North Africa

Arab League: new blasphemy law drafted

25 March: The Arab law for the ‘Prevention of Defamation of Religions’ may have a serious effect on freedom of expression: the law prohibits blasphemous dancing, singing and even miming. The text of the law contains overly broad descriptions, allowing for interpretation, which could therefore lead to anything from mild humour to serious criticism being criminalised. The law would also legitimise punishment for “blasphemy” in any medium or form, whether through spoken word, written word, drawing or mime.

Egypt: Anti-government singer banned from Egyptian Arts festival

13 March: Mohamed Mohsen was prevented from performing at the Egyptian Arts Celebration held at the Cairo Opera House.

Mohsen became famous singing revolutionary songs in Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising.

Originally scheduled to perform his hit song Rise, Egyptians, at the festival, Mohsen was escorted out of the Opera House by security services who informed him that he would be unable to perform for “security reasons”.

Mohsen criticised the decision to prevent him from performing in front of an audience that included Interim President Adly Mansour and military chief Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. He speculated that the decision was because of his political views and revolutionary activities.

Saudi Arabia: Authorities shut down stalls and confiscate works at Riyadh International Book Fair

4 March: Saudi authorities have been criticised for their actions at the 2014 Riyadh International Book Fair. They shut down stalls at and confiscated the works of the late and revered Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Noted publishers, including the Arab Network for Research and Publishing, had their stalls shut down and were banned without notice from the fair, which ran from 4-14 March.

The Ministry of Culture and Information did not comment on the widespread confiscation of books by banned publishers. However, it said that Darwish’s works were banned because members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice took issue with “blasphemous phrases” in his poetry.

Saudi Arabia: Popular comic book banned

28 March: A fatwa has been issued against popular Islamic cartoon ‘The 99’ in Saudi Arabia. The comic book series, which has been successful for many years, is based on characters, each one personifying one of the 99 qualities that the Koran attributes to God. Author Dr Naif al-Mutawa created the comics after the 9/11 attacks to provide young Muslims with positive role models. A television series based on the comic books has aired in more than 20 countries for more than a year and was supposed to start in Saudi Arabia this year.

However, the General Presidency of Scholarly Research has issue a fatwa against the show, in line with teachings of Islam which state that Allah should not be personified. The author denies knowledge of the ban, stating that he has not been contacted with any news. He states that he does not believe that such a high profile organisation would fail to recognise the good the comic has done for the Muslim faith. Dr al-Mutawa does not agree with the charges against his comic, but does not wish to pursue the matter.

UAE, Qatar and Bahrain: Middle East countries unite in banning Aronofsky’s epic Noah

13 March: UAE, Qatar and Bahrain have joined a growing list of countries that have banned Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky’s Hollywood epic Noah from being screened in their countries. Multiple countries across the Islamic world have condemned the film for its depiction of a prophet.

While the Qur’anic version of the story of Noah differs from the Biblical version, both have Noah saving pairs of animals from a great flood. Although the story of Noah has been portrayed in children’s cartoons in Muslim countries, the face of Noah is not usually shown.