Eyes Set on the Global South to Strengthen Artistic Freedom

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Ministerial panel titled "Reshaping cultural policies for artistic freedoms" at World Pres Freedom Day 2017 in Jakarta, Indonesia. (Ooi Jing En / Voice of Millennials)

Whether in Yogyakarta or Singapore City, Asian contemporary art is taking a center stage in the international area for its exceptional critique of the region’s everyday life. As this creative industry flourishes, cultural policies in Southeast Asian countries still have a lot to do to guarantee artistic freedoms.

As World Press Freedom Day 2017 takes place in the bustling city of Jakarta, there has been a lot of talk about the safety of journalists, their rights as the guardians of truth, freedom of speech and information and the phenomenon of fake news in a post-truth era.

In spite of this, one particular group has never been neglected in the discussions about press freedom – artists.

According to United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, the rights to freedom of artistic expression and creation are essential to the development. Much effort has been made to permit individuals to freely express as well as experience art as a means of communicating opinions and aspirations. However, it was noted that laws and regulations, combined with economic and financial factors continue to inhibit artistic freedom in many countries, especially developing ones.

Published two years ago, the 2005 Global Convention Report titled Reshaping Cultural Policies: A Decade Promoting the Diversity of Cultural Expressions for Development analyzed the implementation of Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions after a decade of monitoring. It reported on the obstacles to artistic freedom, some of them being the absence of civil society acting as a ‘cultural watchdog’ and “an increase in the use of the ‘cultural exemption’ measure to exclude some cultural goods and/or services from the trade agreements”.

Governments have been stressed to encourage rights for people to enjoy art and their artistic freedom. Yet, the potential of cultural industries as a “major target” for sustainable development and policy support for their growth to “yield significant long-term economic, social, cultural and environmental benefits” remains under-exploited.

In a special pre-event session, representatives from ministries of education and cultural affairs in different countries sat in a panel to discuss measures to promote artists’ creativity, civil society and institutional partnerships as well as greater mobility of artists.

“Artistic freedom is so important to the development of human beings around the world. It is the 4th dimension and pillar of development along with environmental considerations. Artistic freedom builds on the respect for human right and fundamental freedoms for true cultural diversity”, said Arief Rahman, a representative of Indonesia’s Minister of Education and Culture.

As reinstated several times, it would appear that the preservation of artistic freedom was further prioritized as being an essential element of a functioning democracy.

As the motto goes, “Bhineka Tunggal Ika” which means “cultural diversity in unity”. With Indonesia rising as a scene for alternative artistic spaces, it was mentioned that Joko Widodo’s administration has made this a priority to increase the government’s awareness and public-initiated participation to appreciate and cultivate artistic diversity.

In a speech conveyed on behalf of Asaduzzaman Noor, Bangladesh’s Minister of Cultural Affairs, the government has expressed a great sense of optimism to promoting the flourishing of artists as they prepare for the Dhaka Arts Summit in February 2018. The summit hopes to bridge the connection between artists of South and Southeast Asia and “explore the lesser known transnational histories and cultures” between them.

The panelists were all in agreement that culture was indeed a strategic element of sustainable development, as outlined by UNESCO. The guarantee of artistic freedoms would act as an enabler and a driver of sustainable development and that greater cooperation between artists and government in planning national development would promote social inclusion.

However, it could be argued that the positive air leaves some voices absent in this strengthened call for artistic freedoms towards the Global South.

In Malaysia, art that questions the status quo is not free from censorship neither the State nor its associated actors.

A part of Pangrok Sulap’s artwork that depicts the impact of deforestation on Malaysia’s indigenous community. Image credit: Ng Sek San

Pangrok Sulap, a punk-inspired art group from East Malaysia, were forced to have their artwork ‘Sabah tanah-airku’ (Sabah my homeland) removed from display at an exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, following a complaint letter that the issues raised in it were “too sensitive”. A year before, well-known Malaysian punk artist Fahmi Reza was charged for a controversial illustration of Prime Minister Najib Razak being depicted as an evil clown.

Fahmi Reza’s controversial image plastered all over Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Image credit: Fahmi Reza

Even with the democratically elected Burmese government, veteran artist Aye Ko remains doubtful of truly free artistic freedom in Myanmar. Aye Ko, who was recently awarded the 2017 Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art lamented that it is still difficult to explain to authorities when acquiring permission, and that alone stands as a challenge that pushes artistic freedom to the underground.

As UNESCO turns its attention to developments in the Global South’s artistic freedoms, the question of freedom of expression in the age of globalization remains a complex one that sparks a difficult conversation.

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