We’re only three weeks away our from our next production Caught, an art-theatre hybrid from Christopher Chen and Lee Sunday-Evans. Caught centers on the work of a certain Chinese dissident artist, so this week our theme is GLOBAL DISSIDENCE. Today, we’ll be looking at the current state of dissident art around the world.
Cuba has a long history of censoring artists who do not cohere to the state-established revolutionary narrative. Since the 1980s, artists like Juan Sí Gonzalez, Angel Delgado and María Elena Cruz Varela have been imprisoned for conducting subversive art stunts in public. In recent years, censorship has not eased. The winner of the Vaclav Havel Award for Creative Dissidence in 2015, graffiti and performance artist Danilo Maldonado Machado aka El Sexto, was arrested in 2014 for a performance piece in which he transported and painted two pigs with the names “Fidel” and “Raul,” a reference to the Castro brothers. Similarly, celebrated artist Tania Bruguera had her passport confiscated in 2014 after her performance Tatlin’s Whisper #6, in which she offered a microphone to passers-by in the Plaza of the Revolution. While the end of the American embargo in March points towards a more potentially liberal future, artists in Cuba still risk social stigmatization, loss of employment and suppression.
With the increased commercialization of China’s once-subversive Arts District 798, the younger generation of Chinese artists seem less concerned with creating explicitly political work. Yet the old guard of dissident artists, led by Ai Wei Wei, remain at large and targets of official suspicion. Wei Wei continues to exhibit works that depict his illegal detainment by the CCP in 2011. Ai Wei Wei’s assistant and installation artist Zhao Zhao has had his work seized, and been held in investigative custody for 12 days on false charges. Painter Yang Zhengxue has served numerous jail sentences for his depictions of the Tiananmen massacre; according to a recent report by the CHRD, he and his wife have been “forcibly taken ‘traveling’ by authorities” this spring, “in order to leave Beijing before June 4.”
Russian dissident artists have made international headlines in recent years, both for the extremity of their art stunts and their repeated detainment. The most famous of these is the feminist punk activist group Pussy Riot, who were arrested in 2012 after staging an anti-Putin performance piece in a church. Pussy Riot’s collaborator, performance artists Petr Pavlensky, has also made headlines for his violent art stunts, which have included sewing his mouth shut in 2012 to protest Pussy Riot’s arrest, and nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in 2013. Most recently, Pavnlesnky was arrested for setting fire to the doors of the FSB (Russian Secret Service) headquarters. A lesser known group is the active dissident art collective Voina, who gained notoriety for painting a giant phallus on a drawbridge facing the same FSB headquarters.
Until 2011, Burma’s arts censorship was violently oppressive. Performance artists like Zargarnar who satirized the government using anyeint, a vaudeville-like Burmese theater tradition, and Aye Ko, who went on to lead the post-modernist wave of Burmese artists in Yangon, served up to a decade in prison. Controversial installation artist Htein-Lin served a six year sentence on spurious charges, and fled to London after his release in 2004. With the establishment of semi-civilian government in 2011, state censorship has shifted into a more relaxed if uncertain state. Zarganar and Aye Ko have both been released. Last year, Htein-Lin returned to Burma to exhibit his participatory performance piece A Show of Hands, which featured hundreds of plaster casts of fellow political prisoner’s hands.
Since the 2011 civil war, there has been an outpouring of dissident Syrian art and expression. This new wave has been gaining global recognition; most recently, a new archive of Syrian art was recently featured at the British Museum, while Syrian gratiffi was featured in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The new generation of artists are linked by their stealth, technological prowess and use of trans-media. The online citizen photographer group Lens Young captures images of the conflict with any photographic equipment available to them. The Facebook page Art & Freedom, started by painter Youssef Abdelki, encourages Syrian artists to upload signed art as an act of solidarity with the victims of the uprising, a highly dangerous activity that has led to numerous arrests and deportations.