A Handbook for Artists Facing Persecution

Performance artist Tania Bruguera, who has been detained and persecuted on multiple occasions by Cuban state police for participating in peaceful activism. (photograph by Claudio Fuentes, courtesy of PEN America)

Around the world, artists are frequent targets of persecution, repression, and censorship. Earlier this week, Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera was detained in Havana while planning to attend a peaceful protest, one of countless such arrests on the island. Hundreds of artists have been attacked in Belarus during ongoing protests, including painter Roman Bondarenko, who was beaten to death by plainclothes police last year. Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu’s film Rafiki (2018), about two women falling in love in a homophobic society, remains banned in her home country

In response to the urgent threats to artists’ physical lives and creative freedoms, the national human rights nonprofit PEN America has published its first-ever Safety Guide for Artists. The free handbook, available in English, Spanish, and French, addresses critical issues for artists at risk, from boosting digital security and connecting with aid organizations to recovering from the psychological impact of persecution.

One section is entirely dedicated to helping artists understand their country’s laws regulating speech, illuminating common strategies used by authorities to sidestep freedom of expression protections and providing useful case studies. Under Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act (DSA), for instance, which gives authorities vast permission to launch investigations into dissenting individuals, thousands of Bangladeshi artists, journalists, and activists have been detained. 

In 2020, PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection program (ARC), which links imperiled artists to aid and resources, received more requests for assistance than any other year since its inception.

“This year, we’ve seen an explosion of protest movements worldwide, but also the desperate attempts by governments to unjustly and at times violently muzzle artistic freedom and dissent,” said Julie Trebault, director of ARC and one of the guide’s lead authors. “The potency of creative expression in kindling passions and changing minds is what makes regimes view artists as threatening.”

The guide excerpts interviews with 13 artists who have been victims of oppression and harassment, including Bruguera, Kahiu, Lebanese singer Hamed Sinno, American visual artist Dread Scott, Chinese-American filmmaker Nanfu Wang, and Cameroonian rapper Valsero. Some of their testimonies are highly personal.

“My experience is facing Russia as an aggressor. And there is no advice that you could give to Russians to avoid prison — only sitting in your car with a Russian flag and keeping your mouth shut,” said Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director who was jailed after exposing Russian human rights violations, in one interview with PEN. “This is the only thing you can do to save yourself, and even then it’s not certain. My advice is not to protect yourself but really to go and fight.”

The Safety Guide for Artists addressed not only state-sponsored threats, but persecution by police, military, extremist groups, and artists’ own communities. Though specifically tailored to individuals who are targeted for their art practices, the guide is fundamental reading for anyone in the field of social justice — or anyone who is at risk of being silenced.

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