Michael Schmidt, Safe Havens Rapporteur
The wistful voice of the voluptuous, polished cello of Veronika Voetmann merges with the mournful tones of Anela Bakraqi’s black and dusty piano and the honeyed ache of Alma Olssen’s violin, and the notes swarm in the cadences of Bahraini composer Ahmed Al Ghanem’s flute like leftover autumn leaves in a winter wind.
Inspired by his mentor, the late Majeed Marhoon, a saxophonist who took the drastic path during Bahrain’s liberation struggle of bombing the car of a British intelligence officer in 1966, spending twenty-two years in jail as a result, Ahmed’s neo-classical compositions present a bridge between Western chromatic-scale and Arabic micro-scale music.
Similarly, the annual Safe Havens summit of the ecosystem of organisations that protect persecuted creatives around the world convened under the orientalist gilt domes of the Moriska Paviljongen in Malmö, Sweden, to build bridges between artists’ needs and the pragmatic realisation of their human, cultural and artistic rights. The following are interviews conducted with some of the summit’s key speakers and artists.
WE ARE NOT WOMEN – WE ARE HUMAN BEINGS MAKING MUSIC: Emilia Amper (nyckelharpe, Sweden), Nadin Al Khalidi (bass and oued, Iraq) and Liliana Zavala (percussion, Argentina), members of the Forbidden Orchestra, with Farzane Zamen, Iranian singer-songwriter based in Glasgow
Michael: Fantastic to see you perform, very enervating and moving! A lot of percussion, right? There’s a tradition in West Africa where there are sacred drums that are not played and the idea is that they resonate with the beat of neighbouring drums – but they’re never touched. Women, now, playing instruments, drums in particular, that they are not allowed to play, tell me about refeminising the drum, taking maybe that silent drum that was allowed to resonate in the corner and wasn’t allowed to be touched, and doing what you [Liliana] did, grabbing it and playing it, breaking that taboo.
Liliana: Yeah, I’m breaking a taboo, but actually you can’t play at the ceremony, that you talk about, I don’t know in South Africa, but in Cuba, the woman can’t play on the ceremony, you can’t play batá. There is two kind of batá drums: the holy, with another kind of tension – the mechanics is not metal – and the other batá with metal you can play, but never in the ceremony. The woman can’t, today you can’t play in the ceremony, even now.
Michael: But the drum has been masculinised.
Liliana: But we are not using those drums in our band.
Michael: I understand that, but I am just using that as a metaphor.
Emilia: If I would try to answer your question – maybe we don’t really understand – but I guess it’s because we don’t see ourselves as women, we see ourselves as human beings and it’s really human rights to just make music, so for us it’s not like “oh, it’s so special: I’m a woman and I’m making music.” I’m a human being, I’m an artist, I just make music – and then society kind of hits you in the face “ah because you are a woman” and I am like “What?” Oh yeah I have to remember that I am a woman,” and I am stopped, discriminated and treated badly in many ways, again and again and you are kind of surprised every time because we are just human beings just making music because we love it and it comes from our hearts and it’s our life. So we don’t see it as refeminising: we are just human beings making music and then, step by step, being a woman in society today you kind of learn this; it’s really depressing, it really puts you down when you suddenly see more and more of the structures and it’s ugh, and this tired and depressing feeling that it is to be met with sexist feeling and stuff. The tiring feeling is kind of fought with this meeting, this playing in this band; it fills you with energy again and it is so strong for us to just meet here because we know without speaking so much because we immediately know that we share that feeling that we just want to make art, we just want to make music, we just want to be human beings and express ourselves, but we all share the kind of ugh!
Michael: But you were indicating that actually this was a huge loss for humanity – that half of the music, we never hear.
Emilia: Yeah, it’s horrible. We need to do it because it’s human rights and because we lose so much art. It’s not because we have to let this woman because she’s a woman: it’s because we lose so much art and everybody should be free; it’s a human right.
Michael: You have themes that are quite lonesome or plaintive, sad – but the general impression I get from your performance is a recapturing of joy.
Emilia: It’s the “re” that I am reacting to, like refeminising or recapturing. We want to make music that is strong for us and also strong for the audience, so it’s really strong-sad, it’s really strong-beautiful, it’s really strong-powerful, joy, percussion, energy, it’s strong in all different ways! It says something, but life is so rich and life has so many different feelings and we have so many different feelings and experiences and we don’t want to do just one thing.
Nadin: It’s interesting that we navigate after sadness, it’s interesting that’s how you felt about it because these themes we are singing about and approaching, it’s actually about reality. So when I talk about my music school in the beginning, and [being a] refugee, and I don’t know what, and moving to Egypt and coming back, da-da-da-da, there were great moments too in these journeys even if they were horrible while being a refugee. But there is the beauty of finally finding a refuge which is in Sweden, for myself, eighteen years ago, and the freedom to grab a guitar and just play. My boyfriend when I was eighteen years old, he was arrested on stage because he sang Maggie’s Farm, a Bob Dylan song: I don’t want to work for Maggie’s father, for Maggie’s brother, no more. And there was this secret police and they came and they took away his guitar and the arrested him and I saw that happening and that was, is still the love of my life. I wasn’t sad, I was “oh, my boyfriend is a hero!” Coming here and the surprise that Swedish musicians are interested in Arabic music more than me; I had no interest in Arabic music at all. And then seeing Sousou as well, meanwhile I’m studying the language and trying to integrate into society and seeing her on stage and I was like “oh would I ever stand on stage like her?” And then seeing Emilia after a while and meeting her and you get the prize for best musician of the year in folk music and I was like “would I ever talk to her?” And the year after, I got the prize and we were sitting talking and so it’s more about the journey. It’s not sad stories and science fiction – and many people can relate to these stories regardless if they are sad or happy.
Michael: Regardless or the language either, I would say?
Nadin: Of course. And Lili’s meeting with the teacher who didn’t allow her to play – and then eventually they were touring together. I mean there is lots of positive stuff; we can’t just navigate after the drama and the trauma – the story of my mom and the grave – there are no tears in this story because I never cried.
Emilia: I would say they are more realistic, stories from real life and themes. I think it’s beautiful when you have this luggage with you, luggage, package or whatever, why not sing about it, why not play music about it? We are just human beings and we play themes about things that touch us; they are very inclusive, everybody can relate.
Nadin: We are sharing from ourselves.
Emilia: Exactly, so why look for other themes that don’t exist. Hmmm [drums on the table] what is it that this song should be about?
Nadin: We have a lot to sing about, we have a lot to talk about, to compose about, so I would say let’s not navigate after sadness because it is not about sadness – because as you said, we are happy playing even if every time when I hold the bass, I hope something will happen and I will just vanish because it’s not my first instrument, then I’m afraid that I cannot navigate on the instrument; that’s the sad part about my role in this band because I want to develop more on the bass. But I don’t think we should navigate after sadness. And when Emilia is talking about the lost songs, about refugees, or racism, or fascism or everything that’s happening in the world right now, this is not sad, it’s reality – but it’s a sad reality, but that’s our everyday life.
Emilia: One thing we could explain about the orchestra is that it is an oasis – and it’s supposed to be an oasis where we can do all the things that we dream about but that we are hindered to do, usually, because of structures or anything, because of ourselves, or people that we meet, society or whatever. This should be the oasis of freedom, musically and artistically, so if we dream about something, this is the place where we should do it, where we throw ourselves out in something and we are here to catch each other in this space.
Michael: I was interested to hear how both Sousou and Lily encountered gatekeepers – but how through their persistence, they managed to convince these gatekeepers to open the gates and actually instruct them and teach them ways that were essentially forbidden originally. You encountered men who were designed to lock you out of learning instruments, both you and Sousou, but through your persistence in both cases you convinced them to teach.
Liliana: I don’t convince, it was [drumming on table] I want to learn, me! But I never think I am a woman who wants to play music, you know? I just want to play music like another person, another man. I never think like this. But I fell in love with the drums with this drum or the conga or another drum – but this drum is forbidden. Sometimes it was very difficult to learn, to find somebody who wanted to do it in Cuba. A lot of the time I had to stay and just a man can play and me I have to just sit and watch – and then they say you can come and you can play. But I never think about what I have here when I am on the stage; I am just a musician.
Michael: You all sing as well, which is really intriguing. Just perhaps could each of you in term tell me what is to you – in any of the languages you know – the most beautiful phrase or word?
Nadin: There are so many beautiful… I cannot have one specific word in Arabic – and it’s definitely not habibi! [baby! All laugh]
Liliana: If I was to have one word in Spanish, it’s libertad, it’s freedom. I love this word.
Michael: حرية [Hurriyah] in Arabic, right?
Farzane: I can say a classic poem, Iranian poem which is نابرده رنج، گنج میسر نمیشود, meaning if you want to reach a goal without pain in the way, you can’t reach that goal. It’s a very famous phrase, very meaningful. I felt it as a woman; I know that we try to say “ok, we are human beings; it doesn’t matter if we are woman or man” but we need to struggle more, we need to fight more. For me just being a musician is not as easy as it is for a man; it’s so much more difficult for me. It’s like climbing a very intense mountain; it wasn’t easy, so this poem for me: نابرده رنج، گنج میسر نمیشود.
Nadin: I would say that what you said while we were outside taking some fresh air is the most beautiful thing I’ve heard in a while: strike while the iron is hot! [Laughs] You get the metaphor? [makes as if ironing clothes – stryka meaning to iron in Swedish – provoking laughter]. There are many beautiful words in many languages. I know when I sing in another band, one of the lyrics that I wrote about my home town, Baghdad, where I was born, you know every time I think Baghdaaaaad, I have to urgh, do like this in order not to cry. So Baghdad is a word that I get a heartbeat from.
FEAR OF YOUR FRIENDS AND PEERS: THE PURITAN POLICING OF LIBERAL ACADEMIA AND THE ARTS: Svetlana Mintcheva, Director of Programmes at the National Coalition Against Censorship, USA
Michael: There’s been a lot of focus on your country and Trump in terms of an indicator of the rise of right-wing populism and neo-fascism etcetera. Could you perhaps give us a perspective on emerging economies that are perhaps in a more dangerous situation, like Brazil and India, in terms of the rise of similar and more unchecked movements in those regions from the perspective of the US, looking outwards?
Svetlana: I really can’t speak about Brazil and India, but I could speak about the US. We take it for granted that we have the rule of law in the US and liberal democracy in general, and I think that rule of law might be under threat. I mean, what happened recently with the Supreme Court with the election of [Brett] Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court justice, in a very politically polarised environment: we have a Supreme Court justice who clearly had a very strong political position and clearly did not like Democrats. So this is coming now to the highest court of the land which should have the credibility of being above and beyond politics, and that credibility is being eroded. So then on the other hand you have the stacking of federal agencies with people who are not critical of the president, so I think we should not be taking too lightly the danger this could present, and also the danger that a populist, right-wing US where the rule of law is eroded, what danger that could present to the rest of the world as a somehow kind of check on human rights abuses in other countries. And my work is within the US, admitting that there are very dire situations in other parts of the world, my purpose has been to raise awareness for what is happening here in the stable, liberal West, and how rights are threatened here, where things are going and how freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech to me is not just about saying we are here for individual artists. I don’t think that’s entirely the case and the reason to me is when individual artists matter is when, not so much the human rights of artists though I prioritise that, but more than that, is the health of the public sphere, it’s all of us. So on the other hand, censorship, suppression affects everyone and censorship is the closing off of access to ideas, the stopping of a kind of critical thinking, and this affects society at large. Which is why I question the whole notion of relocation, because it helps the individual but it actually leaves society where the individual was at risk, in a way worse off because critical voices are gone. And what interests me also in the US is the existence of this lively public sphere which is key to any kind of democracy; you cannot have democracy without credibility; you can have a voting process, but people don’t even vote when they know that it does not matter and there’s a lot of disaffection with democratic politics, and it’s complicated. But to me, freedom of expression has to do with the political environment and what kind of political environment we want to have, we need to have, and what’s happening now in the US – which does not jail artists – is a kind of polarisation which has come to the point of fracture; it’s a very fractured public sphere in the sense that I can talk to people that agree with me and I agree with them and we agree with each other, but then there are those other people that live in a completely different reality, they are just, they agree with each other and they say that what I am saying and what my groups is saying is fake news or it is just complete lies.
Michael: So there’s no common grounds for even debating?
Svetlana: There’s no common grounds to even start from a common assumption that “this is true, and this is my opinion and this is our opinion,” no, we have come to the point where we don’t even agree on the basis, we don’t agree on what is true and what is not and that is the basis of this radical doubt of what is true.
Michael: There was this interesting debate that I chaired a little earlier this year on fake news and one of the research elements that was presented by one of the speakers was that in the United States, in terms of media consumption – and this was really counter-intuitive to me, but intriguing – that conservative consumers read far more liberal media than liberal consumers read conservative media. And that was really interesting to me because it suggested a retreat by the Western liberal values into an enclave of their own. In other words, this is not purely a conservative retreat.
Svetlana: No, no, absolutely, and I think that’s where we have liberal and left groups abandoning the whole principle of free speech. What you’re saying is really true and it’s the refusal of the left to listen to some voices on the other side – and a very aggressive refusal. The New Yorker had invited for its festival [former Breitbart head] Steve Bannon to have a discussion with David Remnick, their editor-in-chief; there was so much protest that they cancelled and they disinvited him. So, why? So you disagree with Steve Bannon, you find him to be a dangerously anti-immigrant racist, whatever, but where does the refusal to even listen to debate with him leave you? They were not celebrating him; it was a conversation and many people were interested in listening to the conversation, but there’s this whole notion of deplatforming.
Michael: Which actually has an element of dehumanisation to it, does it not?
Svetlana: Very strongly so, I mean that is the goal of deplatforming, so these people cannot have ideas that are worth listening to at all, they are pure evil. So this is creating somebody who is pure evil who you cannot engage with because if you engage with them you are legitimising them.
Michael: Well obviously this is a difficult debate, it’s not straightforward. We obviously understand the principles of don’t give platform to outright hate speech and fascism etcetera, but this whole demonization of essentially half the [US] population or whatever your statistic wants to be is really problematic, because you really are disappearing people, you are creating the grounds for grievance in fact.
Svetlana: Right. And what does “don’t give a platform to pure hate speech” mean? You know under US law there is no definition of hate speech, so direct incitement to violence is criminal, but racist speech is not criminalised. So what we’ve had in universities is conservative student groups inviting speakers, provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos or Richard Spencer who is a white supremacist – they’re people with bad ideas, no question about it – but what happens is that every time they invite such a speaker, they know that the larger student body is going to lash out in protest and they are going to look bad because they are going to be “against free speech.” So you have this baiting of the left and the left is taking the bait. What if you invite a racist speaker and nobody shows up, or five conservative students show up, what is going to happen?
Michael: Or they get adequately defeated in debate?
Svetlana: Or if there’s debate, they get adequately defeated. It’s giving them more credibility [to ban them]. It’s really disturbing because I work on free speech, and now you have these “free speech martyrs” that are very obnoxious figures, whereas don’t deplatform them, give them a platform and don’t go and listen, or ask them a question; they are mostly not that smart and the emptiness of their ideas is going to be revealed. But the more you ban them, the more you create them as mythological, Satanic masters of the universe; somehow you give them more of a stature by rising up as a whole student body and wanting them removed – and the same thing with The New Yorker. And that also creates a kind of fear within liberal institutions that you cannot write about certain topics, you cannot ask certain questions; there is a kind of puritan policing of discourse.
Michael: And this is particularly prevalent, weirdly enough, in academia.
Svetlana: In academia, in the art world. It’s funny that in society at large, these institutions are not dominant. What is dominant is big corporations, big money and Donald Trump, right? At the same time, you have these small enclaves of liberal power that are thinking that they have social power and they can police their own little enclaves – but they are powerless in society at large and when they are policing discourse so strictly, they are isolating themselves and becoming more and more little marginal liberal enclaves. So I am very sympathetic to the concept of social justice, I think the tactics that are deployed now by many people that are interested in social justice and achieving social justice through censorship, I think these are very misguided because censorship has never helped the cause of social justice. Historically, you look: censorship has always helped those in power and those in power – not in academia, but in society at large – are not the people that we want to be imposing censorship. So that perspective is somehow lacking, and I find that a lot of times that even asking the questions in the US, you can be unfriended on Facebook. I mean I have spoken to people within the cultural sphere and they are liberal, left people and they are concerned because you get absolutely mob-attacked if you express a dissident thought on social media, you get professionally ostracised, you get personally ostracised.
Michael: It’s a kangaroo-court mentality.
Svetlana: Yeah, and a kind of dogmatic mentality where you have to be very pure, very politically correct otherwise you’re out – and there’s fear. And fear not so much of the political other, who we don’t even talk to, but fear of your friends and peers. So not only is the public sphere fractured because left and right don’t talk to each other, within the left there are many fractures; the right, however [laughs], have consolidated and they’re very different, you have fiscal conservatives, you have the Tea Party, you have the religious right, they’re absolutely different people, but they are creating alliances for power. And I think they should be critical of Trump; a lot of them dislike Trump but Trump is their way to be in power. And they have their interests, they have their financial interests or whatever and he’s responding to some interests of theirs so they consolidate in the name of getting power. The left is fracturing and the more they are gaining power in academia and liberal institutions, the less they have broad social power in society at large because a lot of people live within those institutions – they don’t see beyond them.
Michael: OK, you’ve stressed that your bailiwick is the USA, but to what extent do you say that the Trump phenomenon and associated things like the Tea Party have been enablers of these types of phenomena elsewhere in the world, either because of the actual imperialist power of the USA or because of its symbolic significance?
Svetlana: Well I think what’s happening in Europe is very much in parallel, I mean Poland, Hungary, you know, you have right-wing populisms everywhere.
Michael: South Africa too; we’re all part of a broader process.
Svetlana: Exactly, and Trumpism is a symptom as is everything else; the basis of this is economic. You look back into the 21st Century and there’s economic discontent, so you have societies that are extremely economically polarised, you had a 2008 crisis that affected people in the middle class that lost a lot – and then the richest parts of society recovered, the stock market did very well, banks are doing very well. You also have a sort of mobile cultural intelligentsia in the West and young people with education and resources who can move and for whom this kind of new economy, the information economy is good. But you also have people who have been left over, who have lost jobs in manufacturing, who have lost security, in the US have lost their houses (the housing crisis), so these people have been left behind.
Michael: You see photographs out of cities like Detroit that look like post-apocalyptic wastelands.
Svetlana: Right. And artists are moving in there, so the liberal cultural elite could make galleries, but what of people who have lost jobs in manufacturing, how will they recover? So they’re ripe for populists like Bannon who had the ideology – and listening to Steve Bannon, which I find interesting, is that he precisely identifies that, identifies the fact that corporations, with the recent tax cuts that Trump did, they’re tax cuts for corporations. You’ve had the most radical economic polarisation of society that you’ve ever had, it’s more than the early 20th Century, so Bannon identified that and the Trump campaign identified the disaffection, and then provided what to me is the wrong answer, which is “let’s stop those immigrants; they’re taking our jobs,” which is bullshit!
Michael: A diversionary tactic.
Svetlana: But there is this correct identification of people’s discontent and this is happening in Europe, that’s happening everywhere, it happened with Brexit; the people who are left over by new economies who have been hurt by crisis but never recovered and they’re angry and they need to direct that anger and they need someone to tell them “you’re a person of value and we will help you recover – at the expense of some other group,” and this some other group that is being pushed forward in the US is immigrants, and in Europe as well. And the rhetoric of hatred is really taking hold because of the existing social anger, which is exploited by populists. So to me it may be the economic model that the US has; I don’t think Trump can accomplish such a revolution of international politics. It is the logic of neoliberal capitalism and the government handling of the economic crisis in which the government bailed out the banks, gave hand-outs to corporations, and the cost was borne by the middle class which is now not a middle class anymore. So this is the environment.
Michael: So what is the role of the arts in all of this? It’s interesting that you talk about gentrification in Detroit because Hassan stressed this quite strongly in his talk and in our interview of how often artists became the thin end of the wedge in pushing marginal people even further into the margins.
Svetlana: We have much activism around gentrification and art galleries in the US. Gentrification is a real phenomenon, but there are two issues and one is first of all it’s not really galleries that are pushing people out, but the big developers, and we have issues in Chinatown where big developers are buying buildings, they’re kicking tenants out and they’re re-renting for a lot more money. The galleries actually provide some value to the community: in LA, there’s a lot of controversy in Boyle Heights which is this area that’s being gentrified; some of the galleries that were kicked out were first-time galleries showing works by Hispanic artists, not the blue-chip galleries that have space everywhere. There are political movements that are sometimes blunt instruments and this is one issue, gentrification, who do you go after? It’s easy to go after the galleries because if you are an arts activist the galleries listen to you – but do you go after the developers? How do you go after the developers? It’s harder to go after the developers, but then what’s the effect you’d have if you just go after the galleries? You remove a gallery; gentrification is still going on. I beg to see the case where kicking out a gallery has stopped gentrification. And the other issue is do we really want to keep the slums? Don’t you want development, don’t you want infrastructure? Do you want people to live in cockroach-filled apartments? There’s this big debate right now on Amazon coming into Queens. So to me, what is your vision, what do you want done? And nobody has stopped gentrification so far. The big problem with gentrification is clearly that artists and people are kicked out after a while.
Michael: This has happened downtown Johannesburg where the city created a Cultural Precinct and the first move was to relocate the homeless people and kick out the artists who actually lived there and now create this vacuous Cultural Precinct that is denuded of its culture [laughs].
Svetlana: Absolutely, but I think the thing is not to stop development but to create, to advocate to create affordable long-term spaces for artists; make arts organisations or whatever change ownership and create mechanisms where you protect groups that are there and they’re the ones that give life to the neighbourhood. And that’s very doable because you’re otherwise protesting against something that will happen, you’re not going to stop it by your protesting in the street – but you can lobby. And this happens here and there: there’s an area being gentrified and you buy a building from the city and you have a gallery and working spaces for artists, and live/work spaces for artists, so there are all these energies of protest and activism and I think they could be more smartly deployed to not stop a process that will happen but to…
Michael: Make sure it’s integrated into the actual community.
Svetlana: So don’t kick out the galleries, but push the galleries to have a permanent space for artists, there are any ways to do it. But that is something that you can do that probably cities will be amenable to doing because it raises the value – but you also get something for it and you are employing your activist energy in a positive way. I just did a book about curators negotiating difficult content which is called Smart Tactics; I think you need to employ smart tactics rather than this strategy of just saying “no!” You need to deploy a strategy that has a chance of success.
Michael: So tell me a little about hope.
Svetlana: Oh, hope? I think hope is dependent on having a vision. What do we want? A lot of what we’re thinking is what do we not want, and I think the way Safe Havens is structured this time is good because we are saying “what are our goals; what can we do?” It’s more pragmatic because otherwise we can always have a litany of complaints; we can say this is not working and that is not working and the world is going to hell – fine, the world has always been going to hell – but where do you want to be? There are all these protests against artworks in American museums, so there is an artwork and it bothers you, so what would happen if the museums take down all the artworks that bother you, how much better will society be? I mean, what is your vision? Sometimes left activism is kind of feel-good with a short-term goal, but long-term, where do you want to be and what do you want that pre-gentrification run-down neighbourhood to look like? Do you want it to still look run-down? Probably not; you just want it to be affordable for the people that live there.
Michael: And for it to be a viable community.
Svetlana: Yeah. Come here, do development, but do it in a way that preserves the people here – and then you’ll have much more of a chance to be heard than when you are just saying “no, keep development out.”
COMMUNAL INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY AND FAIR WORKING CONDITIONS ARE AT THE HEART OF DEMOCRACY AND HUMAN RIGHTS: Aruna Chawla, lawyer, Indian operations head of Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights Initiative
Michael: Perhaps start with telling me a little bit about your Initiative.
Aruna: I graduated this year from law school so I just started out, possibly one of the youngest here. And I am doing a couple of things, one of which is working with Avant Garde Lawyers as an art law expert; what we do at AGL is provide legal expertise and assistance to artists at risk both in terms of immigration, human rights protections etcetera, and also commercial aspects like intellectual property, etcetera, which is more of the socio-economic side mostly not looked at in arts organisations of this kind that we’re seeing. Other than that, I’m also working on the Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights Initiative which focuses on the manner of utilisation of traditional cultural knowledge and property in a way that sustains societies that that traditional knowledge comes from and corporates or the economic organisations that utilise them. An example of this could be, say, design sensitivities of traditional communities being take up by big design houses – say for example Stella McCartney – which would pick up this design, present it on the runway, sell it across the world, but also in a benefit-sharing model, give it back to that community. It is an extremely important aspect of the cultural rights idea that we were talking about yesterday with Karima as well. The intellectual property protection for traditional knowledge does not exist as of now in the form of patents of how traditional knowledge is applied, or in the form of trade-marks for organisations that work in these – but we’re looking at a model where that traditional knowledge itself can be protected and utilised and not just its applications.
Michael: So that’s obviously quite innovative. In South Africa, we’ve got the situation where a lot of indigenous knowledge around, for instance, the use of medicinal plants and this sort of thing is now at the forefront of innovations to protect those rights as well because these are now being commercialised and monetised and used in other ways by people beyond the originating communities. It’s quite a difficult thing, isn’t it, to establish that as a right in the first place?
Aruna: It is. In the arts field you can attribute intellectual property to one person, so when it is violated, that person can step up and at least, even if they can’t afford legal assistance, talk about their rights being violated. With cultural knowledge, it’s a whole society that owns it; you can’t attribute it to a single person; communities are not going to have legal organisations representing them at all times; these are just people who have had a certain way of living for years and have gathered the knowledge. That is what we are trying to do: we are trying to focus on giving it back to these communities where we can’t attribute that intellectual property to a single person, but also enable them to fight for their rights, utilise the knowledge they do have in an economically sustainable way because it’s not just always about fighting for rights – it’s about getting it back.
Michael: I’m imagining that corporates are quite resistant to this sort of idea because they have an instinctive imperialism, essentially, to misappropriate other people’s communal intellectual property.
Aruna: That’s true. I think that what’s interesting about this model is that it’s benefit-sharing, so it’s not that profits are completely taken away from the organisation, it’s that profits are shared among two people or two groups contributing to an economic endeavour. Which is what happens in economic organisations as well: you pay the CEO, you pay the CFO, but that’s people coming together, putting their brain-power together to achieve a common profit – and it’s the same thing that we are focusing on in a benefit-sharing model. One person with the expertise, another person with the money, or the entrepreneurial knowledge, getting together to present this economic or capitalist venture to the world and earning money out of it.
Michael: How do you share with a community? Because for one thing you have to define that community and that’s kind of tricky because communities can be very fluid at their edges.
Aruna. Yeah, so a legal intellectual property protection given to traditional knowledge is a geographic indication. So for example, Champagne which is a geographical indication, it’s about traditional knowledge that’s been going on for centuries of people in the Champagne region in France knowing how a particular variety of sparkling wine is supposed to be made. And this is the exact kind of model we are building on. Now, Champagne was able to build on that investment value over a few years. How we started focusing on this was one of Dior’s collections which appropriated the Bihor – Bihor is a Romanian community and they have a particular design form – and Dior’s collection presented this on the runway, got this design trade-mark and started utilising this and exploiting this without giving it back to the community where the design was inspired. Stella McCartney on the other hand works with the Mexican communities that she’s inspired from and creates opportunities for these women who’ve traditionally been making these designs over centuries and pays them to make them instead of paying factories to make copies of the design who have no relevance or relations to the creation of that design.
Michael: So what you’re saying is that in parallel to trying to create a new – because in many respects it is quite new – legal framework, you’re trying to create a new ethic, really, around how creative industries appropriate and use and for want of a better word exploit other cultures’ specific heritage?
Aruna: Exactly, yeah. So the problem is not with appropriation, it’s when that idea is misappropriated and the profits of that are not shared, which is the whole idea of intellectual property, that the person who creates it or the person who has put in the labour is compensated for the work they do – and it’s just that here we are talking about a community.
Michael: Now you’re obviously from a legal background but do you have ethical or aesthetic concerns about distortions of culture?
Aruna: I think that’s always sad – but I think it’s important to look at whose culture is being distorted. I mean, if it’s my culture distorted, I have the right to say anything about it. What I can do is provide support for what that community wishes to do. I think aesthetic innovation is always going to happen and we are always going to be inspired by what is around us and that is how creativity develops; I mean, nature’s already created all the colour combinations for us, all the colour schemes for us, and we’re constantly being inspired by what already exists. So aesthetic innovation is always going to happen and at times it will lead to distortion as well; distortion happens when someone has a particular way of looking at things and decides to do it a little differently. I think that synthesis will continue happening and that thesis-antithesis idea is going to be there.
Michael: In this globalised world where images can obviously traverse the Earth in seconds, and there is the emergence of elements of a global monoculture, is it really possible to compartmentalise cultures in that way – bearing in mind that on top of that culture itself, including traditional cultures, are not static as people tend to present them?
Aruna: Personally I don’t think it’s possible. Even as lawyers the first thing we learn in law school is that law is not static either; it’s about what’s happening in society at that time and what needs the most legal protection, or what kind of legal protection is required. As society changes, laws are going to keep changing and they’re interrelated in terms of that change and growth.
Michael: So that’s an interesting dynamic tension: that both culture and the arts and law itself are not static entities, that they are continually evolving – and they’re all interpretive actually. So I think a lot of lay people have this conception of the law that it is unchanging but that’s obviously not so, especially with case law and precedent and how that evolves.
Aruna: There case law, there’s policy changes happening at all times and law is about interpretation. I mean, if we’re looking at the UDHR [Universal Declaration of Human Rights] and we’re talking about human rights, but as lawyers we are also working towards making sure the UDHR stops being relevant any more in our lives; we want to be in a position in society where we don’t have to keep fighting for the application of the UDHR, but human rights are already protected and documents like these, or the UN bodies, become obsolete.
Michael: We’ve just seen the FreeMuse presentation relating to women in the arts. Do you see a particular gendered skewing of rights and access in India in particular and in South Asia?
Aruna: I think definitely yes, and I’m sure across the world this is true; women have the additional threat of personal bodily autonomy; the first way in which women are controlled is by sexually harassing them; they are threatened not just with taking away access or a platform but also personal threats against bodily autonomy. Men face the threat of death too – but that’s not because of their gender; women face it because of their gender. And it’s not true just for the arts community, but it’s true for all communities across the world and for all industries across the world.
Michael: How does one apply what you’re doing to the broader human rights framework, because it’s obviously located within that, it isn’t just specific to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
Aruna: There’s something I will be talking about tomorrow: when we talk about social rights, cultural rights, artistic rights, the first thing that comes to mind is economic rights because when you’re independent you have the financial assistance – whether it’s by funding, or financial sustainability, or the entrepreneurship of what you do – to be able to exercise all the other rights, your social and political rights, your citizenship, of exercising the right to vote, etcetera. They mean nothing if you don’t have the money to exercise them; you live in a society where you always have to purchase food or pay rent for where you live. And that the kind of work I am personally doing as well, empowering artists, specifically in the industries of arts, fashion, luxury, and culture and I focus on economic empowerment.
Michael: So there’s a clear equity aspect in all of this?
Aruna: Absolutely. A big problem in the fashion industry is working conditions of labour, them not being paid fair wages, so if the fashion industry does not pay the labourers fair they’re violating their labour rights, they’re also their human rights because they’re being treated as second-class citizens that don’t deserve to spend money as we do. That impacts the environment because they can’t afford to make environmentally sustainable choices. And this is all a human rights concern.
Michael: Some red flags have been raised during this conference about the misuse of cultural rights to assert false conditions of difference between people, or groups of people, classes of people. Is there maybe some concern in the specificity of your work to try and make sure that at the same time as focusing on very specific cultural rights that you are also doing it within a very universalist ethic? There’s a lot of abuse of culture, particularly religion but not just religion, culture more broadly, as an excuse for prejudicial policies and actions by civil society etcetera. I presume you must keep a weather-eye out for making sure that in strengthening certain communal rights you’re not prejudicing communities external to those communities as well, you’re not trying to create conditions of specificity that are outside of the general human commune if you will?
Aruna: Yeah. I think it’s a very important consideration to have, especially when today and over the years this has always been an issue, when cultural diversity is placed completely at odds with cultural relativism. I mean these two are at odds but it’s not that all of us are different or that we have different practices, it’s that we are still humans at the end of the day who make different choices – even if we were to have the same religion and the same practices, our way of expression might be different. But that does not make us enemies of each other. Say for example the economic independence work that I personally like focusing on: the big fashion houses have the responsibility of paying the labour that they work with a fair wage, even though that labour union might not be strong enough or might not be monetarily as sound as the one person owning a design organisation. And this is about the power dynamics; this is what cultural diversity is about, or democracy for that matter, that people who are in power do not make decisions that the minority has to suffer for.
PROFESSIONALISED, INDIVIDUALISED ART SPEAKS ONLY TO THE DEAD: CLEAR VISONS WILL ONLY COME FROM THE PERIPHERY: Hassan Mahamdallie, British theatre director, playwright, political and investigative journalist
Michael: You spoke at one point about the necessity to make visible those that were invisible and then you spoke quite a lot about the actual visionary power that those on the periphery have and can deploy, and that it should in fact be utilised. Could you talk a little bit more about that power of the periphery?
Hassan: Although I don’t usually talk in these terms, but if you talk about common humanity, let’s talk about it in terms of the environment or the Age of the Anthropocene which we are supposed to be going through: there are these big problems which we face as a species. Where do you go to try and find a solution? It seems to me that most of our effort is either divided into ignoring that there is a problem (which is locked into some kind of circular argument), or trying to find a solution, but we always try to find solutions in the wrong place. You and I know that clarity comes from the unexpected sources. Trouble is, that as a society, and this is affecting arts and culture, the unexpected sources are the ones that we usually try to erase from the conversation to begin with. So if we do want to find a path out of the crisis that we are in we have to find a way of placing some value in those unexpected places, in those unexpected people, otherwise the crisis will go on to whatever the consequences are. So you and I know that when actually as a journalist you talk to people who have been through a process, like a mother whose child has been killed by the police, and she decides to campaign about it, usually when you talk to those people, although they are thrust into a situation that is not of their making, often times you find they do have a kind of clarity about them. Maybe it is because they are kind of seeing the world for the first time in its entirety whereas in the rest of their life they didn’t really have to; they’re at a vantage point, or they are forced to being at a vantage point where suddenly they have a clarity on what’s around them, they see all the power relations between people in a completely different way. Those are the people that it seems to me that we need to go to. It’s not because I fetishise them, it’s because I truly believe that that’s where the solutions to some of the problems we face are going to be found – yet we spend vast amounts of time either trying to ignore that there’s a problem in the first place or looking to the wrong people to try and solve the issues. So there has to be some kind of radical shift in focus and power towards those people for us to get out of the impasse that we are in; and that’s my basic understanding, then I try and translate what that might look like on the cultural field. That’s why I developed these different ways of looking at how artistic or cultural values are generated.
Michael: But you’ve also indicated that this is not just a problem about the centre and about the machinery of the arts industry as industry and its dominance and elitism but there are some fatal flaws within the arts and the artistic community itself: perhaps too much self-valorisation, and perhaps not enough reflection that the arts have been and continue to be used in some pretty injurious ways – and not just in terms of creating or manufacturing a dominant culture, but actually promoting prejudicial messages. Can you talk a little bit about, maybe, “evil art”?
Hassan: Well, it’s not so much that. I suppose that artistic expression is expression of the ego or the id or whatever it is, it’s a very self-centred thing, yeah? So, I think artists unless they check themselves continually literally believe that they are the centre of valued human activity and have incredible self-regard. I understand that’s what you need to go on stage, you need a certain amount of self-regard to think that something you have to say is of interest to someone else or can make a difference or whatever it might be, and of course that’s what motivates you. But I think we artists have to hold in check somehow, balance out, that egotism with some kind of awareness of where they sit within a spectrum of change; that’s the first thing. Secondly, I believe that artists can sketch out possibilities and put them before an audience, but they are part of a process and the process starts with social change. So if you look through the history, let’s say from 1968 onwards, you look at Europe and the radical events of 1968, art lagged behind the social processes; it does, it tends to lag behind, so for artists to say “we are the generator or originator of social change” is I think is plain wrong.
Michael: Well that I find very interesting because that would be counter-intuitive to a lot of people who present as artists, particularly those who present as arts activists or as “artivists”, this presumption that they are, because of their intellectual acuity or whatever, they somehow are the vanguard of social change. And you have posited a very different position in saying that they can’t really be that; they need to be enabled by other people and other socially advanced sectors in order to become those provocateurs.
Hassan: I believe that, yeah. I mean I have worked in arts for a long time and I value the arts, I love being in the arts, but that’s the conclusion I have come to, you know what I mean? I don’t believe artists are always progressive; I mean the notion of being liberal and progressive I think are both contested terms these days; they’ve kind of turned into their opposite, let’s put it that way. So the liberals and the progressives can be as elitist or intolerant as people that they think they are on the opposite side of the spectrum to. For example, most of the liberal elite in France has turned out to be the Islamophobic vanguard in French society, in terms of hoisting up la cité [the city] as some kind of enduring product of the Enlightenment or the French bourgeois revolution or whatever it is. So, that’s suspect. But also when ordinary people in London look at artists, right, they may look at them in different ways: some will look at them and say “they are very removed from us” as middle class or whatever. But also if you look at the social cleansing of London from what it was, which was mixed working class and bourgeois neighbourhoods living side by side or integrated as it were fifty or a hundred years ago, it’s been socially cleansed completely so that London is becoming a bourgeois playground rather than a place were working class people live out their lives, and certain areas which had been very poor were cleansed by property developers and the poor forced out to the margins, and the shock troops of that process of gentrification have been artists who have gone in first to these poor areas, rented warehouses, produced their art. That has primed those areas for redevelopment, forcing poor people out.
Michael: Is there any self-awareness about this? I mean not in any analytical way, but just in terms of maybe a class adherence?
Hassan: No I don’t think there is a self-awareness, and partly because it is buttressed by certain arguments which have confirmed for the artists that they are in this special, wonderful place, right? So the old argument about creative cities, that you regenerate creative cities through artists and culture and stuff like that, that is the ideological underpinning for what these people have done. So what I am saying is that there is no particular reason that artists should think of themselves as being on the side of the angels. Now, I am hyper-critical in one sense because I care about art so much, but the lack of self-awareness is incredible, and partly it’s a reflection of class confidence because the arts particularly in the UK – though I’m sure it’s the same everywhere else – is become more and more the profession of not just middle class at it might have been in the past but of the upper middle class. There is a survey done in the UK about the demographic around artists and it’s clearly becoming a much more rarefied profession than it ever was. I came into the arts for the first time as a professional in 1984, right? I’m one of the very few working class artists that came through that generation, yeah? There’s absolutely no way that an equivalent of me today in 2018 would have got into the arts, into an acting job, into a paid career as an actor and then a director. So it’s becoming more rarefied, it’s becoming more homogenous.
Michael: And that’s because of these gatekeepers?
Hassan: Yeah, partly, and partly it’s to do with as state arts funding has contracted over the years, those people have clung onto their positions of privilege. And in one sense, the more of those arguments around that there should be more diversity and quality in the arts, the more there is a kind of rear-guard action by those guys, not as individuals but as a social class, to actually protect what they think is theirs – and they believe that the arts is theirs. So to be conscious as an artist, you have to be in one sense hyper-critical because there is an immense amount of complacency that I think we have to shake ourselves out of.
Michael: So there is a distinct class of people who view art as their patrimony, their personal patrimony? And I am using the masculine word deliberately here. Could you talk a little about the intersections of gender and class and race within this context?
Hassan: If you look at the patterns of who works in the arts, what positions they have in the arts, how the arts are structured, clearly to me the arts are structured to make it easy for middle class people to exist within the arts. It’s structured generally for men to have the highest positions in the arts and if you look at it clearly that’s what happens, you know what I mean. You think about a lot of professions, for example dance, how it’s probably gendered in terms of women – and a lot of the arts are gendered in terms of women being the majority part of the workforce – but at the top at the managerial level are men. So male choreographers, male curators…
Michael: Journalism is pretty similar.
Hassan: Yeah, exactly, because in its substance, it’s the same class occupying all those professions. So you do find it gendered, you find it in terms of race, you find it in terms of disability. I mean, it’s incredible really when you think of it that Western visual art is dominated by visions of a version of the human body that probably goes back to ancient Greece, yeah? The visual arts does take on big themes like mortality and what it is to be human, all these kinds of things, but it completely erases, it homogenises the body into this kind of notion of the perfect body, so immediately in dance, who can be a dancer, who can’t be a dancer, who has “a dancer’s body”? There are very few artists who step outside that zone and look at the body in all its forms, so disability is ever-present but not necessarily in a good way in the history of art. So you find that disability has to continually force itself onto the agenda in the arts, whereas really it seems to me that disabled people have a lot to say about the question of humanity, what it is to be human, mortality, to survive as an outsider, whole issues of mental health and all these kinds of things, right? These are really central questions that we need to be addressing but the people who have a good vantage point in terms of addressing those questions are locked out of the arts. One thing I do see is that the arts is incredibly over-professionalised: in the UK for example, in order to be a visual artist you have to have an MA; even administrators have masters’ degrees in the visual arts, so it’s incredibly rarefied, professionalised, because the middle class likes to have a profession. A hundred and twenty years ago, in the middle of London, what’s the most popular form of art? Music-hall. All the other arts were just things that the bourgeois did in their little private clubs and museums. The biggest art-form was music-hall which was the dregs of society hauling itself onto the stage and debasing and making a mockery out of itself and all of society; that was the most popular art form, you know what I mean? That was an outsider art form.
Michael: So art as craftspersonship has deliberately been downgraded and transmuted into this more rarefied creature?
Hassan: Yeah, it’s a profession.
Michael: What about the current, or it’s certainly very current in Africa, neo-colonial debate? To what extent has art, even now – and we’ve just heard the suggestion from Meriam that Picasso wouldn’t be tolerated in this day and age in the conventional halls of art – to what degree has art in the West acknowledged its heritage in Africa, or the East, or elsewhere? Or to what extent has there been any admission of that or access to that or transformation by that, or to what extent is it trying to pretend that it is hermetically sealed?
Hassan: I mean I think if you talk about the history of modernism in art, if you have any ounce of intelligence you will understand that the major ideas around it, the conceptual ideas around it originated in Africa. There is no doubt about that, obviously, if you talk about Picasso.
Michael: And yet you will go to Paris and you will have exhibitions of African art that will be called “arts primitifs.”
Hassan: [Laughs] Yeah, the French are good at that, aren’t they? They are crazily, racistly honest. But if you look at sculpture, if you look at the history of modernism, clearly, it borrows or is inspired by symbolic representation in African art particularly. I mean if you talk about the West, you talk about West Africa which is obviously where – and there is a big row on now about the Benin bronzes, of which there are ten thousand or something in the British Museum, locked away in their archives, whether they should be returned to Nigeria as it is now, and of course it should be. But no-one talks about how those bronzes stolen from Benin in army raids many hundred years ago triggered or laid the foundations for European modernism.
Michael: And even before that, if I may, if you look at the Ife sculptures: there was no such thing approaching that level of skill in Europe of the time which was the Mediaeval Era. You could say both Europe and Africa were going through a Mediaeval phase at that point but conceptually Europeans could not sculpt like that; they had these very wooden, formulaic, boxlike figures.
Hassan: Yeah, it’s true. If you talk about European visitors to Benin for example in the 16th Century, one of them gong to Benin City and saying “this is the most advanced city I have ever seen,” because he was Dutch, “comparable to Amsterdam.” If you like, the west of Africa was as developed, probably more than Europe was at the time, and in one sense it’s the irony that those African civilisations had to be destroyed for Europe to progress itself, and that’s the kernel of it. Also, if you look at the Enlightenment, it is quite clear that, the caricature of the Western European Enlightenment being put across at the moment by ideologies bears no comparison to what actually happened in the Enlightenment. And as everyone knows now, if they don’t acknowledge, is that much of the knowledge and understanding of philosophy and medicine that laid the foundations for the European Enlightenment came from the Arab world, which in itself built upon ancient Roman and Greek philosophies and then developed and translated, it found its way into Europe, right? Oxford University is full of Arabic archives, which was the foundation of European learning because the Arabic texts were the salvation of European learning. They even have Europeanised names for Islamic scholars and philosophers. So all this is clear to anyone who has an ounce of understanding about history – but we live in a society that is in complete denial about that, and you have to ask yourself why? Why is it in complete denial about its roots? And partly I think it’s because of the rise of the nation state in the West and what needs to be done to make a nation into a nation. You probably have more sophisticated concepts than what I have in relation to South Africa, but the nation state arises in a state of denial about its past, the foundation of the nation state is always a founding myth, yeah, and in one sense that myth, that falsehood is coming back to bite Europe on its arse.
Michael: So in that particular storm that we are in at the moment and sitting on that cusp with this reversion to these myths, you suggested that there was almost like a functional role for art to perform in service of that broader progressive project in challenging that myth.
Hassan: Everyone knows, it’s a kind of consensus, that if you are in the middle of something you have a distorted perspective of it. We’re in the middle of a storm in the Western world, but all we can feel is the sound and the fury, signifying nothing, to use Shakespeare. But clearly there are other people in the world that do not have this notion that they belong to the greatest civilisation in the world – what Europeans are prone to believe about ourselves – who have a much clearer vision about what’s going on. I mean, I spoke in my speech about this Palestinian guy I know: he has a clear vision about the confusions that the UK are going through at the moment which it seems to me that very few people have. He’s a complete outsider, he’s a very talented guy and he makes a living for himself, but who asks him what he has to think about what’s going on in the UK at the moment? No-one’s going to ask him – but if you did ask him, you are going to find out some extraordinary things. As I say, it’s about looking for these extraordinary people in these extraordinary places that if anything is going to progress us, it is people like that. What you find is, maybe it’s true historically, is that the more society plunges itself into crisis, the more it turns in on itself, so every viewpoint in that society is a very individualised viewpoint. So in theatre for example, there are so many plays about what I would call formations of identity, on all sides, but they are all tiny, tiny stories. If I go and see another one-woman show about “me and my mum” or “me and my grandmum” and slideshow of “my grandmum in World War Two” or black-and-white photo of “the grandmum I didn’t know”…
Michael: So this is the loss of the social?
Hassan: Yeah, it’s an individualistic outlook that is reflected through theatre and the visual arts, and I don’t know about other art-forms; maybe music is a bit more immune to it because it’s a much more diffuse art-form. But if I hear another individualised story about how important my life is, I’ll throw myself off of a cliff! But what is it reflecting? It’s reflecting this turning in on ourselves. What’s going to be the counter-force that stops us turning in on ourselves? It’s going to have to be what we have labelled as “the other” as a derogatory label. It’s not going to come from within: if it was going to come from within we’d be sorting ourselves out already, but we’re not. The other thing is that if you look at the arts in the West is that they’re talking to society that no longer exists – if it ever did – and it’s the most extraordinary thing if you just sit back and look at what world is the art world, and I’m talking in general terms here, who is it communicating with? It’s communicating with the dead, with the past! And that is the most extraordinary dysfunction in terms of the role of art in human history, to be talking literally to the dead as though they were alive in this kind of post-colonial nostalgia that infects the bricks and mortar of European society, this notion of greatness and such-like, they are literally talking to a society that no longer exists. Now that is really weird for someone who analyses the social function of art in terms of its dialogue with society. It’s the most extraordinary spectacle, but nobody wants to say it; it’s like The Emperor’s New Clothes, it’s bizarre!
WOMEN’S CULTURAL RIGHTS ARE A PRIME SITE OF ATTACK: Karima Bennoune, UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights
Michael: I was interested in what you were saying in your opening address around the, you said, I quote here, “embattled humanity has never needed its artists as much.” Speak to us a little bit about that embattled status. Where are we at at the moment? There is this general feeling of despondency amongst progressives.
Karima: I think people who have been working in the field of human rights from whatever political position they may come from are looking around at the world and wondering what is happening to the vision that they have been defending. Chetan Bhatt who teaches human rights at the London School Economics has been talking about how we can no longer take for granted the centrist consensus around human rights in the world; there are not that many actors, there are not that many states anymore that stand up and openly defend basic concepts of human rights and dignity at the UN that we have taken for granted. I think we are seeing greater division, greater polarisation, we are seeing attacks on the concept of the universality of human rights from the far-right, sometimes from the far-left, from governments, from non-governmental actors – even in academia – and we are seeing governments and world leaders including of very powerful countries openly expressing hate, openly giving voice to views that we thought had been consigned to the waste-basket of history at least as far as being acceptable official discourse. The human rights we talk about, one of the main tools being the mobilisation of shame, and of course certain kinds of shame are very negative in terms of shaming around the body and so on that women human rights defenders have worked on. But in the human rights field more generally the mobilisation of shame has meant trying to expose the human rights abuses of governments as a way of holding them to account because they will be embarrassed – but that was presuming that they would be embarrassed if exposed. And I think that in some ways we are in a post-shame universe now when we have world leaders openly either proclaiming that women are inferior to men or openly proclaiming discriminatory views about entire groups of people, about entire continents of people, about entire religious groups and so on. So how do we mobilise shame in a post-shame universe? But there’s also so many reasons to be optimistic and that’s what I try to focus on: the human rights defenders all around the world, the cultural rights defenders in my area who are continuing to come up with creative initiatives, who are continuing to push back. I think about a wonderful Bangladeshi publisher [Ahmedur “Tutul” Chowdhury] I’ve just met who faced an attack on his life for having published the works of the late Avijit Roy, the assassinated writer, and this publisher survived that attack, has had to go into exile, and the amazing part about the story is that – and people may be wondering where is the optimism in that – he has gone back to publishing on the internet [Shuddhashar: here] with limited means, but he continues, and I think that’s a reminder to all of us that we have no right to give up in the face of the current moment; we have to be inspired by examples like that.
Michael: You talk about fragmentation and yet at the same time a lot of these ideologies that are eroding this universality doctrine are themselves monolithic, they have pretentions to undifferentiation. Perhaps talk a little bit about that.
Karima: I think that universality is about human dignity, it’s not about homogeneity. In fact my report for the General Assembly was both about universality and cultural diversity and how neither of these concepts is a weapon against the other; they are in fact interlocking concepts. But we have to be very clear that there is a distinction between cultural diversity which is a recognition of the complexity of human reality and the multiple identities and expressions that human beings have in the world and that is a very positive thing, versus cultural relativism which is the attempt to use culture – or the claim of culture – to justify the violation of human rights, or discrimination or hate. And that is never acceptable, that is never the same thing as cultural diversity, so what universality is really countering is the attempt to use arguments of particularism against the basic framework of human dignity, the attempt to use culture not to amplify rights but to diminish them. And so I think that we really have to have this holistic vision, we have to defend a universality that is thoughtful, that is recognising plural and diverse and multiple forms of human existence and expression, but is rigorously committed to human dignity and equal rights for everyone whatever group he or she might fit into.
Michael: I think generally people recognise this drift into pretty outrageous populism right across the world, whether it’s India or Brazil – which I think are much more concerning than the United States for me personally because, given the scale of their populations and the depth of the reaction involved. But speak a little bit about what you’ve red-flagged, how this drift has started to erode progressive traditions within academia, as that’s particularly worrying.
Karima: So let me talk about the academic issue. One of the things that I have been very worried about and I think it’s especially the case in the English-speaking world, though from what I understand it’s also a problem elsewhere, has been a real move away from supporting concepts of universal human rights to finding all sorts of justifications based on particularism for violations of human rights, in particular women’s human rights, and giving into cultural explanations for these rights [violations]. And while it’s certainly useful to question hegemonic impulses – certainly the historical attempts to use certain human rights concepts in a way that involved imposition on people – what has happened is that even human rights defenders on the ground in the global South are questioned by some of these academics primarily in the global North as somehow not being authentic. And I hate this discourse of authenticity, [challenging] authentic representatives of their own society. So for example a very prominent academic in the United States who in the field of Middle Eastern studies challenged a Palestinian rap group [DAM] that had taken on honour violence in Palestine in the name of somehow some form of anti-imperialism or post-colonial critique. And I have to say I find this bizarre, and this is an academic who is very prominent indeed in her field, and this is the kind of thinking that is questioning the right to cultural dissent. Cultures are not monolithic and I always prefer to use cultures with an “s”. And the thing is white people in the West cannot presume that they are the only ones that have the right to dissent in their own society or in their own group; everyone, it is a universal right to cultural dissent, and that’s where I really worry about the direction of some academic argument that we’ve seen, and I have called for in my report, with great respect for academic freedom, for academic institutions and academics themselves to really find creative ways to tackle this problem and to support the concept of universality and the vision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in their work.
Michael: Again and again in a variety of different reports including the one we’ve just seen from FreeMuse, the state emerges as the primary perpetrator of violations of artistic and associated rights – but the growth of this populism, the vile nature of this beast, has shone quite a light on sub-state actors, particularly those masquerading within the cultural field. Perhaps you could explore that a little?
Karima: So, women human rights defenders have been telling us all for years that a vision of human rights that only looked at the state was a very thin vision; certainly state responsibility is at the heart of the human rights framework but there are many other actors that can violate human rights: non-state actors, individuals, individuals in the family, community actors, religious leaders, and now we have seen increasingly in a range of fields, transnational corporations, and the list goes on. And I think we need to have not a 20th Century vision of human rights but a 21st Century vision of human rights where we recognise the need to hold to account all these actors, and certainly we want to keep coming back to the idea that the state has primary responsibility for respecting and ensuring, for promoting and protecting and fulfilling human rights, but we also have to find creative ways to hold these other actors to account or we will have a very thin narrative of human rights in the world. I am also very concerned about transnational corporations because they are increasingly powerful and sometimes more powerful than states and its very difficult for states to hold them accountable. And I know there are efforts under way to develop a treaty about the human rights obligations of transnational corporations; I think that’s going to be a very long project. But again I think it’s really important in the human rights area to look at this wide range of actors and that’s why in my reports I regularly make recommendations primarily to the state but also to a range of other actors. And indeed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights talks about the responsibility of all actors in society and all individuals for advancing human rights.
Michael: You’ve spoken about the gap between the arts rights justice sector, which is emergent and is perhaps a little bit behind similar developments in journalism protection, and more formal systems such as that which you are engaged in yourself. And you’ve said that obviously these arts rights justice activators need to be more involved in those formal engagements. Certainly we’ve seen many more lawyers and legislators get involved in this type of field, but still there’s a gap. I’m guessing from the arts rights side that there is some suspicion of these global fora, especially because of the glacial speed at which many of them move. How do we close this gap?
Karima: You know that’s a terrific question and I want to be the first to say that this is a two-way street and my hope is that more arts rights, cultural rights organisations, artists and cultural practitioners themselves, cultural institutions, will begin to see the United Nations and the United Nations human rights system in particular as a relevant set of fora for their work but my hope is also is for the United Nations human rights system to recognise more centrally the importance of cultural rights including artistic freedom and the role of artists – including sometimes as human rights defenders – so it’s really a two-way street. And I recognise that many people might not see the UN as relevant – but great harm can be done to artistic freedom and cultural rights at the United Nations if the sectors most directly affected by those rights issues are not there to defend those rights and to speak from their experience. And what I have called for is the creation of something like an NGO coalition or civil society coalition for cultural rights at the UN. And we see such similar coalitions in the areas of freedom of expression, and freedom of religion or belief for example. There is so much that could be done: these organisations could take the floor if they have consultative status at the UN; they could take the floor in interactive dialogues with me and other rapporteurs in the Human Rights Council; they can submit shadow reports so when countries where they have concerns are coming up for review in front of the United Nations treaty bodies they could be submitting alternative information to the information that the state submits; many of these treaty bodies have complaints mechanisms and they could also be sending and working together to sit in a systematic way to send cases to these different bodies. So we could develop a really thorough, rigorous, vibrant jurisprudence in these areas at that level. And I am the first to recognise the limitations of the UN system; I am myself very frustrated with the lack of implementation – but if we don’t get in there and fight for cultural rights at the UN and if we leave the UN human rights system to the enemies of human rights, we can’t expect that there will be much progress. So, just as I want to work more in the artistic and cultural fields, and in the fora where artists and cultural workers are themselves working, I hope that they will come and join me and other actors more frequently in the UN human rights system.
Michael: How does your office interact with other rapporteurs, in particular the one on religion?
Karima: The two rapporteurs that I would say that I most often work with are indeed the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, currently Ahmed Shaheed from the Maldives, and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, currently David Kaye from the United States. And I think it makes sense because you will see that there are big areas of overlap. I know that Ahmed Shaheed and I have shared many, many concerns about making sure that freedom of religion or belief is not the same thing as freedom of religion: this is about the right to believe or not to believe, to be a religious person or not to be a religious person, to have a different kind of world view, to change your religious belief, to leave a particular religion, to dissent from a particular religion and to express that dissent. And there are so many cultural rights cases affecting artists in particular but also affecting members of minorities, bloggers, women’s human rights defenders, that are coming up in this area of intersection, and so that mandate has been a very important partner for my mandate and I look forward to that work going forward. And I think one of the things we need to be really thinking about and grappling with is the overlap between religion and culture because there are often many cultural practices which are overlaid on religious beliefs and after a while it is hard to know where religion ends and where culture begins. And this really about recognising the human dimension and human agency and responsibility in creating some practices, which means also those practices can be changed by human beings, so I think that’s a really interesting area of intersection.
Michael: And gender, of course.
Karima: And gender absolutely, and I have done a great deal of work with the Working Group on Discrimination Against Women. One of the two areas that were highlighted by the Human Rights Council when my mandate was created: so this mandate is about making sure that everyone enjoys cultural rights without any discrimination, and two particular sectors that the Council highlighted were gender and the cultural rights of persons with disabilities, and so women’s cultural rights are at the heart of what we are doing. There was a dedicated report on women’s cultural rights done back in 2011 by my predecessor, and I did a report on diverse forms of fundamentalism and extremism and the cultural rights of women in 2017. When I go on mission, it’s an issue that I really focus on because what we’ve seen is that women’s cultural rights are a prime site for attack on universal human rights.
Michael: So it’s almost like a mine canary, it’s the first thing to show signs of distress?
Karima: Absolutely! It’s the most likely place to see a cultural relativist argument. Women are most often saddled with being the banners of, or the standard-bearers for what is called culture, which is often a very static vision of culture. And my predecessor Farida Shaheed argued for us to really shift our paradigm from seeing culture as primarily negative for women – unfortunately as she recognised, it has been used that way very often – but shifting from that to women’s equal rights to participate in culture which includes deciding which cultural practices to not to particulate in or to leave behind because they are no longer acceptable under our evolving understanding of human rights. I mean, think about it: in your own country [South Africa], systematic racial discrimination in many countries including in the United States used to be justified on cultural grounds; there was a cultural and even religious justification used for apartheid. We would absolutely reject those today – and appropriately so. And in the same vein, it is completely unacceptable to try to justify discrimination against people, against women, against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex on the basis of culture; those are also completely unacceptable arguments. We need to recognise today, and this goes to the heart of cultural rights which is not about culture as a static thing which doesn’t change; it’s about cultures as dynamic. Again what my predecessor and I both said is that our cultural rights mandate isn’t about defending a thing called “culture”; it’s about defending people’s right to participate in cultural life which includes participating in the process of how culture should change over time in accordance with…
Michael: Because it inevitably does…
Karima: And if it doesn’t, humanity’s in trouble. What was the old thing about sharks dying when they stop moving? Human culture needs to evolve; humanity evolves, that’s simply a reality and it needs to evolve in accordance with our contemporary understanding of human dignity. I think that’s really how we carry forward the vision of the Universal Declaration of Human rights into its next seventy years. And if there is a tendency sometimes in some parts of human rights circles to see cultural rights as somehow peripheral, silly, trivial matters – not at all; it goes to the heart of who we are as human beings, how we live in this world together, how we express ourselves, how we remember what has come to us from the past, and how we go forward and what we pass on to the generations to come.