Politics, activism and the arts: how do we support advocacy for freedom of expression and cultural rights?



François Bouda, Author, Mondoblog (Burkina Faso)

Yvonne Donders, Professor International Human Rights and Cultural Diversity, University of Amsterdam (Netherlands)

Kelli McCluskey, new media artist/art in the public domain (Australia)

Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Chair Arts Council of Sri Lanka (Sri Lanka)


Elise Huffer
Human Development Programme Adviser, Culture, Pacific Community (Fiji)


Jaka Primorac
Institute for Development and International Relations   

Key words: 

 cultural rights; critical thinking; political activism; human rights 





The long table workshop dealt with the issue of protection of cultural rights and freedom of expression in difficult circumstances. After a short introduction of the speakers and the topic, the moderator opened the floor to presentations.

Donders gave an overview of artists as translators of international human rights in a local context. She stressed how dealing with cultural rights issues is a complex issue, and this complexity stems primarily from the fact that culture is a vague term which creates obstacles in legal terms. The concept of culture is dynamic, not a static one; it is not only a product it is a process; and has both the individual and collective dimension. Donders stressed how when defining cultural rights we can decipher three different types - there are rights that explicitly tackle culture (right to take part in culture, rights of members of minority to enjoy culture); rights that have direct connection to culture (right to self-determination, freedom of expression, freedom of religion etc.); and those that stem from the specific local cultural aspects/dimensions (right to health, right to a fair trial, right to respect private life, family and home (e.g. rights of Roma for home mobility). Universal value and application of human rights does not necessarily imply the uniform implementation of these rights. The question rises - how to put these universal rights at the local level, how to translate them and in parallel not to fall into the trap of relativism? This is where she finds the role of artists as important – as being the vernaculars of human rights. Artists can convey powerful messages, using the right of freedom of expressions in any media at their choice, and taking a role of human rights defenders.

Bouda presented how Burkinabe artists intervene in the political space. He begun with giving a short overview of historical and political context in which Burkina Faso artists work, and stressed how the artists use their rights through two main dimensions – by directly fighting for their rights by going to the streets, and through their work (through film, music, theatre, etc.). He showed how in recent history artists played a great role raising awareness on democracy and human rights, where he showed a number of examples of this resistance in different fields (film, music, theatre, dance). One of these examples is the work of the musician Smokey and his colleague Sams’ K le Jah, founders of Le Balai citoyen, that stressed how ‘their problems are in the end political and they need to be taken to the streets’. Bouda noted how although it has a strong impact, artistic creation (as a bottom-up approach) takes a much longer time to bring the changes and transformations we expect.

McCluskey presented key conceptual issues that drive the work by PVI collective (Performance Video Interventions) who create playful subversive artistic pieces that address important issues of our time (e.g. terrorism, capitalism, etc). These topics are addressed within the public space and are tackling the relations of citizens and space and how the cities are changing and how public space is changing. PVI collective does not limit itself with any specific artistic format, uses gameplay as their artistic weapon of choice and strives to create moments of creative resistance. The work with audience is very important to them – they see them as ’creating comrades’. In the overall atmosphere that stifles any critical reflection, and where there is no robust structure that protects artists to create a critical pieces McCluskey asks whether we are looking at a new era where artist do not dare to experiment, to produce controversial pieces etc. She stressed how creative dissent is necessary for development, and if we cannot differ from the norms then how can we progress?

Thenuwara reflected on his artistic practice since the eighties and has put his key works in the socio-political context of Sri Lanka, where a strong emphasis was given to works that address ethnic conflicts and human rights related issues in his country. He showed how his dissent with the political system resulted in many problems with the government, in censorships and in a lot of sanctions. Taking into account the many tribulations other colleagues and citizens have encountered over the years (examples presented in the forum), Thenuwara reflected that he might have survived during the years because of the lack of knowledge on visual arts by the police agents, which is more complex than e.g. literature. He stressed that artists have to do the change, and be the change with the people.

The moderator stressed how three presentations show the importance of creative dissent, and on the importance of the contacts between artists and citizens, and furthermore - towards creating critical citizens. This political aspect of work does not have to be shown directly; art deals with issues and can engage people more deeply around cultural rights issues without addressing them explicitly. The session was concluded with the notion that human rights bring not only rights but also responsibilities, which also need to be taken into account when discussing new forms of cultural actions and projects



On Cultural Leadership in the 21st Century

The focus of the session was given on the bottom up approach of cultural workers themselves either in artistic or political field. Cultural leadership was addressed through the role of the artists in taking responsibilities for the changes in the political scene, and in providing space and opportunities for citizens to engage with political issues. This could be done through a more implicit manner – by using innovative artistic models that tackle controversial issues in a more subtle manner, or through an explicit ‘call for action’ through particular artistic works, or through the direct civic action lead by artists themselves. 



Examples provided of leadership development 


  • Association Semfilms organize each year a festival in Burkina Faso called Cine Droit Libre Festival since 2004 where one of the programmes is ‘10 minutes to convince’ feature where a number of artists, students discuss pertinent political issues – in 2015 this programme featured young African leaders.

  • October 2014 - Burkina Faso - the image of political uprising where citizen with bare hands were facing the military. The artists here played a great role raising awareness on democracy and human rights thus providing leadership. Similar things then happened in September 2015 as Le Balai citoyen played a great role in mobilizing people to successfully resist to the military coup by General Gilbert Diendéré.

  • Actions by le Balai citoyen in Burkina Faso: as a sentry of democracy, the movement makes sure to promote good governance and democracy and undertakes social actions (cleaning of public spaces, donation of medical materials, donation of blood, reforestation, campaign against the GMOs, etc.)

  • PVI initiative that engages citizens and artists in a number of gameplays that critically address pertinent issues of contemporary city life. 



Problems/obstacles to developing sector leadership 

  • Specific socio-political context that does not value cultural leadership.

  • Structural pressures of artistic world that are oriented to careerism and not to critical thinking.

  • self-censorship


  Recommendations for action to enhance sector leadership

To support artistic self-organization and other bottom-up approaches that contribute to innovative cultural expressions and cultural leadership


  Key quotations


Controversy is not a dirty word.’ McCluskey

Universal value and application of human rights does not necessarily imply the uniform implementation of these rights.’ Donders

‘Taking action when speaking is not sufficient.’ Bouda