Freedom of speech and creativity are crucial for developing vibrant, pluralistic, and democratic societies. In nearly all corners of the globe, whether through political satire, a protest song, a poster or a doodle on a wall in a public space, artists remain creative and rebellious. Despite censorship — or perhaps because of it — unwieldy artists and curators continue to be at the forefront of the dangerous but necessary work of driving awareness and social change. Think of places like Hong Kong where an entire Wikipedia page is now dedicated to Art of the Umbrella Movement.
Yet throughout the world, freedom of speech and creativity continued to face acute threats in 2019. Whether through physical attack, legal prosecution, digital surveillance, detainment, or intimidation, artistic creativity continued to pose existential threats to the axis of dominant, hegemonic powers and states all around the world.
The past year proved that art continues to incite all manner of prohibition. In parts of the world such as Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China artists were subjected to the censorship and physical intimidation that journalists have historically endured. In most of these countries, the rights of women, LGBTQ+ and other members of minority communities remain under continuous threat, especially in autocratic societies with few governmental checks and balances to protect artists and journalists.
In the West, censorship works differently. Due to the increasing prevalence of surveillance technologies and the consolidation of major technology firms such as those involved in the Facebook/WhatsApp/Instagram merger, censorship has become embedded into the digital infrastructure itself. While it may be simple and straightforward to identify unique cases of physical intimidation and/or the curtailing of creativity due to political content, it is much more difficult to track cultural and artistic censorship online where keywords and political content can be filtered through sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms.
The brief list below shows that the silencing of cultural expression continues to happen in different forms all over the world. Contrary to popular opinion, censorship is not confined to dictatorships. Whether in autocratic or democratic countries, the Global North or the Global South, rich or poor countries, unlawful attacks against art and creativity proliferated in 2019.
Anti-war artworks were censored from a major national touring exhibition at Queensland Gallery. Works by one of the nine exhibiting artists, Abdul Abdullah, a Muslim whose work addresses the politicization of Muslim identity within mainstream Australian culture, were removed by gallery staff without warning. The works were taken down after local city councilor, Martin Bella, led calls for their removal. The paintings depict Australian soldiers in full battle gear with smiley faces drawn over their images. According to Esther Anatolitis, executive director of the National Association of Visual Artists in Australia, the situation is “deeply unfair to the veterans and veterans’ groups who’ve been misled on work they never saw by an artist they never met.”
Part of what makes censorship of the Palestinian-led Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement (the BDS movement seeks to end support of the state of Israel while it continues to oppress Palestinians) so troubling is that in 2019, many countries under pressure from Israel categorized the movement as anti-Semitic. In March, the Volkskundemuseum in Vienna had scheduled a talk featuring Ronnie Kasrils, a renowned South African anti-apartheid activist of Jewish descent, as part of a wider series of events associated with the annual Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW). According to its website, Israeli Apartheid Week promotes lectures, film screenings, direct actions, cultural performances, poster campaigns, and other direct actions recognizing Palestinian struggles for self-determination. Organizers of the event claimed that the Israeli lobby pressured the Volkskundemuseum to cancel the talk.
Despite a 2000 UNESCO order demanding their protection, 10,000 medieval Armenian gravestones, known as khachkars, were destroyed earlier this year. Cultural observers say it is a remarkable erasure of cultural history and human artistic achievement. In February, following evidence from a forensic report reported on in Hyperallergic, the government of Azerbaijan was found to have ordered the destruction at least 89 medieval churches, 5,840 intricate cross-stones, and 22,000 tombstones in Nakhchivan, an autonomous republic situated in between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Early in 2019, under the leadership of the newly elected far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, the country literally dissolved its Ministry of Culture, the main source of art funding servicing a country of 214 million people. The policy decision predictably enraged many of the country’s artists and the staffs of art institutions, many of whom had existed on brink of precarity for quite some time already, but who are now facing especially acute existential threats to their programming. Since his election in January, Bolsonaro has also actively censored the media all the while denying the devastating impact of wildfires destroying Brazil’s rainforests through a disinformation campaign, censoring all art, culture and media that does not support his narrative.
In 2019, China ramped up a campaign of repression against the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group located in the northwest of the country in the Xinjiang region, where the state has been deploying an Orwellian mix of AI, facial recognition and “reeducation” camps. Alongside Beijing’s suppression of the Uighurs, China continues to block the publishing of information on a number of other issues including anything related to Tiananmen Square or Hong Kong independence — issues that remain at the forefront of online content policing in the world’s most populous country.
TikTok, the popular video-sharing platform founded in China, also stood accused this year of preventing users from posting content relating to the Uighurs. While Shutterstock, the US-based company that provides royalty-free stock images, photos, videos, and music on the internet, was found to have been blocking political image searches in order to comply with China’s strict rules on censorship.
In the visual arts, Hyperallergic reported in November that an exhibition by Chinese-American artist Hung Liu had been censored after local authorities in Beijing objected to some of the works and refused to issue import permits for others. According to the report, authorities voiced concerns about works that depicted the artist as a young fighter at the end of China’s Cultural Revolution. And earlier in the year, China’s boycott of a film festival in Taiwan helped raise the event’s international profile.
In February, a panel featuring the artist Luke Turner was cancelled at the Berlin gallery Robert Grunenberg due to what was the artist claimed was “far-right intimidation.” It happened after the artist withdrew from the last Athens Biennale, after Luke took issue with being exhibited alongside some artists who trolled him with anti-Semitic content online. And well, the cancelling of all manner of artists became a subject in 2019, along with it the hyper-polarization of meme culture and its role in spreading hate and violence online.
In the land of the Rhine, the German parliament condemned the Palestinian-led Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement as anti-semitic after lawmakers passed a resolution saying the movement’s slogans recalled from Nazi propaganda. “It’s not only anti-Palestinian McCarthyism, it is a betrayal of international law, German democracy and the fight against real anti-Jewish racism,” BDS said after the resolution had passed.
In September, the city of Aachen withdrew its decision to award the Lebanese-American artist Walid Raad a €10,000 (approx. $10,900) prize, though one of its partners in the prize, the Association of Friends of the Ludwig Forum for International Art, decided to give the award to Raad despite the Mayor’s opposition. In the same month, the German jury of the Nelly Sachs book prize also withdrew its decision to award Kamila Shamsie the prize, citing her support for BDS as the reason. In June, the Berlin’s Jewish Museum Director resigned after criticism over a BDS-related tweet.
In December, the art blog artportal.hu reported that officials in Budapest were considering abolishing the National Cultural Fund of Hungary, the country’s main source of funding for the arts. The move led to large public outcry with protestors calling on the government to reverse its decision, which it eventually did, restoring the National Cultural Fund, for now. Under Orban,
In November, the wealthy financier George Soros waved goodbye to the Central European University, a free and liberal university he established in Budapest in 1991. After repeated attempts by Hungary’s far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to paint the Hungarian-born philanthropist as a threat to Hungary, the CEU was forced to relocate.
In October, the Delhi High Court demanded that Facebook reveal the identities behind a #MeToo-inspired anonymous account that called out cases of sexual harassment and violence in India’s cultural sector. The account, @herdsceneand, had over 6,000 followers and at least 70 testimonials from survivors before officials asked Facebook for information on who was behind it.
In November, a massive and near-total shutdown of internet services in Iran was initiated after protests sparked by the announcement of hikes to petrol prices began across the country, resulting in the arrest and detainment of thousands. The popular Iranian-Kurdish singer, Mohsen Lorestani, was charged with “corruption on Earth” and of being a homosexual this past October, the latter charge which is punishable by death in Iran. In a country where women are still not allowed to sing solo, nor play in a symphony orchestra, government censorship continues to limit and in some cases threatens the lives of artists in Iran.
In November, Human Rights Watch’s Omar Shakir was deported from Israel for supporting a boycott of the country by the Palestinian-led BDS. The Israeli government’s decision to expel Shakir, a US citizen, was upheld by Israel’s top court in November after months of deliberations. “Despite my deportation today, the Israeli government has failed to muzzle Human Rights Watch or the human rights movement,” Shakir said at a press conference in Jerusalem after he was expelled.
In August, Israel’s decision to block the entry of congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib amid pressure from Donald Trump drew widespread criticism. Several commentators lambasted the decision to deny entry to the congresswomen, which the Israeli government attributed to the two freshmen lawmakers’ support for BDS.
A controversial section of the Aichi Triennal was shuttered earlier this year for displaying work in an exhibition pertaining to so-called “comfort women”: former Korean sex slaves who were sold to the Japanese military during World War II . The portion of the show in question — titled “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’ ” — looked critically at Japan’s history and eventually this criticism prompted officials to close the section.
In November, Artists at Risk assisted the Kenyan hip-hop MC and LGBTQ+ activist Grammo Suspect, Grace Munene, to safe haven residency in Barcelona after she was forced to flee her home for lyrics relating to her lesbian identity. After suffering repeated attacks, the MC faced discrimination and violent abuse from the police as well as local gangs. Performing in public songs like the single Our Love is Valid, in which she openly celebrates love for her same sex partner, made her a target in a country notoriously difficult for LGBTQ+, where same-sex marriage has been banned under the Constitution since 2010.
A controversy at Kyrgyzstan’s National Art Museum in Bishkek earlier this year culminated in threats of physical violence and intimation. The “Feminnale” exhibition at Kyrgyzstan’s National Art Museum in Bishkek explored the theme of economic independence for women, intentionally challenging gender norms in the country. But, as Human Rights Watch reported, “instead of treating the event as an opportunity to foster conversation, opponents have instigated an intense backlash, involving verbal abuse and death threats, the resignation of the museum’s director, removal of several artworks, and finally, calls for law enforcement to get involved. The country’s ministry of culture decried the exhibition as “scandalous.” Despite this, the museum’s director, Mira Dzhangaracheva, was forced to resign following threats to herself and staff, including threats she said to “tear me apart, to rape me.” The exhibition, which opened on November 28, coincided with the annual campaign 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence which took place in Kyrgyzstan and around the world.
Five members of a performance group were given one-year prison sentences at a Yangon court in October after they were charged with producing “thangyat”, a traditional ensemble show that blends poetry and dancing with satire. The form has been used to mock the country’s leaders since the 19th century. The group, the Peacock Generation, were arrested in April and May after staging wildly popular performances on streets of Yangon that poked fun at the country’s powerful military.
In November, Hyperallergic reported on the censoring of a public installation by Adeela Sulema, “The Killing Fields of Karachi,” which looked at the human impact of extrajudicial police killings through the account of one such murder given by the father of the victim. The work was installed for the 2019 Karachi Biennale, but mere hours after opening, it was taken down by men who claimed to be from the state intelligence office, on the grounds that it was disturbing a popular public area in Karachi.
After years of efforts to control the media, education, and judicial sectors, the ruling Law and Justice party in Poland has now started targeting contemporary art institutions too.
Earlier this year it replaced the director of the CCA Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, Małgorzata Ludwisiak, with a new director handpicked by the ministry, ignoring its normal selection process. The new director, Piotr Bernatowicz, has been accused of platforming misogyny and anti-Semitism, prompting many to wonder whether a strike or boycott of one of Poland’s most respected institutions will ensue.
In April, tens of thousands of artists and activists from all over Poland staged an iconic banana-themed protest after feminist artwork by three well-known Polish feminist artists — Natalia LL, Katarzyna Kozyra, and the duo Karolina Wiktor and Aleksandra Kubiak — was pulled from the country’s National Gallery, prompting a nation-wide conversation about art and censorship.
In June, violent clashes erupted at one of Kyiv’s oldest cinemas after plans to privatize it met resistance. Activists are claiming that new ownership would suppress queer and minority voices and stifle independent cinema. The country is also the site of an ongoing disinformation campaign being waged against a newly elected government at the center of a massive scandal involving US President Donald Trump.
On a positive note, the boundary-pushing Russian film and theater director and director of the Gogol Center, Kirill Serebrennikov, was released from house arrest earlier this year. In 2019, his nearly two year house arrest came to an end. Known for making films critical of the Russian political and religious elite, his case is proof that the Russian government is not afraid of using the court system to silence its critics. This year, however, he is releasing one of Russia’s most anticipated films, Petrov’s Flu, an adaption of the bestselling novel “The Petrovs In and Around the Flu” by Alexei Salnikov, which received two of the most important literature awards in Russia. The story revolves around a family in Yekaterinburg who experience mythical feelings during a flu epidemic.
In November of this year, Freemuse reported about the case Pablo Hasél ,real name Pablo Rivadulla, a rapper and a pro-communist who performs “forbidden songs” which Spanish authorities believe glorify terrorism. The Spanish High Court (Audiencia Nacional) found him guilty of the charge of “glorifying terrorism” in his songs and, therefore, found him in breach of Article 578 of the Spanish Criminal Code, which carries with it potential fines, bans from jobs in the public sector and even prison sentences. “Sending rappers to jail for song lyrics and outlawing political satire demonstrates how narrow the boundaries of acceptable online speech have become in Spain,” said Esteban Beltrán, Director of Amnesty International Spain, noting also that the number of people charged under Article 578 increased from three in 2011 to 39 in 2017 and nearly 70 people were convicted in the last two years alone.
In November, two former Twitter employees were charged with spying on behalf of Saudi Arabia after it was revealed that the Saudi leadership implemented new and inventive ways to stifle dissent. This news arrived after it was revealed in 2018 that the Washington Post Columnist Jamal Khashoggi had been murdered in a Saudi embassy in Istanbul.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, the two men involved in social media spying on behalf of the Saudi government — a U.S. citizen and a Saudi citizen — gave private information about more than 6,000 Twitter users, including regime critics, to Saudi officials in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts and a designer watches.
The artist Zehra Doğan, who spent more than two years in a Turkish prison over a painting deemed “terrorist propaganda,” was released earlier this year, an atypical bright spot in a country otherwise at bottom of artistic freedom indexes. The ongoing imprisonment of those like Osman Kavala, a civil society activist and cultural entrepreneur who has been languishing in a Turkish jail for more than two years, is evidence of the country’s continued pursuit of anyone with real or imagined ties to Fethullah Güllen, the US-based Turkish national accused by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of orchestrating a failed 2016 military coup.
Also, the Kurds continue to suffer a policing of their culture under the guise of the modern Turkish state, but even for many non-Kurds the urge to self-censor is high, as Jennifer Hattam writes in a 2019 Hyperallergic article.
Censorship in the US continued along hyper-polarized political lines. In September, the Richmond Arts and Culture Commission (RACC) prohibited artist Christy Chan from including sentences critical of President Trump in a public art project, entitled Inside Out, in which Chan collected over a thousand messages submitted by local residents to be projected on the exterior of the Richmond Civic Center as part of their Neighborhood Public Art Grant program. The content of the messages included personal and political messages submitted by public, and comments on the environment and immigration.
In June, a San Francisco school district voted to remove 1930s Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals at George Washington High School, murals which depict George Washington’s slaves and violence against Native Americans. The murals, created in fresco by Russian-American social realist painter, Victor Arnautoff, were covered with panels in August.
Meanwhile, advocacy groups in the US voiced concern after new visa policies adopted by the State Department in May now require almost all applicants to submit their social media profiles, email addresses, and phone numbers from the past five years. Civil rights group suggest that the State Department’s new measures will force artists to self-censor.
The artist Betty Tompkins also had another run-in with Instagram this year. After her account was suspended for violating Instagram’s terms of service in relation to posting sexually explicit work, she said that “Instagram has nominated themselves to be the online voice for the art world, and they’ve succeeded. You can’t be active in the art world without a voice on Instagram.”
London is said to be the second most surveilled city in the world (behind Beijing), so it comes as no surprise that measures like counter-terrorism and public safety are used to curtail creative speech and expression. All across the UK, grime and drill artists continue to face bans from performing in venues across the country (except in extreme cases, suc as if Stormzy headlines Glastonbury. As a result, the Index on Censorship, which tracks the curtailing of freedom of speech and creativity around the world, described the limitation of cultural expression in the UK this year as “unprecedented.”