By Mass L. Usuf –
It takes two for any form of communication. The self and the other. The self knows everything about itself but very less about the other. The self expresses itself with the specific knowledge and learning that it knows, perceives, idealises and interprets. What is expressed is understood by the other applying the same qualities of the expresser. Between the various shades of expression of the self and the understanding of the other, there are universal expressions. These are, generally and mutually, understood by the expresser and the other in a unified sense. One such area is human rights.
Human rights both in the spoken and written forms are ubiquitous in the electronic, print and social media. Less so is its prevalence articulated through the medium of Art and the various creative forms art can manifest itself through. Herein excels the joint efforts of the Sri Lanka Arts Council and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka visualising itself at the JDA Perera Gallery in Colombo at the ‘The First Human Rights Arts Festival 2017’ held from 11th to 17th of December.
The Festival consisted of Visual Arts, New Media exhibition, Music, Dance and Theatre performances on the themes of Human Rights. The architect of this Festival Mr. Chandragupta Thenuwara, President of the Arts Council of Sri Lanka and Senior Lecturer at the University of the Visual and Performing Arts was upbeat at the response from the public and art lovers.
Giving credence to the conceptual theme of Mr. Thenuwara was the value added by Dr. Deepika Udagama, Chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. A much-desired blending of professionals, though rare, from the field of human rights and the virtuosos of the world of Art. Clearly establishing the statement that art too has a major role to play in promoting social cohesiveness and, the general wellbeing of the people. “The plan is to have the Festival next year in a grander scale” said, Mr. Thenuwara, obviously energised by its success.
Freedom Of Expression
Our constitution under Chapter III on Fundamental Rights enshrines in Article 14 (1) (a) as follows:
“Every citizen is entitled to the freedom of speech and expression including publication”
Human Rights and Fundamental Rights are intertwined. Yet, there is an unfathomable distance between legislated fundamental rights and that supreme universalness of human rights. As such human freedom per se is ineffable. An extension of these rights from its normative sense would permeate into the realm of mystical thoughts and conscience. These two freedoms, thought and conscience, are also enshrined in the Constitution in Article 10 of the same Chapter.
What was demonstrated at the Arts Festival was the fantastic capability of the human mind to express itself when unbounded. The artists’ expressions captured both the esoteric and exoteric sense of the labyrinth feelings of man. Depiction of the naturalness of being free and the unnaturalness of being fettered where freedom is violated. Artistic expositions pontificating the sacredness of human rights while urging restraint from sacrileging that sanctity.
The Dark Side Of Art
As much as art can be used to depict the beauty, aesthetics and the good values of human life, there are those who use art forms to sully these adorable qualities. While art can help to heal the wounds of human rights abuses, the abusers would use it to justify their actions.
At the infamous Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay detention centres, the military interrogators of the United States of America used heavy metal music at excessively loud volume as a form of torture. The Psychological Operations (psyops) experts adopted this method of torture since it does not leave any physical trace on the body. Detainees were stripped to their underwear, shackled to chairs, and blinded by strobe lights (powerful bright light which flashes on and off very quickly). The lights were blinding their eyes while the heavy metal music was deafening their ears. This was, according to US interrogators, to disorient the detainees or, as they would call it, to break the Iraqi prisoners.
The United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights have banned the use of loud music for interrogations. It is considered a form of torture.
The interpretative power of art can turn love towards hatred, hope towards hopelessness, mercy towards ruthlessness, peace into horror and empathy to antipathy. Thus, art is sadly exploited sometimes as a tool to create dissension and chaos in society – stereotyping an ethnic group in main stream media, racial slurring in social media are classic examples.
“Clearly, there are many artworks which may fall short of hate, but which may still be, or be perceived to be, antagonistic to certain groups of people including vulnerable minorities. Just as art can help to dismantle harmful stereotypes, it can reinforce them: art is not necessarily “progressive” in relation to human rights. Examples include numerous cartoon depictions associating Islam with terrorism, and the sectarian murals on display in Northern Ireland. Art can combat propaganda, and can also constitute propaganda.” (Exploring the connections between arts and human rights: European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights).
Art Can Help
“Much of the human rights agenda is directed at bridging attitudinal disparities, such as prejudices based on race, religion, gender, age, nationality, culture and identity. Art can help to overcome those barriers, by bringing a counter-discourse, contesting privileged narratives and perspectives.” (ibid).
The message of human rights has to be reinforced with constant reminders very often, utilising every available mode of communication. After all, it is these rights among other things that differentiates man from the animals. The moment man forgets about the existence of such rights, he is seen transformed into an animal. Artists can be a great source of help in propagating the generic values of human rights especially, in dismantling stereotypes, neutralising hatred and discouraging racial slurring.
Many are those from among the artists and journalists who have made the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of this basic universal freedom. They did it for us so that we can continue to live enjoying what is called human rights. To protect and maintain these principles is a great responsibility handed down to all civic minded citizens.