Art for change

Gokul Krishnamurthy | Updated on: May 26, 2011


This exhibition in Mumbai showcases works of art highlighting social issues.

Proceeds from Mira Nair's much-awarded feature film Salaam Bombay went into the setting up of Salaam Baalak Trust, an organisation for street children in India. It is one of the many examples of a work of art being instrumental in bettering lives. And then there are some works of art that are the voices of the hapless. It is such work — shining examples of creativity being used to drive social change around the world — that is celebrated by the ‘Freedom to Create' initiative. And Mira is among the judges who will cull out the best entries sent in for the ‘Freedom to Create' prize for 2011, alongside Salman Rushdie, Fatima Bhutto, Daryl Hannah, Sir Ken Robinson and D*Face.

The foundation for this movement was laid in 2006. This time a record 1,750 entries were filed and 100 shortlisted, chronicling human despair, suffering, pain and hope. After New York, the exhibition is now in Mumbai, and will be on till June 2.

Through painting to graffiti, poetry to pottery, and embroidery to films, various themes are portrayed; real issues affecting real people.

The entry that won the top prize of $50,000 in the 2010 edition is a moving piece of work to help child soldiers and women who have suffered as a result of civil war in Darfur, Sudan, rebuild their lives. Winners were announced in November 2010 at the Salah El Din Citadel in Cairo.

Through recognition for fearless creative expression, the movement inspires artists to give their best, but dealing with sensitive issues, the show faces several challenges. Says Priti Devi, a Singapore-based spokesperson for ‘Freedom to Create',, “When we did the show in Cairo, the Government told not to stir up any trouble.” The organisers' intent is to attract artists from places where there is a richness of culture and art, but the freedom of expression is ‘somewhat suppressed'. Also, emerging economies tend to yield a richer harvest of subjects for the participants. At the Mumbai exhibition, work by 36 artists is on show. The exhibition travels to Sarajevo next, and then on to Xiamen. The winners of the 2011 prize, which is currently receiving entries, will be announced in Cape Town in November.

Two photographers who launched the exhibition in Mumbai work with international news agencies and excel in capturing reality on film. Abir Abdullah, who teaches photography in Dhaka and shoots for the European Press Photo agency, chose to photograph domestic violence of the worst kinds against women. Abdullah says women in some sections of Bangladesh, who refuse a man's advances or a marriage proposal, are likely to be victims of acid attacks that permanently disfigure their faces. His pictures at the exhibition depict this forcefully.

It was not easy convincing these victims who could not bear to see their own faces after disfiguration, to bravely come out and be photographed, says Abdullah. The idea was to prevent more women from becoming victims. His high moment came when one of his models asked him to teach her photography.

“As a photographer, this is a way I can protest — I can become the voice of the voiceless through my work. That is both a professional duty and a social commitment. In the case of many areas, where illiteracy is a big problem, photographs are the only things they understand,” he adds.

Having done a series on war veterans and climate change in the past, his next task is to question untouchability. “The social stigma around several issues is such that we unknowingly follow the stereotype. We often tend to blame the victims. Eve teasing is a big issue, and people even commit suicide because of that. But then often victims are asked: ‘Why do they tease you and not others?'” he says.

There is an angry young woman residing within the warm and soft-spoken Palestinian photographer Laura Boushnak. Anger, she says, helps her choose her subjects. And she was angry that in Egypt, 45 per cent of the female population over 15 years is illiterate. Women attending classes to attain literacy in the illegal settlements of Cairo were her subjects, and her photographs hanging in those classrooms are encouraging more people to come in, and more ‘students' to stay on.

“Seeing these pictures, women who participate in the classes are very proud. As a photographer, you have the opportunity to tell the stories of other people, so that it can reach more and more people,” says Laura.

She notes that being witness to certain situations as a mediaperson can be frustrating. “After a conflict, there are always survivors, highly affected by the conflict and forced to endure the aftermath. The media packs up and goes. What happens to those people who remain there,” she asks.

Next up, Laura is sharpening her focus on sexual harassment, again in Cairo. The virginity tests that were ordered on women activists who took to the street on International Women's Day have disturbed Laura, as has the inhuman treatment meted out to CNS reporter Lara Lohan and several others. She wants change.

Published on May 26, 2011
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