7. “We rise through the arts”

For centuries, the arts have been a way of expressing and communicating with one another. It is the unapologetic expression of the soul through word, sight and sound. We use art as a way to share stories and create change. Art as a form of activism is on the rise. But what are the outcomes?

We must ask ourselves what role have the arts played in the fight for freedom, human rights and democracy? Democracy which should be of the people, by the people, for the people. Does democracy today allow us to freely express ourselves without consequences? Arts as a philosophy of doing brings activists closer to self-reflection and allows them to look at the bigger picture. Art speaks. It enables activists to express themselves the way that they are most comfortable. But this is hindered by laws. Allowing us the freedom to express ourselves through art allows us to be agents of change. We guide and inspire creative ways that civil society can engage people.

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), freedom of expression is the right of every individual to hold opinions without interference. However, this fundamental right is frequently restricted through tactics that include censorship, restrictive legislation, and harassment. Censorship was consistently one of the top civic space violations reported by the CIVICUS Monitor.

In 2013, UN Special Rapporteur on cultural rights Farida Shaheed stressed the right to freedom of artistic expression and creation. This includes the right of people to freely experience artistic expressions and creations, to enjoy and disseminate artistic pieces. It is not necessarily only about expressing oneself freely but viewing how citizens have access to and can take part in cultural experiences. Artistic freedom can be crucial to any nation. It is one of the key issues for democracy.

In 2015, CIVICUS along with five other partners hosted a "72-hour jam" in an attempt to recreate an experiment held by the Institute de Beaux Artés in Paris half a century ago. Artists from all over the world were united in South Africa and worked for 72 hours – without sleep – to see what they could create. Some of the aims were to enable intercultural working and explore global issues. The event resulted in a range of inspiring work being produced.

Reflecting on the event earlier this year, CIVICUS Secretary General Danny Sriskandarajah said, "mashing these people together and that creative energy was just amazing. We need to deploy every means we can to promote social justice."'

Today, though, we see the arts and artists being threatened all around the world. In January Somali poet Naema Ahmed Ibrahim, was arrested and charged over her work which advocated for Somali unity. An unpopular opinion is not hate speech, nor should it be cause for arrest. Naema made her voice heard in a way that was comfortable for her. We cannot hold an artist responsible for how people react to their work.

In a world of silenced voices, we find our purposes in the arts. On June 16, CIVICUS and partners hosted the Southern African Creative Youth Art Symposium in Johannesburg. Nine activists gathered and contributed to a discussion around the theme of ‘reimagining democracy’. They reiterated that we should not underestimate the strength of the youth voice and the power to speak through art.

Cay-Low Mbedzi, 22, is a South African visual artist, who was shortlisted for the symposium for his visual art work called "unity". As he said, "It (art) allows for a participatory democracy in which the voice of young people can be used as a tool to change and shape policy and direction".

Mbedzi stressed that the arts can be used as “contributions and solutions to impact societies."

Also, a youth activist, he said that "when the youth decides on its fate, democracy is uplifted. Having a discussion about ‘reimagining democracy’ means that we agree that we are not happy with the current (democracies)."

As one panelist remarked,

“art is the social consciousness of society. We find voices in the arts. Word, sound, visuals and narration are able to illuminate our purpose! We are artistic, we are brave, and we have something to say.”

Protecting the rights of artists to express themselves is important for the development of democracy. It is artists who, through their work, relate most to millions of people, some of them unable to read and with no access to express themselves. Many think that the arts are a luxury. This is untrue. It is a way for us to express our humanity. When we limit, censor or restrict artistic expressions we shackle an aspect of expressing humanity.

Look at the “fleeting freedom” of Iran’s street art. Graffiti has been a form of protest for many years. Although the pieces are visually striking they also demonstrate an alternative view to social and political dialogues on peace, rights and freedom of expression. Meanwhile, some governments censor online platforms but not music-streaming websites, as highlighted by Uncensored Playlist.

In a world that is constantly changing and trying to tell us who to be, we rise through the arts, through our expressions and finding creative ways to have our voices heard. Finding new ways to defend the fundamental civic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression everywhere.

Tarryn Booysen is the Membership Administrator at CIVICUS.

This article is part of a series to celebrate CIVICUS’ 25th anniversary and provide perspectives and insights on citizen action around the world.

If you would like to repost this article, or contribute an idea of your own to the series, please email  



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