Art, in its various categories- from language and visual arts to the performing arts- is all about communication, and can take on many different forms. In countries that embrace democracy, artists are usually allowed to create freely, without fear of governmental retribution. We are extremely fortunate, in the U.S., to be able to mount projects, if we so choose, that are critical of our government, without fear of retaliation. However, in nations where freedom is at a premium, artists are not so fortunate. They are censored, fired from jobs and thrown in jail for nothing more than being critical of those in power. In those lands, the various art forms either tout the official 'party line', so to speak, or become a political forum, of sorts. From political satire to outright criticism, artists risk their lives and careers to bring to light the injustices that prevail living under those kinds of autocratic regimes.
It's happening right now in places like Burma, Belarus, Venezuela.
In 1990 Par Par Lay, a 60-year-old Burmese comic who performs a traditionall Burmese vaudeville routine laced with political satire called nyeint pwe, spent 6 months in jail for offending the junta with his political jokes. In 1996, he was again sentenced to 7 years in a labour camp, though released after 5 1/2, after he and his troupe the Mustache Brothers dared to poke fun at the Junta in front of Aung San Suu Kyi and an audience of 2,000 including foreign ambassadors. One of the offending routines:
a "government dance," a comic rendition of a wily public servant stealing money from the poor.
His troupe was then barred, by the Junta, from performing for Burmese people, so they had to resort to performing for foreign visitors in Par Par Lay's house. On September 25 2007, Par Par Lay was arrested, once again, during the latest crackdown in Burma. So was another popular comic, Zargana. For weeks, no-one knew what happened to Par Par Lay. His wife, a dancer, said the following:
"I tried to find him, but I don't know where he is" [snip] "If the past is an indication, he must have been beaten a lot. I am worried about whether he is alive or not."
Thankfully, according to Amnesty International, both Par Par Lay and Zargana were released in late October, however Zargana developed a lung infection from the unsanitary conditions in jail. He was briefly detained, again, after he spoke to international media about his incarceration. And sadly, it probably won't be the last time either of them sees the inside of a jail cell.
In Belarus, the Free Theatre project was created (March 2005) in response to the oppressive, dictatorial leadership of Alexander Lukashenko. It is in part sponsored by former Czech President and playwright Vaclav Havel , and English playwright Tom Stoppard. Those involved have sworn to keep the project alive until Belarus embraces democracy. In the meantime, this group of unpaid actors, directors and technicians continues performing in spite of crackdowns by police, and being outright banned by the Belarusian government. You see, in Belarus only state-sanctioned theatres and actors are allowed to perform. Many of these 'underground' theatres exist through the sheer tenacity and courage of those collaborating, and performances are held in flats, houses and nightclubs. And even though the audiences are pre-screened and the location of the production is revealed shortly prior to the performance, the precautions aren't always helpful. A recent Free Theatre production of "Eleven Vests" (a play about violence by British playwright Edward Bond) was raided by police, and 50 people were detained for hours, including children and theatre artists from France and the Netherlands. In spite of these occurrences and the potential risk of losing jobs or even their freedom, Belarusian actors continue to find ways to bring their voices of dissent to the people.
And in Venezuela, actress Fabiola Colmenares was recently fired from Venevision for publicly registering her disapproval of the police violence against the on-going anti-Chavista student demonstrators. 2 people have been killed in those demonstrations, so far, in case you hadn't heard. (For more information on the situation in Venezuela, check out Kate at Colombo-Americana's Perspective, and Julia's The End of Venezuela As I Know It.)
Artists need to be heard, especially when something needs to be said. And you can rest assured that our voices will not be silenced. As long as we have an audience, and as long as we have a voice.
In solidarity with those who risk all for their art.