Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), an offshoot of the freedom of expression nonprofit PEN America, has published a new report urging human rights and arts organizations to expand their protections for oppressed artists. Titled “Art Is Power: 20 Artists on How They Fight for Justice and Inspire Change,” the document profiles 20 visual artists, performers, filmmakers, musicians, and authors, most of whom now live in exile, and argues that these cultural workers too often fall outside the scope of advocacy groups.

One of those artists is Bart Was Not Here (the professional name of Kyaw Moe Khine), a Burmese painter, sculptor, and digital artist who grew up in Myanmar in the late 1990s and 2000s and was forced to leave his country in 2021. In an interview with Hyperallergic, Bart discussed Myanmar’s long history of social uprising and his forced emigration.

The artist explained that he had always seen adults protesting when he was a kid; Myanmar achieved a short-lived democracy in a 2015 election before the new government was toppled by a military coup in 2021, plunging the country into a state of unrest, warfare, and genocide. More than 17,000 people have been arrested and 13,000 are still in prison. During this time, Bart began focusing on a series titled Seeing Red (2021), which he made available for free download on social media. The works, which depict political leaders and slogans such as “Disobey,” served as a form of visual language for the mass protests and strikes sparked by the coup.

“I was just doing my duty as a civilian,” Bart said. “I’ve seen other people protest before I was born.”

Later in 2021, someone shot at Bart’s car and he found bullet holes in his studio. The artist earned a spot in a residency program in Paris, which he said “saved [his] life.” Now, Bart is settled in New York and working on a new series that explores the ideas of “leaving home, finding home, and complex relationships with home.”

Violations of artistic freedom have been on the rise in recent years. In 2021 (the last year data was available), the artistic expression advocacy group Freemuse tracked 1,251 instances of transgressions worldwide. That total included 39 artists who were killed, more than 500 who faced legal action (including 253 artists detained and 119 imprisoned), and 127 artworks and venues that were destroyed. 

Bart Was Not Here, “From the Womb to the Tomb” (2022), acrylic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches

Some artists who have experienced displacement spoke about the difficulty of finding community, while others lamented the difficulty of selling work and making a living in exile.

Omaid Sharifi co-founded the mural painting group ArtLords in Afghanistan in 2014. The 53-artist collective has painted over 2,000 murals, often picturing persecuted individuals and centering social justice issues. Sharifi moved to Washington, DC, in 2021 after the Taliban seized power and has focused on evacuating the remaining ArtLord artists from Afghanistan. The painter said that so far, 46 members have emigrated to the United States, Canada, and Australia. Sharifi added that selling ArtLords’s work in the US had posed a challenge and he hasn’t heard from museums or galleries hoping to exhibit the collective’s paintings, a problem amplified when artists have “no alternative livelihoods.”

To this point, ARC Director Julie Trébault spoke to the necessity of arts and human rights organizations to step in and affirmed the report’s assertion that socially engaged artists are ignored by both the human rights world and the art world, “with each group considering them the other’s responsibility.” As for the museum and art market sector, Trébault talked about the requisite “question of quality” that can prohibit creators at risk from earning a living as artists abroad.

“Is it art, is it activism, and where are the lines drawn?” Ugandan poet Stella Nyanzi, another profiled artist, asked in an interview with Hyperallergic. She was jailed for her poems criticizing political leaders and was ultimately forced to leave Uganda. Nyanzi, who now leaves in Germany, spoke to the necessity of art in times of upheaval. Music, poetry, and art can help remedy “a fatigue and a tiredness” that can plague continual civil resistance through a “beautiful energy that challenges very ugly human oppressive power,” she said.

A 2021 ArtLords mural in Kabul, Afghanistan showing singer Ahmad Zahir

In the United States, Dashka Slater, also profiled in the new report, represents the host of authors whose work has been censored in the unprecedented number of book bans in recent years. She published a young adult novel titled The 57 Bus (2017), a true story about a 2013 hate crime against an agender teenager in California.

“I think what’s happening right now is we are running into a disconnect between our ideals — what we assume to be true and what is happening on the ground,” Slater said, acknowledging that US First Amendment rights offer protection from some of the oppressive acts faced by the report’s other profiled artists.

ARC’s report posits a long list of recommendations, including calls on nations to update their policies on artist protections (such as creating pathways for immigration and residency programs) and on countries to create a “United Nations Action Plan for the Protection of Artists.”

“As attacks on artistic freedom escalate at unprecedented rates around the world, the widely held notion that states alone, or human rights organizations alone, hold the responsibility to protect at-risk artists is obsolete,” the report concludes. “The art and human rights worlds need to work together to respond to rising needs and to advocate for more comprehensive protections by states.”

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.