Art in Protest highlights artists living under authoritarian regimes or in exile, whose art is connected to their struggle for democracy and basic human rights in their countries.
What is Art in Protest?
The Art in Protest program is HRF’s answer to the repression of creativity that authoritarian regimes impose. Dictatorships succeed when they are able to confuse and conceal, shifting attention away from the truth. Art can expose that deception, speaking with an emotional immediacy that is stronger than any statement, and able to resonate more widely than any declaration. Recognizing the transformative potential of art, HRF established Art in Protest as the first program to support dissident artists around the world who use their art to make a lasting impact in the global struggle against authoritarianism.
Since its inception, Art in Protest has hosted events for diverse audiences in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oslo, showcasing artists from North Korea, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Turkey, and China, connecting the art world and human rights activists. The goal of the program is to support and exhibit the work of artists from around the world who struggle to express themselves in the face of oppressive governments. In this way, Art in Protest aims to create a dialogue about the state of artistic expression on a global scale, and to shed light on those brave people who are willing to risk their lives in the pursuit of self-expression. Many of the artists’ works are intentionally political, but several have had their art politicized for the mere act of self-expression.
The Art in Protest virtual gallery features works by artists from North Korea, Afghanistan, Turkey, China, and Venezuela, and is now available to view online.
Art in Protest Impact
Gao Zhen (born in 1956) and Gao Qiang (born in 1962) have been on the vanguard of contemporary art in China, collaborating on painting, installation, performance, sculpture, photography, and writing since 1985. Until 2003 they were not allowed to leave the PRC, after years on an official blacklist that barred them from receiving external passports. Since 2003, with numerous exhibitions worldwide, their work has begun to circulate around the world, gaining critical accolades for their socially progressive, conceptually anchored and aesthetically diverse art, and been held in private and museum collections, such as Steven Cohen, Charles Saatchi, Ramin Salsali, Centre Georges Pompidou, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Princeton University Art Museum, Kemper Museum Of Contemporary Art, etc. At the 2019 Oslo Freedom Forum, the Gao Brothers performed a rendition of their iconic “Utopia of the Embrace,” a transformative public performance art project rooted in the belief that love can reclaim humanity. The performance gathered 100 strangers in embrace, creating a profound moment of connection and love for the community.”
”Though we are usually regarded as dissident artists, we don’t consider ourselves dissidents at all, we never even think about this question. We just use art to express what we want to express, to explore the complex and ever-changing world and our inner lives. That is why our work involves many different types of media, various forms and themes.Gao Brothers
Rodrigo is an Italo-Venezuelan artist concerned with the social and political evolutions of world affairs. He has become one of the most relevant dissident artists in the world, defending human rights through his art. Along with artistically documenting current affairs in Venezuela, Rodrigo paints today’s world as it unfolds: from the struggle of Kurdish women, to the issues raised by immigration. He explores contemporary topics with a philosophical and symbolic take, while also working on more intimate works.
”I believe that an artist has the mission to paint the times. Art is a weapon of mass creation that exists to fight ignorance and to save and build identity. I use my art to fight for freedom, human rights and to grow, both personally and collectively.Rodrigo Figueredo
Shamsia Hassani (Ommolbanin Hassani) is a graffiti artist and muralist who was born in 1988 to Afghan parents in Tehran, Iran. Shamsia has experimented with many techniques in painting and created Afghanistan’s first 3D painting in 2014. She has been invited to different countries (including Italy, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Turkey, India, Iran, Vietnam, Canada, Australia, and the United States) to display her graffiti (mural art) at exhibitions, workshops, and seminars. She was named one of FP’s 100 global thinkers in 2014.
”My paintings have a character, just like characters that play roles in films, my paintings’ character also plays different roles.
This character plays the role of a human being, but since I am a woman, I can understand women better, and also since women have more limits (restrictions) than men in our society, I chose my character to be a woman.
A woman with shut eyes and no mouth, with a deformed musical instrument which gives her power and confidence to talk and play her voice powerfully.
Her shut eyes believe that there is nothing good to see, she wishes to ignore everything, to feel less sorrow.
My artworks are more focused on individuals and social issues, but at times they get political.
The character of my paintings play different roles, sometimes a combatant, while other times she is a refugee with no future. At times she searches for peace and sometimes she is in the role of someone without an identity. Sometimes she is lost in her dreams and at times she is lost in pain and sorrow, she struggles with the past and future, and then she is a patriot who loves her homeland and fights hopelessness.
I feel that my artworks are visual alphabets that connect with people through their mind’s visual alphabets.Shamsia Hassani
Song Byeok was a state propaganda artist in North Korea until he escaped after famine killed his parents and sister. He has been based in South Korea since 2002, producing acrylic paintings that stylistically echo his earlier work but satirize the regime he was once forced to celebrate and often incorporate symbols of peace. Song was awarded the 2018 Global Artist Award for his work concerning the North Korean human rights crisis, and has been featured on CNN, Washington Post, BBC, and Asahi in Japan.
”There are many peoples and nations in this world. Within each people group and nation there may be differences in status but for each human there exists the same dignity. But under the same sky we upon tonight, there is a nation of people that live under oppression; they live without knowing their worth as human beings. They have no sense of their own dignity. The concept of human rights is foreign to them. These people live their lives in a darkness that lacks the basic freedoms and rights. In this there is only one person who has worth, this person is their sun, their god. To them to survive with for tomorrow is more precious than anything else. Everyone in this world is equal and should be respected as a human being. Freedom of religion, freedom of art, freedom of speech, freedom of expression; these are the most fundamental freedoms of man. I have lived in oppression for over 30 years, deprived of all freedom under the North Korean regime. Through my paintings I want to say that all human beings are created by God and are created equal should be respected as such. One regime, one individual, cannot take away the dignity that God has given to us.Song Byeok
Zehra Dogan is an award-winning Kurdish artist, journalist, and author from Turkey. In 2017, she was sentenced to 2 years, 9 months and 22 days in prison for sharing a painting of hers on social media that depicts the destruction of Nusaybin, a town in southeastern Turkey. Dogan is an honorary member of PEN International, and the recipient of the Index on Censorship’s 2019 Freedom of Expression Award in the Arts category.
Lilia Kvatsabaya is a Belarusian illustrator and graphic designer based in Hawaii. Lilia was a student at the State Academy of Arts, but she had to interrupt her studies and relocate to the United States due to the political unrest in Belarus, following rigged elections in August 2020. In her work, Lilia portrays the injustices felt by the Belarusian people, and mass violence perpetrated by the police. She draws on her own experiences participating in peaceful protests and chains of solidarity in Minsk. Lilia’s posters and illustrations depicting the Belarusian democracy movement have been exhibited internationally in Germany, Japan, and Lithuania.