Monday, March 02, 2009

Artists up against Authority

"DID you do this?", asked a German officer, looking at Picasso's famous painting Guernica.
"No," replied the artist calmly. "You did."

Fortunately the Nazis never managed to erase Picasso's work any more than the memory of what it portrayed (though the Guernica painting was notoriously covered over during a press conference at the UN at the start of the Iraq war). But I was reminded of this legendary exchange between artist and authority by two stories of how artistic freedom is faring under the creeping dictatorship of police and the state in Britain. The first, for which I'm thankful to Mark at Jews Sans Frontiers for drawing attention, comes from the Daily Mail of February 27:

"His award-winning graffiti was praised by South Bank Show judges for 'creating messages of peace, unity and hope'.

But it seems police saw Birmingham-born artist Mohammed Ali's work rather differently, after they removed one of his murals, apparently for fear it would trigger racial violence.

Last night, Mr Ali accused officers of 'wanton censorship' after they removed the mural, which protested against Israeli attacks in Gaza.

Police allegedly told the elderly Muslim woman who owned the property where the 'Free Gaza' mural was displayed that it could even trigger a petrol bomb attack on her home, leaving her 'scared stiff', according to her family.

Mr Ali, 30, won the Arts Council's diversity award at the ITV South Bank Show awards last month, and his work has been compared to the paramilitary murals in Northern Ireland, which have become tourist attractions, drawing in coachloads of visitors.

I like that bit about the "petrol bomb". Sounds to me more like the style of protection racketeers' -"nice little home you've got here, wouldn't like to see it wrecked now" - than the reassurance which the police are supposed to provide.

In fact, to judge from the comments we've seen and the toots of passing motorists, Mohammad Ali's work - he has done four murals on Gaza - has been well-received by Birmingham people, both for the message conveyed, which is about human sympathy and solidarity rather than offensive to anyone -and for, let's face it, brightening up Brum.

Here's the artist at work,

And his own comments:
On Monday 16th February, the mural created in Alum Rock, Birmingham, which highlights the plight of the people of Gaza, was wiped out by Birmingham City Council. This was ordered by the Police from Nechells Green Police Station. This mural was one of four murals that have been painted over the past two months, during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and have been painted by myself alongside various youth who represented a diversity of different background and faith.

There has been numerous discussions on the internet about the situation, with much speculation of what actually happened. I myself, have not publicly revealed any information, or spoken to any press, yet the wiping out of the mural is now very well known in the city of Birmingham. I have attempted to be patient and not be hasty in action, and have had various meetings, including one with officers at the Nechells Green Police Station, along with various community leaders.

Since there is so much speculation about what has happened, I thought to now write openly about the facts that I know of.

The painting of the mural was done with full consent of the building owner who lives at the property with her sons. The building owner witnessed the creation of the mural, and in no way objected to its creation. Her son had heard of my various murals accross the city and wished me for to do the same on his building. Funds for the creation of the mural were raised from the local community.

After the creation of the mural, the wall became a very talked about piece of art, much like all of the other murals in the city. I am a born and raised brummie, so take pride in decorating the ugly walls that are already vandalised with mindless scrawls, with meaningful, colourful art that has a positive message, that attempts to unite our already segregated communities

The police visited the home-owner, who speaks little English. The words ‘your home could be in danger of being petrol bombed’ were mentioned by the police. “If you sign here we can remove it”. The police claim the elderly lady didn’t want the mural there and wanted it removed along with her sons.

Yes, she may have agreed to the removal of the art, but If police came to my door, I would feel the same, and comply with any of their requests, especially with mention of ‘petrol bombs’. Who wouldn’t??

The son of the building owner, mentioned to me, that she became scared in her own home due to what the police said. The police have denied any reports of threats of petrol bombs from any member of the public. So where did these so-called threats come from? Or did the police make them up in order to scare the family, and lead to them agreeing to signing on the dotted line and agreeing for the artwork to be removed? I think it is scandalous that the Police should harass the family in this way, and this type of bullying should not be tolerated. All of the other Gaza-themed murals have remained intact, but this wall, they got the magic signature.

I don’t know why the police may have wiped out the mural, perhaps an effort to minimise any ‘incitement of hatred’ but did they not think that wiping out the mural would do the opposite of their aims? Especially when the mural read nothing of any hatred, or racism, but only words of support for innocent people who die in Gaza. The caption ‘we hear your cries’ in reference to the innocents that died in their hundreds in Gaza. The mural was created by young people of all faith and colour, so this was not an issue that divided this community, but rather united them. It was an expression which lead to young people - already frustrated at what they are seeing on their tv screens of Gaza being bombed and innocents being killed - to channel their expressions in a positive way, by engaging with myself as an artist. With the dialogue I had with them while creating that mural, I explained to them that theire are many many Jews and even Israelis that are against the attacks on the people of Gaza. I explained that we as human beings are against the killing of anyone, regardless of faith, colour or creed.

Yet the police do not understand this. Without any understanding, or consideration of the consequences, in a typical gung-ho fashion they decided, that this bit of ‘graffiti art’, was wrong.

I am not against the police at all - anyone who knows my work, know that I am all about enriching our society with positive virtues, having respect for one another and using the arts as an alternative means of bringing people together. What I do feel is the Police, on this occasion clearly have no grasp of the reality on the ground and have a made grave error in removing this piece of art.

The police should stick to what they are supposed to be doing, which is catching criminals, not become art critics or censorship squads. This country prides itself on people being able to express themselves freely, but perhaps i didn’t read the small print that says ‘this excludes those who support the people of Gaza’ or those who chose to use spraypaints instead of brushes.

brum imcista

"The police do not understand this". Quite. Which is all the more reason why we should not accept their right to act as art critics, and censors, telling the people of Birmingham or anywhere else what they are allowed to look at or display on their walls.

I call it creeping dictatorship, because police keep trying it on, discovering new powers and seeing how far they can go, and government keeps encroaching on our rights (as distinct from those of the powerful and rich), and trying to get away with it, without any fanfare of announcements, headlines or public debate. When a Dutchman who has been accused fomenting hatred was turned away recently it did make news and controversy. When academics discussed whether to boycott Israeli institutions, there was organised but ill-informed outrage, cries of discrimination, threats of legal action from loud-mouthed US Zionists. But HM Government is prepared to discriminate against a whole swathe of artists and academics, and I'd never have known except for a Facebook message, and this letter in the Observer on Sunday, to which my attention was drawn:

'As professionals committed to the principles of internationalism and cultural exchange, we are dismayed by new Home Office regulations which will curb our invitations to non-EU artists and academics to visit the UK. All non-EU visitors now must apply for a visa in person and supply biometric data, electronic fingerprint scans and a digital photograph.

The Home Office's 158-page document also outlines new controls over visitors' day-to-day activity: individuals must show that they have at least £800 of savings, which have been held for at least three months prior to the date of their application; the host organisation must keep copies of the visitor's passport and their UK biometric card, a history of their contact details; and if the visitor does not turn up to their studio or place of work, or their whereabouts are unknown, the organisation is legally obliged to inform the UK Border Agency.

We believe that these restrictions discriminate against our overseas colleagues on the grounds of their nationality and financial resources and will be particularly detrimental to artists from developing countries and those with low income. Such restrictions will damage the vital contribution made by global artists and scholars to cultural, intellectual and civic life in the UK.

Iwona Blazwick, director, Whitechapel Gallery; Antony Gormley, artist; Eddie Berg, artistic director, BFI Southbank; Sandy Nairne, director, National Portrait Gallery; David Lan, the Young Vic; John E McGrath, theatre director; Malcolm Purkey, artistic director and acting CEO, Market Theatre Foundation, South Africa; Nicholas Hytner, the Royal National Theatre; Nicolas Kent, Tricycle Theatre; Brett Rogers, director, the Photographers' Gallery; David Barrie, director, the Art Fund; Jeremy Deller, artist; and 49 others.

I expect we can all think of highly-regarded artists and respected figures who might have fallen foul of this nasty bit of discrimination and Philistinism in the past. But I can't recall any politician coming on TV - say when they were honouring Nelson Mandela or giving themselves undeserved pats on the back over Britain's record as host and haven - to promise that the government intended keeping out more of these dusky johnnies who might come here expecting to lecture, act, paint pictures or sing. We-can't-have-that-there-here, or "No art, please, we're British".

Good to see that this is meting opposition. There's a petition you can sign at:

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