(New York, NY) — The climate for artists across South, Southeast, and East Asia is increasingly hostile, with the global COVID-19 pandemic continuing to pose a serious threat to artistic freedom and the specter of censorship jeopardizing artists’ ability to work and speak out. In a new publication—Arresting Art: Repression, Censorship, and Artistic Freedom in Asia from PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection, produced in partnership with the Mekong Cultural Hub (MCH) and the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)—artists across the Asian continent expressed serious fears, especially around digital security laws and nationalistic tendencies that threaten to impose a culture of conformity across one of the most vibrant, diverse regions for the arts in the world. Arresting Art presents the discussion and findings from a closed virtual workshop convened in December 2020.

“In the last few years, grave atrocities against artistic freedom have occurred at a steadily increasing rate in Asia, and we have been connected with countless artists enduring undue persecution and harassment,” said Julie Trébault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America. “We felt there was an urgent need to convene stakeholders from the region’s cultural and human rights fields to exchange valuable insights and perspectives into Asia’s burgeoning crisis of censorship and control over freedom of expression. The discussions and insights captured in Arresting Art foreshadow the ongoing coup in Myanmar, as well as other acrimonious situations of unrest and curbed free expression in places like Hong Kong, Bangladesh, India, and Thailand. It is our hope that Arresting Art offers a comprehensive insider’s view on the experience of artistic freedom and the associated risks of being an artist in the region today, where freedom of speech and expression are being viciously curtailed by governments, corporate entities, and other forces.”

More recently, artists and creative professionals have played a significant role in social justice and political movements in Asia. In Myanmar, poets and visual artists are at the front line of protests—and have become some of the first targets of crackdowns. In Thailand, rappers and musicians were unlawfully detained for their participation in student-led pro-democracy protests. Photojournalists, cartoonists, comedians, and folk musicians in Bangladesh have been subjected to harassment and imprisonment under the provisions of the Digital Security Act—a law infamous for its draconian restrictions on free speech and expression. The artistic community in Hong Kong continues to engage deeply with sociopolitical issues despite growing fears of censorship in the wake of the national security bill. In India, artists and cartoonists find themselves risking censorship and legal action from the government for expressing opinions critical of the media, the country’s judicial system, and the government’s management of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Kacey Wong, a Hong Kong-based artist and activist, said: “As an artist-citizen, one does have the responsibility to vanguard freedom and democracy through the creation of art. Artwork not only expresses the artist’s personal emotion but works that can also empower others. Artwork that gives three-dimensional shape to invisible issues so the public can see them. As an artist, it is your duty to resist injustice and repression through artistic expression. What is art if the freedom of artistic expression is lost? Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong. Fight it with art because art will always prevail.”

“The reality is that artists in many parts of Asia are increasingly at risk merely for exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression,” said ARC’s Trebault. “It is devastating to learn about the excruciating pressures that artists are subjected to, and what we know is often just the tip of the iceberg. This is why we believe that it is crucial to connect stakeholders from across sectors—lawyers, artists, human rights practitioners, nongovernmental organizations, grassroots organizations, and more. Facilitating dialogue across these disciplines in order to build a more accurate understanding of the state of artistic freedom is vital to ensuring artists are better protected from and prepared for risk.”

Arresting Art touches on topics such as the specific challenges artists at risk face in Asia, the relationship between civil society organizations and the arts community, the significance of art in social justice movements and human rights intervention, as well as the legal instruments currently in place to protect and impact artistic freedom.

“The artists and cultural workers in our network are actively engaged in social development and yet are rarely included or supported by civil society in their communities,” said MCH managing director Frances Rudgard. “Arresting Art is a first step toward changing that. We hope to see artists recognized for the vital work that they do, and for the precarities they face to be considered in larger conversations related to rights and protections for people working in informal sectors.”

“Artists play a crucial role in defending human rights. Using art as tools for resistance, artists contribute to innovating and strengthening human rights movements across Asia and beyond. It is essential that we all play our part in providing protection and support to artists at risk,” said Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu, executive director of FORUM-ASIA.

In addition to sharing important insights into the state of artistic freedom in Asia, Arresting Art aims to provide a glimpse into the lived experiences of artists and cultural practitioners in the region. ARC, MCH, and FORUM-ASIA are also developing a limited podcast series capturing stories on artistic freedom in Asia that will expand on the key findings highlighted in Arresting Art with firsthand accounts from artists of the stakes, the threats they face, and the communities they have built to protect themselves and their right to create.

Arresting Art is available online and downloadable as a PDF.