(NEW YORK)— Around the world, socially engaged artists are being threatened, harassed, and persecuted by authoritarian governments, which increasingly employ surveillance technologies against them, according to a new report by PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC). The report issues a call to action for international organizations to extend the protections afforded to human rights defenders to artists on the frontlines of social movements, and expand other safeguards for them.

The groundbreaking report, Art is Power: 20 Artists on How They Fight for Justice and Inspire Change, documents the ways artists are fighting against these menacing tactics and urges art and human rights organizations to activate effective policies and coordination to support them.

With their unique ability to challenge dominant narratives, bring people together, and foster hope in a brighter future, socially engaged artists are a critical part of the battle to fight autocracy and sustain democracy,” said Julie Trebault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC). “These artists are using their art to defend and promote human rights, which calls for the international community to recognize their contribution, and offer them the long overdue protection and support they need especially amid a rising wave of authoritarianism globally which targets free expression among human rights under attack.”

The report spotlights artists in 20 countries, including the United States, who use their creative talents to uplift, sustain, and mobilize social and political movements around the world.

Art is Power argues that a lack of support occurs because socially engaged artists often fall into a gap between the human rights world and the arts world, with each group considering them the other’s responsibility. The report urges both realms to expand the resources and programming they make available to at-risk artists,akin to those provided to human rights defenders. To do so, art and human rights groups must improve information sharing, collaboration, and coalition building, and jointly advocate for the development of policy frameworks that better define artistic freedom and guarantee the safety and wellbeing of artists, the report says.

ARC, founded in 2017, draws on insights it has developed in advocating for artists and artistic freedom and liaising  between artists and direct resource providers. The report includes interviews with experts from the field – among them, Karima Bennoune, the former UN special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights – as well as in-depth conversations with 20 profiled artists. The profiles look at why they became artists, how they became involved in social and political movements, and the persecution they have faced as a result of their creative expression.

Artists profiled include:

Dashka Slater, a U.S. writer  whose YA novel, The 57 Bus, has been banned in schools and libraries due to its depictions of LGBTQ youth and the criminal justice system. It is the tenth most banned book in the state of Texas and the thirty-fifth most banned book in the United States. “I don’t think any of us expected that we would be in this place in the United States. But we are dealing with autocracy. We’re looking at state laws that make it impossible to read books that tell the truth about history and real people who live in the world,” Slater told ARC. 

Omaid Sharifi, an Afghan “artivist” and a co-founder of ArtLords, a street art collective that brought community members together to paint murals about human rights issues. Sharifi experienced censorship and persecution throughout his career – which escalated following the Taliban’s takeover in 2021. One of the Taliban’s first acts was to destroy ArtLords murals around Kabul. Sharifi was forced to flee Afghanistan and now lives in exile in the United States. “That violence, that threat of being kidnapped or killed, was there every single day,” Sharifi told ARC. “There was not a single day that I would leave my house in Kabul and be sure that I would come back alive.

Stella Nyanzi, a Ugandan poet who was arrested and sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2018 for provocative poems that criticized Ugandan Prime Minister Yoweri Museveni. She employs  “radical rudeness,” a mode of expression developed during the colonial era to ridicule and critique powerful individuals through public shaming. After being released from prison, Nyanzi went into exile and now lives in Germany. “One of the things I hate most is when people say to me on social media, ‘you have been writing for years, but the president is still in power,’” Nyanzi told ARC. “I want to say, respectfully, [screw] you. In Uganda, we are fighting a dictatorship, and I do it with poems.”

The report also features Didier Awadi (Senegal), Elie Kamano (Guinea), Khalid Albaih (Sudan), Ramy Essam (Egypt),  Elyla (Nicaragua), Rebeca Lane (Guatemala), Yacunã Tuxá (Brazil), Badiucao (China), Bart Was Not Here (Myanmar), Fahmi Reza (Malaysia), Leena Manimekalai (India), Artem Loskutov (Russia), Javier Serrano Guerra / Boa Mistura (Spain), Zehra Doğan (Turkey), Emad Hajjaj (Jordan), Samaneh Atef (Iran), and Zeina Daccache (Lebanon).

Finally, the report includes recommendations for artists, state and multilateral organizations, human rights and civil society organizations, and art organizations including: 

  • States must evaluate their policy frameworks, ensure comprehensive protections for artists, and extend effective mechanisms to support artists, such as the establishment of immigrant pathways and residency opportunities.
  • States and multilateral institutions must develop a UN Action Plan for the Protection of Artists, while incorporating artists into existing protective mechanisms.
  • Human rights organizations must proactively monitor and address violations of artistic freedom, and collaborate with art and cultural organizations to better support at-risk artists and understand their needs.
  • Art organizations must collaborate with human rights organizations and solicit their expertise on supporting vulnerable populations, while expanding emergency grants, residency programs, and engagement with refugee artists.

About the Artists at Risk Connection

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org