SAWANGWONGSE YAWNGHWE, The Myanmar Peace Industrial Complex (detail), 2017, oil on linen, 330 × 660 cm. Photo by Natasha Harth, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), Brisbane. Courtesy QAGOMA

Raising the Bar

Also available in:  Chinese

The roles of artist, curator, and cultural worker inevitably intersect with the responsibilities of citizenship. In 2019, these positions converged more tightly than before, as the inadequacies of sociopolitical systems were the targets of expressions of anguish, outrage, and even protests around the globe. Artists scrutinized these same systems, which impact the production and dissemination of art, and initiated urgent calls for action in their capacities as citizens or artists, or both.

Some rallied against censorship. In Bishkek, 40 participants of the first Feminnale exhibition delivered an open letter to the president of Kyrgyzstan condemning the removal of works including Zoya Falkova’s installation on the abuse of women—a punching bag shaped like a female torso—and the blocking of Julie Savery’s nude performance about the lack of rights for sex workers, arguing that these acts are in clear violation of the Kyrgyz Republic’s constitution. Plans for a second Feminnale are reportedly already underway.

Ethically questionable sources of funding caused numerous artists to raise their concerns. In November, the exiled Shan artist Sawangwongse Yawnghwe announced that he had refused to take part in a European Union-supported exhibition in Yangon titled “Everyday Justice” because of the EU’s “support of a flawed and corrupt peace process” and tacit endorsement of the alleged war crimes perpetrated by the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) in Arakan, Shan, and Kachin states. Yawnghwe dissects this topic with staggering thoroughness in his painting series The Myanmar Peace Industrial Complex (2017– ), which maps out the network of agents shaping the conflict. 

Others felt the call to the streets. The urgency of nationwide
mass demonstrations happening in Lebanon led the Beirut nonprofit Ashkal Alwan to cancel its multidisciplinary forum Home Works 8. According to the organization: “Artistic and cultural institutions and initiatives are in no way isolated from broader civic, political, economic, and ideological contexts, but rather shaped as a result of and in response to historical events and their repercussions.” For that reason, Ashkal Alwan continued, “there shouldn’t be any reason to regret or apologize for the indefinite postponement of our programmes and events.” 

The entwinement of artistic and societal systems were clear to the four joint winners of the 2019 Turner Prize who insisted on sharing the award. “At this time of political crisis in Britain and much of the world, when there is already so much that divides and isolates people and communities, we feel strongly motivated to use the occasion of the Prize to make a collective statement in the name of commonality, multiplicity, and solidarity,” they proclaimed. As cultural producers around the world increasingly demand new standards and conditions for working, the resounding message was that we simply cannot continue as before. 

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4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art SAM ACAW SOTHEBY'S