I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.
Václav Havel (born 1936) began his foray into the arts as a stage technician at a Prague theatre. Having found his passion after years of academic suppression by the communist governement, Havel pursued his interest further by undertaking correspondence studies in drama. His first full-length play was performed in 1963.
When the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, and Poland invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 as a result of Alexander Dubček’s bid to enact reforms such as increased freedom of media, speech, and travel in communist Czechoslovakia, Havel provided a live narration of the events on Radio Free Czechoslovakia. His political involvement saw him subsequently banned from the theatre, though he continued to write plays that became symbols of dissidence.
In 1977, Havel helped create the Charter 77 manifesto decrying the human rights violations of the government after the imprisonment of Czech band The Plastic People of the Universe for cultural and social dissidence. Seeing the artistic voices of his country silenced inspired Havel’s increasing involvement in politics as a means of affecting change. In 1979, he co-founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted, for which he was sentenced to prison.
If we are to change our world view, images have to change. The artist now has a very important job to do. He’s not a little peripheral figure entertaining rich people, he’s really needed.
After serving as president of both Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, Havel dedicated the remainder of his life to the promotion of worldwide peace and freedom. Throughout this pursuit, Havel maintained his passion for the arts, writing numerous nonfiction books and essays, serving as an artist in residence at Columbia University in 2006, and publishing new plays in 2007 and 2011.
In 2011, the Human Rights Foundation, whose International Council Havel chaired, and his widow, Dagmar Havlova, created the Havel Prize for Creative Dissent.
The prize is granted annually to three defenders of human rights: Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, Saudi women’s rights advocate Manal al-Sharif, and Burmese opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 2012; and Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat, North Korean democracy activist Park Sang Hak, and Cuban cilvil society group the Ladies in White (led by Berta Soler) in 2013.
Oddly, each year only one prize recipient has been an artist, despite the prize’s name and Havel’s beliefs in the transformative power of art. While all of the recipients are undoubtedly worthy of recognition, there are significant merits to an award that solely highlights the promotion of human rights and freedom through art.
In April of 2011, Ai Weiwei, one of China’s most celebrated and renowned artists (even officially declared a ‘cultural ambassador’ for the 2008 Olympic Games) was arrested at the Beijing Airport for alleged tax evasion.
However, Ai’s political dissension had been growing since his outrage and subsequent investigation of corruption in the building of schools in Sichuan after the region’s terrible 2008 earthquake. In 2009, he was beaten so badly by the police so as to sustain a subdural hematoma after attempting to attend the trial of another Chinese man investigation the region’s building practices.
In February 2011, Ai began keeping track of the number of people who had been detained in relation to a possible ‘Jasmine Spring’ on his Twitter account (which is, of course, officially banned in China.) On 24 February, he tweeted,
I didn’t care about jasmine at first, but people who are scared by jasmine sent out information about how harmful jasmine is… which makes me realize that jasmine is what scares them the most.
Ai was detained for three months, and remains unable to leave China. After his arrest, Ai’s accountant and studio partner, assistant, and driver disappeared. His assistant remains missing. Despite his restrictions, Ai is more artistically active now than ever, with numerous ongoing worldwide exhibitions and projects.
Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat has had more than 15,000 cartoon published in both Arab-language and international newspapers. Known for his adroit use of satire, Ferzat already had an established and successful career before the Syrian uprising, but through his work over the past two years has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to human rights and artistic freedom.
Yet this commitment is not new for Ferzat. In 1989, the cartoonist received a death threat from Saddam Hussein and banned from Iraq, Jordan, Oman, and Libya after exhibiting a cartoon in Paris that dictators from all of those countries believed was about them. But this time, the stakes are higher. In 2011, both of Ferzat’s hands and all of his fingers were broken by a group of masked men.
Before my incident, I was brave. But now I’m braver. Now I’m bolder than I used to be.
From his new home in Kuwait, Ferzat continues to publish cartoons critical of all dictatorships, and feels hopeful pride that his work played a part in what he calls the Syrian people’s ‘sarcastic resistance,’ a growing use of humour as a means to cope with the violence and trauma they experience on a daily basis.