Helping Artists at Risk – Evgeny Shtorn in conversation with Mary Ann DeVlieg | Cassandra Voices

Helping Artists at Risk – Evgeny Shtorn in conversation with Mary Ann DeVlieg


Mary Ann DeVlieg is an internationally experienced consultant, facilitator and trainer with a background in the arts, arts mobility and policy. She evaluates international cultural collaboration projects for the European Commission and charitable foundations. Since 2010 she has been working to protect and defend the rights of artists-at-risk, she founded the EU working group, Arts-Rights-Justice, co-founded Artsfex, advises and trains artists and arts organisations on protection and defence.

Evgeny Shtorn is an LGBT activist, organiser and researcher from Russia. In 2018, he was forced to leave Russia and claim asylum. He currently works as Cultural Diversity Researcher at Create – National Development Agency for Collaborative Arts and co-facilitates a project ‘Something from There‘ with people seeking asylum, supported by the National Gallery of Ireland. As an activist he started the grassroots initiative Queer Diaspora Ireland in order to highlight issues of gender based violence and bullying in a hostile system of institutionalised living.

All Images © John Malcolm Anderson.

Evgeny: Mary Ann you are working a lot with artists who are coming to Europe seeking international protection. Some of them had a very well-established life and professional record. But when they were targeted by their governments and had to flee their countries of origin they found themselves completely isolated in the hosting countries, going through a difficult asylum process, without any perspective for the further development of their careers and arts practice. What makes you step into this field and why are you putting your time and energy helping artists at risk.

Mary Ann: There were two assassinations of people working in the arts that affected me a lot. First was Mark Weil, founder of Tashkent’s Ilhom theater, who was murdered at the entrance to his apartment building in the Uzbek capital. Second is Juliano Mer-Khamis, Israeli-Palestinian film actor who was working in Palestine for many years, running the Freedom Theatre in Jenin. All my life I had been working with artists in relatively luxurious settings. But when you find out that people were killed just for being an artist, for doing what they do, then you have to ask: ‘Are we a sector that has some kind of solidarity?’, ‘Does this link of being from the same field create an extra responsibility to ensure that other artists are safe?’.

Also, I’ve always worked in the arts and as much as I would like to help other people who are perhaps more deserving, I thought a lot and concluded that I can really only do best in the milieu that I know so well. Then I found out that someone (Todd Lester, founder of freeDimensional, based in New York) was putting artists residencies together with artists who were in danger. I offered to help and became a volunteer case-worker and subsequently ended up co-directing the organisation. But everybody’s story is completely different. With artists at risk you find stories spanning the whole spectrum. People who maybe are not that much at risk, but they don’t see any career path for themselves in their countries.

Others are people who were physically maimed, beaten up, almost left for dead, people who have to go from one safe house to another, women who were repeatedly raped, members of the family targeted. The first guy I was working with was told to stop making films but he didn’t. Then the secret service came to him and told him that they knew that his father had heart problems, and that if his father was beaten up he probably wouldn’t survive. This threat to loved ones is a common way to intimidate and pressurise people.

There is also censorship of work that can range from not posing too much danger, all the way to really endangering the artist.  I was working with an art critic in China who had his work published widely in journals, catalogues and other critical research outlets. The government wouldn’t allow anyone to hire him anymore, so by the time I found out about him he was living on the street from handouts of food and money.

We call it ‘censorship’ but the term encompasses deleting words from a text all the way through to people who are being physically harmed, put in prison or killed. One can generalize by saying that there is something in the art work or art practice that upsets either a political party, or government in power, or religious faction, or some sort of social custom. And it could be the artist even just being who they are, as in the case of female singers in some countries. It might be work that that is not necessarily confrontational, but shows behaviour that somebody doesn’t like in the country, all the way through to work which is definitely oppositional: songs or a fictional film which criticises the government. There are as many strategies as there are people; there are as many reasons for the persecution as there are people persecuted, but the majority of the perpetrators are the organs of state. Isn’t it ironic that the state which is legally charged to protect people and to uphold any kind of universal legislation protecting freedom of expression, including freedom of artistic expression, is in effect the most common perpetrator!

Evgeny: Could you describe the most successful case in your practice?

Mary Ann: I don’t think I can, and to explain my answer, it is that now I’m much more interested in what happens after the relocation of the at-risk artist to a safe place, or what happens perhaps during the relocation. Organisations and funding bodies that support so-called ‘temporary relocation’ have to say it is temporary, probably because otherwise they wouldn’t get visas, but we all know it’s not necessarily temporary.

So what I’m really concerned with is that after the honeymoon period – while people are happy, they are safe, perhaps they have a three month or even two year residency and everybody is nice to them – after this 90 days they often realize they can’t probably ever go home; maybe they have family there, and they realize they have lost their audience, the language may be a huge factor in creating a new audience, the gatekeepers (curators and programmers) either treat the artist as a sort of exotic victim asking her or him to constantly relate their sorrows and pain or they may reject the artist arguing that the aesthetic the artist was trained in, is not what their audience likes.

So my main concern is how to set up a system that helps – not to get any special help more than the artists native or settled in the host country, because let’s face it, being an artist in any case is really tough. But at least it’s possible to ‘level the playing field’; to give these newcomer artists some training and support to bring them to the same level of opportunity as other artists established in the country, a chance to work in the art world, which is a competitive environment.

For me it’s not about the aesthetic, it’s not helping this or that person because their aesthetic is the same as mine. It is about something that should link us together. In the art world, which is not the easiest world to be, people should have that feeling of solidarity. Sometimes this lack of solidarity might have to do with the nature of the artistic discipline. When you make films for example you are working in international teams, musicians are also very united, in some artistic sectors, people tend to work together in groups or the sector is very well networked, and they make friends who love, respect and support them. It’s different with someone whom nobody knows, or, for example, young artists who had been doing very good work, but don’t have international connections and thus they would not have as much support.

Evgeny: Would you agree that this solidarity often depends on the colour of skin of the artist who was persecuted?

Mary Ann: First of all, the divide between Global North and Global South is very marked. Here in the Global North we have arts councils, we have awards, we have money, we have a system and people to manage it. This is not at all the same in all countries of the Global South.

In the last 15-20 years, Arab artists have made huge and very successful strides to enter the international market, especially in the visual arts. I would dare to guess that the majority of them are not practicing Muslims or perhaps are Christians and this may be why it’s easier for the people in the West to reach out to them. That would be an excuse, but not a reason! Do you feel the difference? We should not excuse behaviour that gives preference to people we feel easier around, or closer to, but it happens. And I think if you have someone who is not speaking western European languages, someone whose work is not in the currently trending aesthetic of the West it’s probably much harder for people to relate to.

A lot of rappers get in trouble in many countries, including the West, and it’s harder for the human rights campaigning organisations to relate to them, because their lyrics can be quite upsetting, confrontational, even violent. It’s not only about the artistic discipline, but also about the transferability of that discipline into the aesthetic that is accepted by the West and the nature of the work. Many of the at-risk artists that have been relocated were trained in the West. Now to go further than that and say whether there is racism involved I would suggest that there is a kind of racism involved if you are only sympathetic to things that you can relate to and that goes back to my solidarity argument. Is there something about us working in the arts field where even if we might not particularly like somebody’s work, or we might not particularly understand the context, we can still say that we are all in the arts sector and we will support one another?

Evgeny: You work a lot with organizations on the level of European Union what do you think the EU is already doing to protect artists at risk and what is not doing, but from your point of view should do?

Mary Ann: I can speak very briefly about what it is doing. In the last couple of years, the European Union and the European Commission’s Directorate in charge of Culture as its implementing institution, have been supportive of initiatives where artists go and work with refugees. And I think it’s wonderful work when and if the artists want to work in the refugee camps or wherever, with kids, mothers, fathers – that’s absolutely fine, but that is not where I am specifically working.

What is really my concern is the pathway of an artist who, like a human right defender, is in grave danger and needs to move to safety.  And for that, it is harder and harder to get a visa. Especially when the person has a partner or a family. I can mention for example, the Goethe Institut in a certain country had been working with an artist-at-risk and was talking to the Foreign Office in Germany, begging them to give him a visa, but the person had a family and it was soon obvious there was no way they would give him a visa.

This has been hardening in all countries. It’s not quite as bad as Trump’s travel ban, but this anti-migrant sentiment is everywhere. So what I feel the countries, via the EU, should be doing is training people who are in charge of giving visas with the deeper understanding of what is art and how an artist can be in danger. Now the visa system is outsourced in many countries and those who are looking at visas don’t have any idea of what they are looking at; they are asking absurd questions. But at the same time it’s hard to claim for special treatment for artists – and what about other professionals, doctors, engineers and so on!

To be fair, the EU has really done a lot in terms of setting up, training and funding initiatives to support human rights defenders with emergency grants and other assistance including temporary relocation, and ‘artists’ can in many cases be defined as defenders.

Evgeny: Could you say what country within the EU would be the best example of receiving artists in need of international protection and the most hostile one.

Mary Ann: Regarding the most hostile I don’t know, because I obviously don’t work with them! But good examples are in the Nordic countries who host the most writers and artists at risk via ICORN (International Cities of Refuge Network). In Sweden, some years ago the relevant minister mandated the Swedish Arts Council to give more support for people at risk needing temporary relocation. There is legislation and methods to make it easier. But in each case it depends on the political will, and the political will depends on the will of the party, its ideology and also the general opinion in the street. Denmark is a good example. It was a Scandinavian paradise and the politics changed and people are incited to blame migrants for all the problems. I know one temporary relocation city in Sweden where the politics changed and the far-right local government have announced the closure of the programme because they don’t want any more migrants.

Evgeny: In what countries artists are at risk mostly? Can we make a list of countries where we have to look with more attention?

Mary Ann: I don’t have the answer to that from the top of my head. The EU ProtectDefenders has a newsletter in which they announce which countries are currently particularly dangerous. In general the danger also depends on what the artist talking about. Mexico, for example, is terribly dangerous for journaists or artists who are trying to uncover things related to the mafias, corrupt police or assassinations; China is particularly bad in terms of censorship. Every year Freemuse publishes statistics about artists who have been prosecuted, but of course they are limited to the cases that are made known – there are many countries that still are off the radar, or where artists might not want to make noise about it, just to keep a low profile until the difficulties die down.

A couple of years ago, I was part of a research team who assisted in a study launched by the Artists At Risk Connection, an initiative based in New York. Many Turkish artists answered it, and even though at that time the purges hadn’t got as bad as now, a lot of them didn’t want to make a big deal about their persecution, even if they told their story, they preferred to remain anonymous, in the hope that if they were quiet it would just go away. But we do have the best statistics that we can make, even if partial, published every year; they are accessible; people who are interested can easily find them online, from Freemuse, and for writers Index on Censorship or PEN.

Evgeny: Do you think that an artist who has success in the West can benefit more from support in a critical moment, even if they are very critical and vocal about problems in their countries?

Mary Ann: It really depends on the country and on the case. A very famous Cuban artist, Tania Bruguera keeps going back to Cuba and being ‘disruptive’, but she is well supported by the West, and when she was in jail in Cuba, the City of New York offered her a symbolic artists residency. I think these things can help. At the same time many of us have been working on the case of the poet, curator and artist, Ashraf Fayadh, in Saudi Arabia – he was put in prison because just one person said that his poetry was blasphemous, and he’s been given sentences from beheading, to years in jail and hundreds of lashes. Even though he has had several appeals, the number of years and lashes just changes. His is a very particular situation, because the Saudi government does not have competence to rule over religious affairs.

The Saudi monarchy most likely would be happy to get rid of this embarrassing case, because people in the West are constantly advocating on his behalf, but only the religious authorities there have the competence to rule over that case. Recently we saw the exchange of political prisoners between Russia and Ukraine and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov who spent 5 years in jail in Russia has been released among them. It was interpreted as a favour that Russia gave to the West.

Evgeny: I would like to touch now a very problematic topic, quite popular among some post-colonial scholars and anti-racist activists, which is an idea of so called ‘white saviours’. Do you think this critical approach is valid for the work you and other people in the field have been doing?

Mary Ann: It is valid and for already quite a long time in the field of human rights defenders and artists at risk there has been recognition and a movement to stress that it shouldn’t be all about coming to the West – there should be temporary relocation in the other world regions, as close to home as the person can be and still be safe.

Once again, that would mitigate the problems of the loss of the language, of the time zone, of the family, of everything basically that would make the artist or defender feel less isolated. The idea is that if there are more possibilities to stay close to home, there won’t be such a massive negative impact on a person who has to flee. It is already happening in the arts. There are some programmes for the MENA region and in Africa. One woman in Lebanon who has a house in the mountains and hosts artists in danger there. But as I said the divide between Global North and Global South is massive. In many of those countries they don’t have properly functioning arts funding programmes, so they don’t even properly fund local artists nor those who have to flee seeking safety. I see this problem as complex; it’s not necessarily the ‘white saviour’ attitude, it is the Global North where you can get subsidies, where you can get a whole system of support, where you simply have more possibilities to do art, which doesn’t remove the question of what is the most ethical way to use those resources.

I have been very vocal about certain initiatives which have been set up in the Western countries, because from my point of view, the money should go to the countries in other world regions for special programmes, training, networks for local people so that they can create their own systems relevant to their own contexts. It might be a different model, taking into account culture and context, than what we set up in terms of temporary relocation here and we shouldn’t be the ones who say what is the best way to deal with this. There should be more discussions and understanding to find solutions, but to have more regional support systems is definitely one of them. Of course if you are a visual artist and you are invited in New York you may be happy to go there, but it shouldn’t be the only possibility, when we speak about real dangers and risks.

Evgeny: Do relocated artists feel excluded in the arts sector of the hosting society, that their aesthetic is not welcomed, that their art is perceived is something less important and valuable?

Mary Ann: Yes, I have heard a lot of them reflecting the same sorts of concern. First of all, in order to get funding, they have to play the victim forever, due to a certain ‘fetishisation’, as a colleague of mine calls it, of the refugee artists. Secondly, artists who have relocated, envision projects bridging what they know of their home country, with the local community, including the diaspora there. They have wonderful project ideas, but are not getting grants because they don’t know how to work the system, they don’t yet know this special way of using the language needed for funding applications; they often don’t have enough weight behind them even though their ideas are brilliant and better than initiatives devised by artists who have not lived the situations themselves.

Evgeny: You intend to start a PhD in the Centre for Socially Engaged Practice-Based Research in TU-Dublin. Did you decide to summarize all the decades you’ve been supporting artists at risk?

Mary Ann: All my life I’ve been advocating for policy improvement. The way I’ve done it is to get people together to talk – artists, gatekeepers (the organisers, people with the power to decide who is and who is not shown or presented), the policy makers, the funders, sometimes politicians who are managing cultural funds in their city or in their country.

I think, having worked as a funder and as a policy maker myself in the past, it’s easy to get further and further away from the reality, so bringing together these cross-disciplinary, cross-professional and international groups helps people actually to start to understand. When you start in the early days advocating for policy, you usually mistakenly start by asking policy-makers to do things which are not in their competence. Understanding what they can and cannot do is essential, and to understand this, frank discussions really help.

However, for the last couple of years I have been seeing what I would call hypocrisy: a certain rhetoric in arts policies, especially around cultural diversity, which speaks about openness, about new voices, about support for everybody, but when we look at relocated artists, those who I am calling ‘artists impacted by displacement’, there are multiple obstacles and legal restrictions such as the prohibition to work and earn money, for people seeking asylum.

When the artist can only be defined as an artist by how much, as a percentage of their total income, is earned from art, it is absurd. Only if you can prove that this percentage of your income is your artistic work can you be labelled as an artist. The arts council in a certain country can’t even consult with artists still waiting for refugee status, because they are not legally allowed to be called ‘artists’. They can’t even consult with these artists on how they could make their policies better! I’m getting more and more angry about ridiculous situations like this.

In my PhD I try to look at various philosophical and sociological texts about the role of artist in the society, legal texts on cultural rights and human rights, research into migration and diaspora, to build up a strong intellectual argument and then to look at selected countries’ policy rhetoric to compare it with what is happening on the ground. My main hope is that I will be able to use it to advocate for policy change.


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