Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Umida Ahmedova

Full disclosure: We work with several artists who use documentary film and photography methods in their artwork. As in all artwork, the medium (even when it is the message) serves the end, not the means, in my opinion. Great artwork that is created through documentary processes is still great artwork.

This is an anti-art horror story that needs far more international attention by artists and everyone who believes in universal freedom of expression.

On November 17, acclaimed Uzbek artist Umida Ahmedova was summoned to the Police station in Tashkent (the capital of Uzbekistan) to be questioned and informed that she was being charged with "insult and slander against Uzbek people and traditions."

According to Umida Akhmedova, captain Nodir Akhmadzhanov, investigator of the Tashkent city police department, told her that the criminal charges have been filed against all local authors who cooperated with the Gender Program of the Swiss Embassy. Akhmedova is incriminated in the production of “Women and men: from dawn till dusk” photo album [EN - phtos], produced in 2007 under support of Swiss Embassy Gender Program, writes Fergana.ru. There's no information on other authors against whom the charges were filed. The website continues:

The investigator explained Umida Akhmedova that the case against her was produced, based on conclusions of Tashkent public prosecutor’s office experts, noting that the album “is the insult and slander of Uzbek people”. At the same time, it is absolutely unclear which photo (not the photomontage, not the screen version) may be “slander” or “insult”. It is also not clear who and when authorized Uzbek agency for press and information, the state structure, to represent the outraged honor of Uzbek people.

Umida Akhmedova shared first time she was called by police on November 17. Captain Nodir Akhmadzhanov invited her to Mirabad RDIA to give the report of witness on her “Women and men: from dawn to dusk” album. The investigator interviewed Umida for two hours and asked questions, related to Akhmedova’s participation in the production of photo album and as such movies as “Men and women: rites and ritual” and “The burden of virginity” EN]

On the Canadian website Zone of Tensions, an open appeal to the international art community to speak out on behalf of Umida's right to present such artwork un-harassed by uniformed Uzbek bureaucrats, summarizes what's at stake in this:

It is important to mention that freedom of expression is one of the key criteria of any state governed by the rule of law. Judging any artwork should be done by experts and viewers and not by forces of any official organs. Art is not equal with social and political journalism and cannot be viewed as a “document” in legal sense, therefore it cannot be an agent of “slander”.

Photographs of Umida Ahmedova possess obvious artistic value and are considered as Central Asian cultural asserts by international professional community. The government should be proud of the creativity of the talented photographer and not threaten her with criminal persecution.

Umida has worked with our artists, Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev, and participated in their 4th International Exhibition of Contemporary Art in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, this past year. Her credentials as a recognized fine artist are solid. Granted, Ahmedova's work has been presented in journalistic contexts. This image, for example, of life in Tashkent, Uzbekistan appeared (courtesy of the Associated Press) on the New York Times website. But the images for which she's being charged with slander were clearly (to my eye at least) created as artwork. Here are a few (posted here to illustrate this point from her website here): and the one that simply breaks my heart (cultural traditions, duly noted, but still....Ouch! [even the man I assume is the boy's father is clearly in anguish...can't they figure out a less traumatic way to go about this?]): Now, when you begin to pick this story apart it seems to reveal a sneaky government effort to find some way to punish Ahmedova for her film, “The burden of virginity.” This film discusses in details a cultural practice that leads to many destroyed lives (men and women) over things that really are no one else's business:
According to the old tradition, the relatives of the groom want to demonstrate the bed sheet with blood spots as an evidence of virginity after the wedding night. It is a big shame for the girl if the bed sheet is clean. Sometimes, the newly wedded couple paints the bed sheet with the blood, prepared in advance. According to the film characters, there were even few cases of suicide among frustrated husbands.
It seems to my mind, though, that the Uzbek government knows they're on shaky legal ground in building their case against Ahmedova, so they're combining their objections to this film with trumped up objections to the “Women and men: from dawn till dusk” photo album because that series was commissioned by a foreign embassy. According to this article on the website for the Association for Women's Rights in Development:
On 16 December 2009 Umida Ahmedova was called to Mirobod Department of Internal Affairs, where she learnt that she was officially suspected of charges of slander (article 139) and insult (articles 140) and article 190 “conducting activities without license” of the Uzbek Criminal Code. She was advised to hire a lawyer. The charges relate to the publication of an album of her photographs, “Women and Men: From Dawn to Dusk”, published in 2007; “Women and Men in Customs and Rituals” a documentary film also produced by Umida Akhmedova with the assistance of the Swiss Embassy Gender Program; and to “Virginity Code” produced by Umida Akhmedova but not finally approved by the Gender Program.

“Women and Men: From Dawn to Dusk” contains 110 photographs which reflect the life and traditions of the people of Uzbekistan. The Tashkent Prosecutor's Office has brought charges on the basis that the album of photographs and film constituted “an insult and slander of the Uzbek people”. The charges carry a possible sentence of imprisonment up to six months, or 2-3 years of “correctional work”.

Uzbek regulations require any publication produced by an NGO or international organisation to receive permission from state officials, including the Cabinet of Ministers.
That last bit seems critical for the prosecution. Should they fail to prove the work is slanderous, they can at least save face by wrangling a conviction on article 190. The only problem there, though, as noted above, is that none of the other Uzbek artists participating in the Swiss program have been singled out. All of which convinces me that it's her film and not her photographs that have the Uzbek government's undies in a bunch. As such, it seems that Ahmedova is being used to send a message to other Uzbek artists.

Fortunately, in this era of mass communication, such messages can go both directions.
The website Frontline has a pre-written letter you can send to the Uzbek government here. But feel free to express yourself in your own words about this matter. Here's the contact info for the Uzbek President:
President Islam Karimov
Office of the President
43 Uzbekistan Avenue
700163 Tashkent
Email: presidents_office@press-service.uz

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12 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post as always Ed.

This further highlights the fact that most of the important art of today is deeply rooted in socaial activism. The freedoms of expression that America and much of Europe shares is still a distant reality for the citizens of many countries.

It is unfortunate that Ahmedova will likely have to suffer for the sake of her art (in ways that most artists will never have to); but it will only heighten the significance and relevance of the art.

I will of course write to the government as you suggest, but I am not so idealistic to believe it will alter the governments course of action.

12/29/2009 01:01:00 PM  
Blogger Adam I Zucker said...

Unfortunately these are the types of stories that you hate to read bu I am glad I do. Spreading their story will give others inspiration to use art as a vital form of expression. Globalization is the greatest hope for artists and cultures to engage in social dialog and activism. Now through the internet and the growing international art scene, they can reach people that would have otherwise never come across their work or ideas.

I do think that art has the power to heal and right the wrongs. Hopefully these changing times will be on the side of these contemporary artists. I am not advocating for international policy on the arts. Nothing should be regulated to render creativity. However, it should be the voice of the people and not the government that dictates what is deemed appropriate or not. The majority of the world loves new art and new ideas.

12/29/2009 01:46:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Staff Brandl said...

I was in a panel discussion once and video people were attacking painting agin. I happen to like some video, but iw as p-o-ed at the typical crap. So when they accused me of thinking no video was art, I said that there is indeed GREAT video art --- documentaries. Then they REALLY got pissed themselves. which actually made me quite happy, although I was exaggerating. I am a documentary addict though, I must say.

12/29/2009 05:18:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

I dont think art has to be "socially relevant" to be "important" as anonymous suggests most good art today supposedly is - but it is easy to defend a more general position that the humanizing aspect of art is what saves everyone from the bonfire of vanity.

That said, the Uzbeks have been described to me as laid back easy going - this campaign seems like the work of provincial minded bureaucrats rather than those that had actually met the artist or lived "among the people" (or been to Switzerland).

Too many times people are demonized before they even have a chance to explain themselves.

Maybe this will be an opportunity to invite some Uzbeks to the party.

12/29/2009 07:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quite recently, the Swiss people voted to NOT allow construction of minarets in their country.

So what exactly is that Swiss Embassy Gender Program aiming for? To change sexual mores of a muslim country? This one-way liberalism isnt convincing.

12/29/2009 07:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Zone of Tensions is published by literary professors, and they write like it, to their discredit. The Uzbek government is using slander in its dictionary sense, compatibly with "insult." Zone of Tensions is making a legalistic distinction about whether her work is art or a document, as if the categories were mutually exclusive. That doesn't decide whether something is slander or not, but whether it's slander or libel.

Clearly, the issue here is whether the material is defamatory to the Uzbek state, not whether it's art or journalism. As art, with an intention to show Uzbek culture in a particular manner, it is arguably more defamatory than honest reportage. The above images are indistinguishable from photojournalism, and Ahmedova is probably safer that way.

It should be noted that this is a feature of the modern Islamic political landscape. Turkey has made it illegal to criticize the Turkish republic, even to call its 1915 slaughter of the Armenians a genocide. Every year since the Danish Cartoon Riots in 2005, the Organization of the Islamic Conference has passed nonbinding resolutions through the UN condemning the defamation of religion; the text of the latest one, covered two weeks ago in the New York Times, said that "freedom of speech may 'be subject to limitations as ... are necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others, protection of national security or of public order, public health or morals.'" Uzbekistan is an OIC nation and this is the kind of thinking she's up against.

12/30/2009 01:01:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Zone of Tensions is making a legalistic distinction about whether her work is art or a document, as if the categories were mutually exclusive. That doesn't decide whether something is slander or not, but whether it's slander or libel.

I saw it less as a legalistic distinction and more of a philosophical one, but am willing to stand corrected. I took it to suggest that because art is open to individual interpretation, by design, when photographs are presented as art, they cannot be deemed slanderous. What one person may interpret as insult another may interpret as beautiful.

I would agree that traditional views of Islam and Modernism are the conflicting components in many instances of what I'd call censorship (in both art and journalism) around the world, but in this case in particular, I don't think it's an Islamic issue as much as a cultural tradition that's got Umida into trouble with the Uzbek government here. The photos seem to have been thrown into the mix because they're easier to legally criticize...the film (not so much about religion, but rather about an ancient custom that transcends religion) is seemingly the government's real target here. If it were not, then other participants in the Swiss (and don't get me started on the truly idiotic anti-minaret legislation...what, are we gonna enlist architecture in our xenophobic battles now?) program would have also been charged.

12/30/2009 01:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Sorry for getting you started, but you should read what Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote about the minaret ban.

12/30/2009 01:26:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

you should read what Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote about the minaret ban.

Ugh,

Extrapolating that argument you'll eventually have to ban steeples on Fundamentalist churches.

Best to draw a distinction between houses of worship and other buildings in my opinion, regardless of how totalitarian the religion may be as practiced by some.

12/30/2009 01:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I thought her analysis of how the pragmatists lost control of the issue was astute, though. Personally, I would like to know how much the Swiss were thinking of Theo van Gogh or Kurt Westergaard when the minaret ban became a ballot issue.

12/30/2009 02:34:00 PM  
Blogger Isha said...

Have you received or found any further information on her status? She had the criminal charges filed against her but what not? Also, is the Swiss Embassy, as sponsors of the project, or the AP doing anything to help her legally?

1/18/2010 11:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Wael - AbolishTorture.com said...

Supposedly there are other artists from the Swiss program who are open to prosecution, but they have not been named. I also wonder about the underlying intentions behind the Swiss program.

Oh, and about circumcision, many societies do it to infants, not when the children are older. But I'm sure they have some cultural reason for waiting until a certain age.

In any case, even if some of the photos depict the poverty and hardship of rural Uzbek life, freedom of expression must not be curtailed. When the voices of artists and journalists are silenced, governments can inflict any injustice on their people and no one can speak out.

Photographs are important. Some photographs have changed history, including photographs of migrant workers during the Great Depression, photos of the Vietnam War, a photo of a man standing before a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square, or the Abu Ghraib photos.

Photographs matter.

I have included contact information on my blog for the Uzbekistan government for those who wish to make their voices heard, as well as a sample letter you can use. The only way to prevent this sort of persecution is to let them know that we are watching and we care.

1/26/2010 12:38:00 PM  

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