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."
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:
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]
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:
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.
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.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.
“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.
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