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We Have Always Had to Fight: African Artists on Human Rights and Artistic Freedom

African artists and human rights defenders face a troubling rise in restrictions on artistic freedom, exacerbated by recent military coups, political crises, flawed elections, and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those artists who push back, critique the status quo, or explore themes deemed social taboos are regularly targeted — forcing some to make the impossible choice between continuing their work in forced exile or remaining silent within their own communities.

In response to these and other serious threats to African artists and their freedom, in mid-November 2021 PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) and the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SouthernDefenders) conducted a four-day closed virtual workshop titled “Artistic Freedom in Africa: Challenges and Opportunities." The overarching goals of the workshop were to hear directly from African artists, lawyers, activists, and representatives of human rights organizations and cultural institutions about their most acute challenges; to forge connections among these groups; and to brainstorm possible solutions and strategies.

30 participants from17 countries attended the workshop, which covered topics such as the impact of COVID-19, censorship, artists and human rights defenders (HRDs), legal challenges, and strategies for countering persecution.

Key findings from the workshop include:

  • Topics that commonly draw censors include politics, religion, LGBTQ+ and gender issues, and purported immorality, vulgarity, and indecency. 
  • Too few human rights organizations in Africa focus or work on artists' cases, and many artists are unaware of these human rights organizations and the existing protection mechanisms.
  • On the one hand, digital spaces have raised artists' visibility and provided alternative platforms to showcase art, promote solidarity campaigns, and express opinions. On the other hand, not all artists can afford or access the internet, and technology enables new forms of surveillance, censorship, and repression.
  • Government policies used to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic have taken a toll on artists’ personal and professional sustainability.

Recommendations that emerged during the workshop include:

  • African artists should join together to establish an emergency fund to respond to crises, whether individual cases of harassment or crisis such as the pandemic. 
  • Develop an online resource map of artists and artists’ organizations engaged in human rights defense, including civil society institutions. 
  • Artists should actively shape laws and policies by becoming active participants in local legislation and policy-making. 
  • African artists, with the help of human rights defenders, should establish solidarity networks so that when a crisis arises, they can easily access information on who to approach for help and how to obtain resources. 
  • Artists, organizations, and individuals alike need to spread awareness that artists are human rights defenders. The UN and other institutions should expand and streamline access to information, support, and resources through established human rights mechanisms. 

We hope you read We Have Always Had to Fight: African Artists on Human Rights and Artistic Freedom, share our findings with your communities, and stand in solidarity with human rights defenders in Africa who work tirelessly to fight for their artistic freedom.

Published on November 22, 2022.

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