Politicians Are Not Known To Be Often Swayed By Art And Women Have A Unique Role And Power In The Arts And Human Rights World – Tom Block, Ihraf Founder
is an artist, writer and activist best known for the development and
implementation an activist art theory, “Prophetic Activist Art.” His activist
work includes the Human Rights Painting Project (www.humanrightspaintingproject.com),
Shalom/Salaam Project (www.tomblock.com/11shalom/index.php), Response to
Machiavelli Project and Cousins Public Art Project (www.
tomblock.com/10cousins/index.php), as well as his Heretical Paintings. He also
developed and produced the first ever Amnesty International Human Rights Art
Festival (www.humanrightsartfestival.com), an international event that took
place April 2010 in Silver Spring, MD. In this Interview with Wole Adedoyin,
President, Nigerian Chapter of the International Human Rights Art Festival
shared with him few facts about his path as an activist artist, and founder of
the International Human Rights Art Festival.
WA: YOU ARE THE FOUNDER OF IHRAF, WHAT ACTUALLY LED TO THE ESTABLISHMENT OF IHRAF?
TB: We live
in a world of strife, and the artist-activist often chooses a path of offering
more strife — with oppositionality, righteous anger, creative expressions of
disgust and other artistic
means which, while morally just and often factually accurate, do little — in my opinion — to actually change behavior and legislation. I desired to create a forum where the gentle but
powerful forces of beauty and engagement might make inroads into the halls of power. As Lao Tzu said: “There is nothing more soft and yielding than water, but for dissolving the inflexible,
there is nothing more powerful.” We base our work on connecting creative change-makers to decision makers, and expand the circle of “us” who is fighting to make the world a better place.
WA: HOW IS HIRAF USING ART TO ADVANCE HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE WORLD?
TB: The IHRAF uses a variety of strategies to advance the cause of human rights around the world. They are:
- Providing transparency and safety to artists and activists on the front lines of the struggle for human rights. Often, artists-at-risk have said that one thing that can help secure their safety in more repressive situations is a wide audience, and one that helps protect them from government thugs and security forces who might otherwise act with nefarious purpose, if they thought they could act without witness.
- Providing an international forum to artists and activists who might otherwise be overlooked.
- Partnering with government officials, politicians, non-art activists and other NGO’s to create a spirit force, and infiltrate it into the highest echelons of power.
- Support youth voices through a growing series of initiatives to empower these rising leaders as they prepare to become tomorrow’s leaders.
WA: WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST HIGHLIGHT OF IHRAF?
TB: Working directly with great activists — those who raise their belief in the highest human ideals above their concern for their own safety. The IHRAF has partnered with Omoyele Sowore (Nigeria), Wei Jingsheng (China), Mbizo Chirasha (Zimbabwe), Razack Buwaso Ibrahim (Uganda) and even an American, Reality Winner. As I have noted, words such as human rights, justice, freedom and democracy are sounds that can just as easily be uttered by a Donald Trump, Yoweri Kaguta Tibuhaburwa Museveni (Uganda) and Xi Jinping as Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. These words only become real, when one of these great activists is willing to risk their safety to bring them to life.
WA: TELL US ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND AND EXPERIENCE IN HUMAN RIGHTS ART?
TB: I have nearly three decades as an activist artist. I began my work by exploring spiritual thinkers from the three great Abrahamic paths through painting, back in the 1990s. Then, I explored how these ideals might if applied to the real world — that is to say, what happens to people who operate in the social and political worlds with the passion, faith and determination of great mystics. This led me to paint a series of portraits of human rights defenders around the world, working in conjunction with Amnesty International. This body of work became the Human Rights Painting Project. This allowed me to see the power of art to infiltrate and affect the social and political worlds — as I worked with major organizations such as Amnesty International and the AFL-CIO national labor union. I also met many activist artists who had passion, talent and creativity, but not a lot of audience. So I got the idea of founding the International Human Rights Art Festival, to concentrate all of this positive energy working for the common good.
WA: HAS THE SITUATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS CHANGED USING ART?
TB: An article in the New York Times (Why Authoritarians Attack the Arts) noted: “Artists play a distinctive role in challenging authoritarianism. Art creates pathways for subversion, for political understanding and solidarity among coalition builders. Art teaches us that lives other than our own have value…Authoritarian leaders throughout history have intuited this fact and have acted accordingly.” That is to say, a human right might be most visible when it is taken away. As the founding director of the International Human Rights Art Festival, I have worked with numerous people who have had their creativity truncated and their lives threatened due to their art. Zimbabwean poet-in-exile Mbizo Chirasha has moved clandestinely around southern Africa, sometimes actively pursued by the Zimbabwean security apparatus due to his writings. Ugandan poet-in-exile Razack Buwaso Ibrahim watched his editor beaten and arrested, and then fled Uganda to Kenya where he was jailed (his relationship with us helped get him released) and then he moved to Tanzania. Chinese democracy activist Wei Jingsheng spent 18 years in jail due to his creation of the “Democracy Wall” writings, and since his release due to international pressure, has said he will always work with artists, due to the fact that in his darkest hour, they were the only ones standing by him. And we worked on many occasions with Nigerian writer and activist Sowore Omoyele, who was tortured as a college student and has since spent his time fighting for human rights in his home country. Artists lionizing him and his activist work, he assured, helped him rebuild his sense of self after being tortured in Nigeria and watching some of his best friends killed.
I think art moves beyond being a “human right,” to being a central aspect of the human character, the one human act which points to the spirit of every human soul, and not just a believer in this or that political or religious system.
WA: IN WHAT WAY IS IHRAF CONTRIBUTING TO THE GROWTH OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN AFRICA?
TB: We are fortunate to have an expanding footprint in Africa. Not only have we initiated the IHRAF Nigerian Secretariat, but we have supported poets-in-exile Mbizo Chirasha (Zimbabwe) and Razack Buwaso Ibrahim (Uganda). Additionally, we participated in the SOTAMBE International Film and Arts Festival (Kitwe, Zambia, 2019) and have partnered with other groups in Burundi, Tanzania, South Africa and around the continent. We hope to bring the IHRAF to Africa when we are past this Covid pandemic!
WA: AS A FOUNDER AND PROMOTER OF ART IN HUMAN RIGHTS, WHAT KINDS OF OBSTACLES DO YOU FACE?
TB: a large, international human rights/art organization is a tall order. We face the usual structural concerns of person-power, funding and the like. We are fortunate in that — so far — we have met with little or no political or social resistance.
WA: HOW DO YOU DEVELOP RELATIONSHIPS WITH HUMAN RIGHTS GROUPS IN OTHER COUNTRIES?
TB: We have been fortunate in that as our profile grows, we have many groups approach us, from the Lawyers for Human Rights group in Paris to UNESCO-RILA in Glasgow, Scotland. Additionally, as we meet more and more like-minded activist creators, they often introduce us to new potential partners.
WA: WHAT ROLE DO WOMEN PLAY IN IHRAF?
TB: Women have a unique role and power in the arts and human rights world. We have sponsored several “Celebration of Women” live performance events; most of our Board, Staff and Volunteers are women and we highlight the power of women through our IHRAF Publishes literary magazine and other platforms on a regular basis.
WA: IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT ARE THE GREATEST NEEDS OF HUMAN RIGHTS ART?
TB: I think there are two great needs: one is exposure and audience, and the other is access to those in power. Politicians are not known to be often swayed by art, but I think there is a strong possibility to change that, and to use art — through a growing constituency — to change legislation, support marginalized people and create a stronger platform for real social justice.
WA: HOW WOULD YOU BOLSTER HUMAN RIGHTS ART LITERACY?
TB: Through classes, workshops and hands-on engagement. The best way to learn is by doing, and involving school children in activist-art projects would open a new and important world to them, and affect them throughout their lives.
WA: HOW DO YOU PRIORITIZE MULTIPLE PROJECTS WHEN THEY ALL SEEM EQUALLY IMPORTANT?
TB: The IHRAF is very fortunate in that — as the Hasidic Rabbi MIkhail said — I have found that I never needed something until I already had it. For instance, our IHRAF Publishes Literary Magazine is getting very important, and too large for me to handle, so just at this point, we had a wonderful Editor appear, who is taking over and growing that as its own initiative. In the same way, you came to me and suggested beginning the IHRAF Nigerian Secretariat, which is amazing, as Nigeria is the country with our single largest number of Facebook followers! So, as we grow, we are finding that projects attract passionate people at just the right time — and so, we don’t have to “prioritize”. We do them all at the same time!