Freedom of Expression

Baga

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The three images above were my visual response to the news of the massacre of potentially 2000 in Baga, Nigeria.

The issue of freedom of expression has been in the news a great deal over the last fortnight and in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders. This brutality has received a great deal of attention, suggesting that ‘freedom of expression’ overshadows all other important issues of the day – such as why politicians who walk proudly in Paris arm in arm against terrorism appear to have done little to tackle the absolute crisis in Baga, Nigeria where 2,000 innocent civilians were reported to have been murdered. The conflict of having freedom of speech but also being slaves to the media; their interpretation of what is ‘news’ and what is ‘important’, raises huge issues for me. It leads me on to thinking about my own work and my own sense of entitlement to express. I have been thinking recently about how my upbringing, education and 37 years of being institutionalised in the world of western values and the modern educational structures have impacted on my own identity as an artist; consciously and subconsciously. In being lectured recently  on Feminist and Multicultural art, I am struck by the feeling that my practice embodies an overwhelming sense of duty. Why am I not pushing the boundaries? Why am I not using my art as a platform from which to preach my views, objections, politics? That it is relevant in the title of my blog being about Emma, the artist, being a caged bird? A reaction to perceived self-censorship and oppression, whilst I acknowledge that I am also amongst the small number in the global community who has relatively enormous freedom. These things have been haunting me somewhat over the last few weeks. In addition to this I have 16 years under my belt in education; teaching a series of coded messages about how Art is marked and assessed; what gives a piece value and what must be included. Gradually, on whatever conscious or subconscious level, I have adopted some of this and brought it into my own work. In the same way, a lecturer in my first year on my BA course once stated ‘If you want to become a famous artist, you must find a hole in the market and fill it.’ I so objected to this at the time, feeling demoralised by this soulless and calculating vision in seeking fame and riches at the cost of personal growth and expression. Yet it stuck with me. I still recount rejecting this as a notion and yet it embedded into my understanding of the way things are.

In 2015 my ambition as an artist is to speak truthfully through my work – otherwise my voice is in any case a construct. That does not rule out the option to do simply whatever I am inspired to do at the time. However, it requires me to loosen the reigns, to explore the parameters, to paint whilst being fully involved in the moment, and to ignore the voices which tell me that I am somehow letting people down by not meeting some illogical set of political, social or physical criteria. I don’t need to make work to please people, to move people, to send waves of shock and horror out. I don’t need to objectify, to analyse, to oppose anything. I don’t need to mentally be marking my work by GCSE standards or to worry that my students might think my abstract painting is underwhelming. The fact is that these burdens of responsibility are self-imposed. They do not exist in reality. Yes, I could respond to the things I hate in the world and make them the subject of my art. Yes, I could wear my Feminist banner around my neck as I paint with an intense passion for finding my own way to express the need for equality. Yes, I could. I could.

But I don’t need to.

My paintings are about freedom. They are MY freedom. My expression. Why am I worrying about harnessing the power to make a difference in the world, or being arrogant enough to assume that my work changes lives in any profound way. I need space and clarity. I need time to strip this practice back to its core and recognise that underneath all of the clutter piled on top of me since my own school days, there is an Artist who needs to let it all go.

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Nous sommes tous, Charlie!

You must be willing to push the boundaries, you must be compelling, you must feel free to be controversial.

That is Art.

Art in which we respond and react creatively; constructing, deconstructing, making and sharing. Art in which opinions are tested, taste is questioned, thoughts are challenged, eyes are opened. It is in this creativity that designers around the world have first viewed their architecture, their fashion, conveyed their knowledge of the inside of the body in anatomical illustrations, engineering studies, carpenters sketches, botanical studies. There is indescribable value in paintings and drawings, sculptures and photography, installations and new media. It is in the work we dislike in galleries that we come to realise our aesthetic values more distinctly. By doing so we can recognise the impact of our education, our place in the world, our familial values, our prejudice, our anxiety, our political and social persuasions or firmly held beliefs.

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Charlie Brown … also featured in the cartoons after the Charlie Hebdo shooting. Magnus Shaw via Twitter Source: Twitter

Art is critical.

Visual literacy is as important now as ever, if not more so, in a world full of imagery. Our walls may not be covered in art, but our electronic devices, cinemas, TV screens and media will still show us images at an increasing rate. To deconstruct what we see, we must learn that art often carries an implicit meaning. Ask Rothko why two colours work well alongside each other and then discuss the same issue with advertising agencies hoping their brand will sell the most. Ask Da Vinci about his anatomical studies and then reference them against the text books of modern medical students. Technology has come on a long way but the essence of being creative visual learners is the same. I explain my idea to you and you ask me to draw it – ‘Ahh.. now I understand’.  Aesthetic values, learning, and the challenging of what we know to be true cannot be overrated. In the wake of the murder of the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, we must, MUST stand up for the liberty which should be given to all those who question and challenge and offend. This is not a world designed to live in harmony with others. It is impossible for us to agree when at the heart of education is an attempt to develop confidence in autonomy, and in the value of debate; that we can have opposing views and both be right. The masked extremists, some of whom are currently still in hiding, took away the right of some to express, poke fun at, mock and ridicule. Those working at Charlie Hebdo held no weapons and were not on a battlefield. Brandishing graphite sticks and fine line pens, their ‘war’ was with the mediocre and mundane. They rejected that in radicalisation and extremism, of any nature, therein lies an expectation of untouchability.  They poked fun anyway. Because without humour we are left wondering how such atrocities gel into the psyche of a nation, or of a world, with terrorists becoming heroes and extremism being a one-sided battleground. Their war is fought by killing the innocent, striking down those who disagree with what THEY think. It is in multiculturalism that we learn about our differences and appreciate our similarities; as humans; global citizens. It is not multiculturalism or religion that is to blame for what happened at Charlie Hebdo. It is individuals. Individuals intent on fighting their zealous war against people who think differently, and express opposition. No liberty. No justice. No democracy. No safety. No artist should die in this way.

 Nous sommes tous Charlie!

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Australia’s David Pope via Twitter responds to the Paris attack. Source: Supplied