An Interview with Holly Baxter

An Interview with Holly Baxter

. 8 min read

Holly Baxter is the Executive Director of Art in Protest at the Human Rights Foundation, where she works to support artists living in authoritarian regimes. She helped bring together prominent protest artists at the Oslo Freedom Forum, which has been described as the Davos for Dissidents. Baxter has nearly two decades of experience as an independent curator and art advisor, and she founded and directed the contemporary art division of Restoration Hardware (NYSE: RH).

Paul Apostolicas spoke with Baxter about why authoritarians fear art, the ways in which artists challenge oppressive regimes, and what can be done to protect the artists who risk their lives to advance human rights.

1. Could you speak about the work you do with Human Rights Foundation and how you use your expertise in art to advance human rights across the globe?

I have worked as an independent curator and art advisor for the past 18 years. Throughout my career, I have been fortunate enough to collaborate with many international artists. Recognizing the transformative power of art, I developed a program with the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), a nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies. HRF’s Art in Protest program supports artists who live and work in authoritarian regimes and whose works promote non-violent protest, freedom, and democracy. Many of the artists we work with are not allowed to exhibit their work in their home countries—some are in hiding, while others have found safety in foreign lands and are living in exile. Our goal is to foster a global community of artists and provide them with financial backing and support so that they are able to continue their important work and make a living from their art.

Art is a deeply personal and powerful tool that has the potential to enact a level of change that is not always viable with other forms of advocacy. Authoritarian governments fear artists because of art’s potential to challenge authority, expose the truth, and encourage new ways of thinking. Artists living in countries like China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia are routinely threatened, jailed, and even killed for producing work critical of their respective governments. These artists usually do not have resources or venues to exhibit or promote their work and often put their lives at risk in an attempt to make sure their art is seen; They use their creativity to challenge repressive regimes and to push back against attacks on freedom of expression and other basic human rights. I am particularly interested in exploring the relationship between exile and art — how living in exile shapes an artist’s work and how this art, in turn, is transforming how their societies are viewed.

2. Tell us about an artist you find particularly effective at using their art for the sake of advancing human rights. What makes an artist effective or ineffective in his/her protest?

Art is an incredibly effective tool for raising awareness of human rights abuses, engaging the international community, and encouraging people to promote democracy. An artist’s images and the political message they convey are not beholden to the physical boundaries of one’s country and works that resonate and strike a chord can precipitate large-scale change. HRF specifically works with artists who have recognized the power of art and its potential to transform societies.

Ai Weiwei immediately comes to mind as an artist who has been extremely effective in using art as a form of protest and HRF has developed a relationship with him based on the activism that is at the core of his work. In 2012, HRF presented Ai Weiwei with the inaugural Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent. The Havel prize recognizes individuals who engage in creative dissent and who use creativity to challenge injustice. Through his art, Ai Weiwei became one of the Chinese government’s most prominent and innovative critics. He was unwilling to accept a political system that violates human rights and so he found a way to send his message to the outside world, which is precisely what China tried to prevent from happening. The Chinese government spends billions of dollars to control the flow of information and block anything it perceives as critical. Ai Weiwei endured house arrest, harassment, and constant surveillance; however, he somehow circumvented the government’s intense censorship practices and his art reached millions of people. Through art, he educated the outside world about the human rights abuses occurring inside the borders of his country.

I think what makes artists most effective in their protest is finding new creative ways to express through their art what they believe in and what they are fighting for. If what they do and why they do it is unclear, not only will their art be superficial, but the artist will also fail to connect with the public, and he/she won’t withstand oppression. The life of a dissident artist is a difficult one, so choosing such life must be a very conscious decision and it must have a very solid base. This is partially why Ai Weiwei has been so successful.

"Taipei Sunflower Movement Protest Art" by Jesse Steele. CC BY-SA 2.0 accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

3. Art can pose a significant threat to oppressive regimes. For example, the Soviets allegedly banned abstract art because it encouraged independent thinking. Can you comment on the impact art can have on an oppressive regime?

Artists living under authoritarian regimes are in a unique position to challenge and subversively call out dictators in a way that would be perilous — and oftentimes unthinkable — if they were a teacher or a journalist. That said, censorship is alive and well in many countries around the world, and artists are easy targets in countries where the power of a political system depends on absolute control over the flow of information.

Throughout history, art has played such an important role in the intellectual culture of society, and in some cases it has precipitated the transformation of societies and even launched revolutions. You only need to look at the effort and time authoritarian regimes spend targeting artists in order to understand the power of art. Dictators view art as a very real threat to their absolute power. If art were not relevant, if artists had no power, then dictators wouldn’t go to such extreme measures to censor it. And that is the beauty of artistic expression: when a government tries to silence people or punish people for expressing their ideas, artists respond by coming up with new and even more creative ways to communicate those very same ideas. The source of an artist’s power lies in the fact that the language of art is universal, and it engages ordinary citizens who then question the status quo.

4. On the other hand, how might authoritarian governments use art and propaganda to strengthen their grip on power? What, if anything, can be done to prevent this?

Dictators fixate on the creation of a world that is tailored to their interests. This requires a single narrative, which is why they need to control the flow of information and ban anything that contradicts or endangers it. Art and propaganda are incredibly effective tools to build this fictional world. Historically, dictators have used art for two purposes: they use art as propaganda, and they use art as a method of exercising control of information. A dictator will go to great lengths to destroy dissident art and a dictator will also cultivate and sponsor art that is favorable to him and his regime. If a dictator’s goal is to maintain absolute political and social control over a population, art that expresses this objective and contributes to achieving it is a powerful tool for an authoritarian leader. This is why throughout history some of the world’s most notorious dictators have commissioned portraits of themselves that are grand and depict “traditional” scenes of power—everything from paintings of Napoleon on a horse crossing the Alps to the hundreds of colossal statues that Stalin had commissioned and installed in the main squares of cities across his empire.

Another artist we have worked with in Art in Protest is Song Byeok. For six years, he worked for the Kim regime in North Korea to create propaganda and help harness the cult of personality by making art that depicted the Kims as deities. After his mother and sister died of starvation, he and his father tried to escape North Korea and cross into China. His father drowned in the process and Byeok was captured, brought to a gulag, and tortured. The captors responsible for torturing Byeok inflicted the worst injuries on what they saw as his most powerful weapon—his hands. Somehow, he managed to escape imprisonment and today he lives and works as an artist in Germany and much of his art satirizes repressive regimes around the world. In November, HRF hosted an exhibition with Byeok in San Francisco at the Minnesota Street Project. The show was covered by the NPR and other news outlets and it introduced hundreds of people to his work.

Kim Jong Un Flashdrives by CY Meng accessed via Wikimedia Commons

5. The Human Rights Foundation hosts the Oslo Freedom which has been called “the human-rights equivalent of Davos.”  What is the state of art as a means of protest and revolution today? How is it becoming more difficult in places like Iran and Cuba?

The most powerful way of challenging authoritarianism is through ideas, and art is often what sparks these ideas in people’s minds, while at the same time bringing them together.

El Sexto’s paintings and performances radiate anti-authoritarianism, and often portray the regime’s leaders as pigs, monkeys, cows, and other animals. As such, El Sexto’s spray paint street art has put him at great personal risk inside Cuba because government officials from regimes like Cuba’s consider mockery a direct threat. He has been imprisoned four times since he turned 18 — most recently from November 26, 2016, to January 21, 2017—and has endured torture, months-long detention in solitary confinement, and threats of execution.

El Sexto has received international recognition for his dissident art and has spoken at venues including the United Nations, the Oslo Freedom Forum, the Geneva Summit for Human Rights, and the U.S. Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. Most recently, he was featured in Julian Schnabel's HBO documentary, “Patria o Muerte.”

In Iran, where censorship mandated by the Ministry of Culture affects every aspect of life, there are myriad examples. Animator Noureddin Zarrinkelk lost his faculty position because he touched the hair of a female student; Mohsen Namjoo, who has been called the “the Bob Dylan of Iran,” was banned from Iran after  he sang a phrase from the Koran; Iranian film director Jafar Panahi’s controversial films have led to multiple arrests—including a critique of the restrictions placed upon women in Iran titled “The Circle.”

Of course, attempting to silence and exile these artists simply amplifies their work and their messages because it brings attention to them. Banning someone's art means somebody considers it important. With the younger generation’s increased access to protest art through technology, this effect is even more extended.

Officials of the Bolivarian National Police block the pace of an opposition demontration.
Funcionarios de la Policía Nacional Bolivariana bloquean el paso de la marcha opositora.
Venezulean Riot-Police. Photo by Andrés Gerlotti / Unsplash

6. What efforts can be taken to protect and encourage those who use art to advance the cause of human freedom? Are there any ways pro-democratic states can support such individuals, or should that exclusively be the work of nonprofits and NGOs?  

Several NGOs around the world offer artists temporary housing, emergency funds, advocacy training and workshops, an important first line of defense.

However, the Human Rights Foundation has found that a very effective way to protect these artists is through the courts. For example, Kimberley Motley, an American attorney and human-rights activist who works with HRF, has represented many activists and artists pro bono, including El Sexto when he has been jailed in Cuba. Her efforts created an international awareness of his cause and helped to secure his release. Motley, the first foreign attorney to litigate in Afghanistan’s Courts and considered one of the most effective attorneys operating in Afghanistan, uses law as a tool for social change. Pro-democratic states and nonprofits need to follow her lead to protect artists within their own countries.


Paul Apostolicas

Paul Apostolicas is Editor-in-Chief of the HIR. He is particularly interested in political economy, national security, and human rights.