Friday, June 24, 2016

'i know why the rebel sings'

I'm impressed by the bravery and strength of curation for this year's the O.P.E.N at Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA). The content is what I'd term as 'fresh to Singapore audiences', engaging and pointed, not those same-old same-old stuff. Iranian photojournalist and documentary photographer Newsha Tavakolian's exhibition 'I know why the rebel sings' is powerful, haunting and poignant. Themed into seven photos essays, her extensive works captured the angst in Tehran, the dispirited middle-class, then further to Africa to reveal the pain of female genital mutiliation, the resignation and strength of Kurdish female soldiers fighting the Daesh and embroiled in other wars which I barely comprehend.

I was almost moved to tears. imho, Newsha Tavakolian's photos aren't anything lewd or grotesque. They're not the least graphic; they're sobering, direct, brutal and uncomfortable. That's exactly what one aspect of art, artists and storytellers should aim to stir. Life isn't about having lollipops and cotton candy.

I'm sad to see the horrors inflicted upon women, and the lives of 'invisible' women at war, women in extreme poverty, women in conflict-ridden zones, and all not knowing another life. But that's coming from my sheltered privileged eyes. It sounds almost rude to type it out. Newsha Tavakolian uses her craft and her art to deftly tell their stories, reminding the world not to forget them and the atrocities of war and corruption that only seem to have worsened as the world progresses in technology, urbanization and material comforts.

At the Opening of 'I know why the rebel sings', I wasn't surprised by the Festival Director's explanation for the blacked rectangles replacing 15 photos against the backdrop of a map of the conflict region. The photos belong to the series titled 'On the War Trail', depicting photos of Kurdish female soldiers from a terror-linked organization disavowed by Turkey, United States, Japan and Australia, and several other countries. MDA had refused to grant the permits for 30-something photos, and the Festival and the show's curator Vali Mahlouji hastily reconvened and removed some photos and decided on a smaller selection to be exhibited.

At least the show could still open and there're now only 15 black rectangles. Haiizzzzzz. I can tenuously understand why it might be a point of contention. BUT. Are we so insular and easily offended? One should always read the synopsis of a show before attending. This is a reasonably-ticketed exhibition at 72-13. It means the audiences who see the works are people who have opted to do so and are, well, open to the strikingly 'morbid' themes and honesty portrayed. What does MDA think it's protecting us from? Do they think that we're suddenly going to throw our support behind these Kurdish women soldiers and become...radicalized?

Maybe it's trendy to have certain exhibitions and the sorts banned. It tells me that society and organizations are keeping pace with the world, but not our political maturity and that tiny odd shift towards vocal religious conservatism. Or as a friend wryly pointed out- "Perhaps it's really to keep some people from being offended." Riiight. Like people have no access to the internet. Or an international edition of a magazine that has printed these censored photos. I will say it again, thanks for nothing MDA. Keep up your amazing work of fighting technology and liberal art, and have our oversensitive population wrapped up in a safe little cheerful bubble.

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