Unshuttered voices: A collaboration, an exhibit and a call to action

IFEX partnered with the International Freedom of Expression Project on an exhibit to spotlight the work being done around the globe to defend freedom of expression, and launch a proposal for a ‘marketplace of ideas’ artist space in Pittsburgh.

IFEX, a global freedom of expression network, partnered with the International Free Expression Project (IFEP) earlier this month to launch a street-level art exhibition in Pittsburgh displaying the faces and telling the stories of brave practitioners and defenders of free expression from around the world, including slain Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

“Collaboration on these issues is so important because it’s hard work,” said IFEX Executive Director Annie Game. “It takes a lot of effort and resources, and it’s tiring. People have to help each other up the hill.”

The exhibit, which draws from IFEX’s Faces of Free Expression series that profiles “changemakers,” can be seen by anyone walking by on the street, housed in street-level windows of the massive, historic former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette building. The PG, which has since relocated elsewhere in the city, has won Pulitzer Prizes for its journalism and continues to serve as the most prominent news outlet covering the Pittsburgh region for nearly a century.

At an opening ceremony kicking off the exhibit’s launch, a small group, including beloved PG columnist Tony Norman, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, and IFEP founder Greg Victor, gave small speeches lauding the ‘Faces of Free Expression’ project. The ceremony took place in the United Steelworkers building right next door to the old PG building.

“Those honoured in the ‘Faces’ exhibit represent thousands of others from across the world who are fighting this struggle as well,” Victor said at the event.

Members of the public viewing the exhibition in Pittsburgh. Photo: Matt Petras.

Norman, who also serves on IFEP’s board of directors, called attention to the killing, jailing and other persecution of journalists by governments around the world.

“This is a moment in history when we all must take a stand in defence of free expression,” Norman said.

Vietnamese singer Mai Khoi performed at the event. Khoi was already a popular musician in her home country when she became more and more of an activist as she experienced increased censorship of her music by the Vietnam government. Often compared to Lady Gaga and Pussy Riot, Khoi performs unique, exciting, and often politically charged pop music.

At the kick-off in Pittsburgh, Khoi grabbed a beautiful blue guitar and performed two of her songs, one in Vietnamese and one in English. She explained at the event that the song, ‘Just Be Patient,’ was inspired by something she says former US President Barack Obama told her when she once met with him. She hoped he would push for freeing political prisoners in Vietnam, but Khoi says he told her to “just be patient.”

In the song, Khoi combined her gorgeous vocals and lovely lyricism with pained screeches to express the dismay those words caused her.

Vietnamese singer and activist Mai Khoi performed at the launch of the event. Photo: Matt Petras.

Khoi is included in the line-up of journalists, rights defenders, activists and artists memorialised by the ‘Faces of Free Expression’ project. At the end of the event, when Victor gifted Khoi with the piece of artwork depicting her, her smile lit up the room.

After the event, Juliandra Jones, a Pittsburgh-based artist who recently became a curator for IFEP, made her way to the exhibit on the street, braving the rain with the help of a red umbrella. She walked up and down the street, capturing some of the stories and the essence of the exhibit on her phone.

“I think this is great,” she said. “I saw a mock-up, but actually seeing it on the building, this is huge. It is so huge. I didn’t actually expect it to really be this big. I love it.”

Jones came to the event with Dejouir Brown, another Pittsburgh-based artist. “I love how the art looks, man,” Brown said. “Their faces, the illustrations. It’s stunning.”

Portrait illustrations, blurbs and quotes adorn several sets of vertical, rectangular windows facing the street in Downtown Pittsburgh. Most of the windows contain a single portrait or bit of text but the exhibit also boasts some larger spreads that incorporate clusters of nearby windows to create bigger images, such as a wonderful photo of Khoi against a black background, joined by a short biography for passers-by to read.

Other individuals featured include Nabeel Rajab, a human rights defender jailed in Bahrain for tweets critical of the government, and Agnès Callamard, a lead investigator into the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia.

Jamal Khashoggi and Daphne Caruana Galizia are among the journalists and human rights defenders featured in the exhibition. Photo: Matt Petras.

Game views it as crucial to honour individuals like these, who fight for freedom of expression around the globe but also the many groups and individuals who support their causes.

“If their voices are shuttered, then there’s a vacuum in democracy,” Game said. “And we have to acknowledge them, we have to work with them, engage with them, we have to fund their work because this is a global issue.”

The faces of the project represent just a small selection of the individuals responsible for the fight for freedom of expression.

“All of these people, they’ll say they didn’t do it alone, and they didn’t,” Game said. “It takes so many people, who get up every day in their work, to do this kind of advocacy, to address these kinds of challenges.”

IFEP hopes to incorporate its ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ proposal into the historic PG building, which would create a space for artists doing important work. “Being artists ourselves, having a place like this would be great,” Jones said.

Brown appreciated the exhibit and the goals outlined by IFEP for what it represents for his neighbourhood. “This is something Pittsburgh needs, being able to have your voice be heard and your expressions,” he said.

Yet the message of the ‘Faces of Free Expression’ exhibit extends far beyond the images and text on the wall that people can see on this street in Pittsburgh. “It shows this has a global impact,” Game said. “It brings the many free expression issues the world is facing to this wall in Pittsburgh.”

By Matt Petras for IFEX. Petras is an independent writer and educator based in the Pittsburgh area.


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