December 10, 2015
December 10 is Human Rights Day.
We don’t typically think of art museums in the context of human rights. And yet, when we look at the history of art, we see that linkage arise again and again. Museums have long held the perspectives of artists who simultaneously inhabit their cultures even as they stand outside of them. Artists are witnesses, commentators, and citizens all. The artist’s mind is often noted as one that poignantly feels and responds to injustice and rebalances the scales through expression that exists outside of words.
This was not lost on the writers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In fact, the significance of art is so fundamental to human rights and experience, it is addressed specifically in Article 27: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”
The first three exhibitions of 2016 provide a perfect example of how art and human rights are intimately linked—and are a beautiful testimony to the value of museums in our communities.
Ai Weiwei: Fault Line stems from Ai Weiwei’s investigation into the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, a magnitude 8.0 quake that killed over 5,000 schoolchildren when government-built schools collapsed. The government refused to release the names of the dead or even how many died. Ai Weiwei’s investigation determined these facts, also exposing the corruption at the heart of the building code violations. His investigation endured frequent and brutal clashes with authorities, including 81 days of being disappeared in secret detention. He persisted, and Ai Weiewei: Fault Line is the incredible result.
Dana Lynn Louis’ installation As Above, So Below also references social and political concerns. For over a decade, Louis worked in West Africa helping to create the Ko-falen Cultural Center in Bamako, Mali. That work had to end in 2012 due to the Mali Civil War. Since then, her work, including her upcoming installation, has been deeply informed by the loss of place. The site-specific response to the San Juan Islands re-places the self within this specific environment, an act in which she invites viewers to participate.
Sleep of Reason: Selected Prints by Francisco Goya presents images from Los Desastres de la Guerra (1810–20) and Los Caprichos (1797–8), produced in response to the atrocities of the Peninsular War and the breakdown of Spanish society. These prints were so politically charged they couldn’t be printed in his lifetime, and were only printed posthumously several decades after his death. Famous for both impeccable technique and unwavering commentary of war and corruption of the human condition, the pieces articulate his despair and endure in the universal acuity of this vision.
The UDHR states that human rights “bind us together as a global community with the same ideals and values.” These three artists, despite their differences in approach, materials, and cultures, produce works that achieve this ideal. With visions arising from Asia, North America, Africa, and Europe, they gather us into a global community bound together by the beauty of transformation and the triumph of indomitable spirit. SJIMA is a proud associate of museums everywhere that provide both space, context, and support for art that invites, challenges, and inspires—as an essential component of being human.
Come, be human with us by participating in the cultural life of this community. Become a member of the museum, talk about art, and do what you can to ensure that your local museums can be a strong voice for free expression, artists, and the arts in your community. Thank you.
San Juan Islands Museum of Art