A collaboration, an exhibition and a call to action
IFEX partnered with the International Freedom of Expression Project on an exhibition to highlight the work being done around the world to defend freedom of expression and launch a proposal for an artist space ‘market of ideas In Pittsburgh.
IFEX, a global free expression network, partnered with the International Free Expression Project (IFEP) earlier this month to launch a street art exhibition in Pittsburgh showing the faces and recounting the stories of courageous free speech practitioners and advocates around the world. world, including murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
âCollaboration on these issues is so important because it is hard work,â said Annie Game, Executive Director of IFEX. âIt takes a lot of effort and resources, and it’s tiring. People have to help each other up the hill. “
The exhibition, which is inspired by the Faces of Free Expression of IFEX series which describes the âchange makers,â can be seen by anyone walking the streets, housed in the street-level windows of the huge historic Pittsburgh Post-Gazette building. The PG, which has since moved elsewhere in the city, won Pulitzer Prizes for its journalism and continues to be the primary news outlet covering the Pittsburgh area for nearly a century.
At an opening ceremony that kicked off the launch of the exhibit, a small group, including beloved PG columnist Tony Norman, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and founder of the IFEP Greg Victor, gave short speeches praising the “ Faces of Free Expression ” project. The ceremony took place in the Steelworkers building, right next to the old PG building.
âThe people honored in the ‘Faces’ exhibit represent thousands of other people around the world who are also fighting this struggle,â Victor said at the event.
Norman, who also sits on the IFEP board of directors, drew attention to the murders, imprisonments and other persecution of journalists by governments around the world.
âThis is a time in history when we all need to take a stand in defense of free speech,â 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 an activist as she faced increased censorship of her music by the Vietnamese government. Often compared to Lady Gaga and Pussy Riot, Khoi performs unique, exciting and often politically charged pop music.
At the kickoff in Pittsburgh, Khoi grabbed a beautiful blue guitar and performed two of his songs, one in Vietnamese and one in English. She explained at the event that the song, “Just Be Patient,” was inspired by something she said former US President Barack Obama told her when she met him once. She hoped he would push for the release of political prisoners in Vietnam, but Khoi says he told her to “just be patient.”
In the song, Khoi combined her gorgeous voice and adorable lyricism with screams of pain to express the dismay the words were causing her.
Khoi is among the list of journalists, rights defenders, activists and artists commemorated by the âFaces of Free Expressionâ project. At the end of the event, when Victor presented Khoi with the 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, walked to the exhibit on the street, braving the rain with a red umbrella. She walked up and down the street, capturing some of the stories and the essence of the exhibit on her phone.
âI think it’s great,â she said. âI saw a model, but actually seeing it on the building is huge. It’s so huge. I didn’t really expect it to be really that big. I love it.”
Jones came to the event with Dejouir Brown, another Pittsburgh-based artist. âI love the look of art, man,â Brown said. âTheir faces, the illustrations. That’s wonderful.
Portrait illustrations, blurb and quotes adorn several sets of vertical rectangular windows facing downtown Pittsburgh Street. Most windows contain a single portrait or piece of text, but the exhibit also features larger pages that incorporate groups of nearby windows to create larger images, like a gorgeous photo of Khoi on a black background, accompanied by a short biography for passers-by. -by to read.
Other people featured include Nabeel Rajab, a human rights defender jailed in Bahrain for tweets criticizing the government, and Agnes Callamard, a senior investigator into the Saudi Arabian murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Game considers it crucial to honor people like these, who fight for free speech around the world, but also the many groups and individuals who support their causes.
âIf their voices are closed, then there is a void in democracy,â Game said. “And we have to recognize them, we have to work with them, engage with them, we have to fund their work because it is a global problem.”
The faces in the project represent only a small selection of those responsible for the fight for freedom of expression.
âAll of these people, they’ll say they didn’t do it alone, and they didn’t do it,â Game said. “It takes so many people, who stand up every day in their work, to do this kind of advocacy, to meet these kinds of challenges.”
IFEP hopes to integrate its âMarket of Ideasâ proposal into the historic PG building, which would create space for artists doing important work. âTo be artists ourselves, to have a place like this would be great,â Jones said.
Brown appreciated the exhibition and the goals set by IFEP for what it means for his neighborhood. âThis is something Pittsburgh needs, to be able to make your voice heard and your expressions heard,â he said.
Yet the message of the âFaces of Free Expressionâ exhibit goes far beyond the pictures and text on the wall that people can see on this street in Pittsburgh. âIt shows it’s having a global impact,â Game said. “This brings the many free speech issues the world faces to this Pittsburgh wall.”
By Matt Petras for IFEX. Petras is a freelance writer and educator based in the Pittsburgh area.