BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 19 OCT 13
Featured in
Issue 158

Speaking Out

From Russia to the UAE — to boycott or not to boycott?

BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 19 OCT 13

In June, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, signed legislation that outlaws the ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors’. If we leave aside the question of exactly what might constitute ‘propaganda’, the meaning of the bill is clear: it’s an attempt to stigmatize, and indeed imprison, anyone seen to be promoting non-heterosexual relationships. The Russian government, though, says the right to be homosexual is enshrined in the constitution of the Russian Federation and that the new law is designed purely to protect minors. In an article titled ‘Grim to be Gay’, published in The Economist on 24 August, a deputy from the pro-Kremlin United Russia party was quoted as saying that the bill was simply a way of ‘protecting’ the country against the ‘destruction of its fundamental cultural codes’. As the report noted: ‘It’s easiest to define those codes by what they are not: Western, liberal, modern […] Alexander Smirnov, who was asked to quit his job at the Moscow mayor’s office after he came out in Afisha, an arts and culture magazine, says gays are seen as “alien people”.’

The British actor Stephen Fry has called for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which are scheduled to take place in Sochi, Russia, next year; the Games will cost an estimated £35 billion, making them the most expensive in history. In his passionately worded open letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Fry describes the situation in contemporary Russia thus: ‘Beatings, murders and humiliations [of LGBT people] are ignored by the police. Any defense or sane discussion of homosexuality is against the law. Any statement, for example, that Tchaikovsky was gay and that his art and life reflects this sexuality and are an inspiration to other gay artists would be punishable by imprisonment.’ His conclusion? ‘At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilized world.’ Cameron, who pushed through a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in July, has, however, resisted calls for a boycott of the Olympics, tweeting to Fry that: ‘I share your deep concern about the abuse of gay people in Russia. However, I believe we can better challenge prejudice as we attend, rather than boycotting the Winter Olympics.’ The IOC president, Jacques Rogge, responded with the statement: ‘We have received strong written reassurances from the Russian government that everyone will be welcome at the Games in Sochi regardless of their sexual orientation.’ So, one law for visitors, and another for people living there. Great.

On a smaller scale, in 2014 Saint Petersburg will be the host city for the tenth edition of Manifesta, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art. In response to the new legislation, a petition, started by Irish critic and curator Noel Kelly, is circulating on stating that: ‘It is important that we send a message to the Russian government that such draconian measures will not be tolerated. In particular, the art world community must act now and request that Manifesta is either awarded to a different city, postponed until human rights are restored, or cancelled as a sign of support for the lbgt community.’ Hedwig Fijen, the founding director of Manifesta, responded in Monopol: ‘Of course we are concerned about the current conservative climate. But should we isolate all countries that have not committed to an equal standard of human rights? Or should we not much rather try to build bridges and establish a cultural dialogue?’ These are the questions that lie at the heart of the matter.

On 20 September, the month-long state-funded 5th Moscow Biennale opened. Its website states that the biennale’s first edition ‘demonstrated the openness of Russia to the world’s artistic tendencies’. These would, I assume, be the tendencies expressed by those artists of a heterosexual persuasion. This year’s edition, curated by Catherine de Zegher, is – somewhat ironically given the current situation – titled, ‘Bolshe Sveta /More Light’. According to the press release, the exhibition aims to promote ‘enlightened conversation and action at the crossroads, where different concepts of space and time, and consequent structures of thought and sensibility, are elaborated.’ I emailed the press office with three questions: What position does the Moscow Biennale take on the repression of LGBT people that is now legislation in Russia? How will this affect the participation of artists in the biennale? Will it be safe for LGBT artists, and their work, to take part?’ I received the following reply: ‘The Biennale of Moscow has been prepared for a long time, and will not give statements regarding LGBT. In the meantime we will provide you with all information regarding the 5th Moscow Biennale, that promises to be a fantastic edition.’

Sadly, this isn’t surprising: the art world often remains mute in the face of host governments whose politics fly in the face of art’s supposedly liberal remit. Earlier this year, I visited the 11th Sharjah Biennial in the UAE: a country where homosexuality is banned and where the law states that ‘a man and a woman who are not in a legally acceptable relationship should not be alone in public places, or in suspicious times or circumstances.’ Organized by Japanese curator Yuko Hasegawa, the exhibition was inspired by the courtyard in Islamic architecture – a space that embodies the intersections between public and private life. It was a neat idea, but one that didn’t take into account what is actually permitted in the courtyards of Sharjah. There’s a lot of money pouring into the promotion of contemporary art in both Russia and the Emirates, which on many levels is great – the flipside, however, is when business and personal career advancement trump civil and human rights, and art is used as a false signifier of openness and tolerance.

Given the horrifying situation in Russia, at frieze we discussed boycotting the Moscow Biennale. It soon became clear, however, that if we chose to do so, for the sake of consistency we would have to also boycott art exhibited in all of the other 77 countries and four territories that criminalize lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people. And what about the countries that have no freedom of the press or that have the death penalty, condone torture or have no respect for human rights? What about the recent intimidations of journalists and whistleblowers in countries that otherwise pride themselves on their democratic credentials? Where do we draw the line? If we followed our thinking to its logical conclusion, it would mean, of course, ultimately boycotting countries including the us and – given the detention of David Miranda at Heathrow Airport under the Terrorism Act – even the uk. On reflection, we’ve decided that it is far more important to keep responding to what is happening as best we can, because – as history has proven over and over again – silence itself can become another form of complicity.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.