MANILA – Artists from around the world are rallying behind beleaguered Filipino artist Mideo Cruz, whose controversial art installation on religious icons set off a firestorm in the Philippines that led the closure of an exhibit that featured his work.
On Saturday, faculty members of the Department of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines in Diliman released a manifesto urging the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) to reopen “Kulo,” an exhibit of 32 works by different artists at the center’s main gallery.
The support for Cruz came in the form of statements either released publicly by fellow artists and art groups or emailed to Cruz, who shared these to InterAksyon.com. The artists are from the United States, Canada, Italy, Germany, Australia, Thailand, among others.
“As an artist, it is important to view expression with equality, to be willing to say what the art, as if a separate life, wishes us to say,” said Lewis Gesner, an artist in the US.
“The artist is responsible, even if it is not asked for, to express what the art wishes. If an artist is silent or invisible because they do not want to offend someone in the public, they may be doing damage, by not expressing what art wishes,” Gesner said, adding that “art is important to the world and society, even when it goes against what opinions of others are, and what common knowledge is.”
Gesner described himself as “both an artist and a Christian.” While he “values highly the life of Christ and live my life with faith, which is very important to me, I see nothing positive in oppressing artistic expression, regardless of the content, or even, of the sincerity of it,” he said.
Vasan Sitthiket, an artist from Thailand, said he stands for freedom of expression and is in solidarity with Cruz. Sitthiket told Cruz that 10 years ago, Buddhists in his country accused and condemned him because of one of his work. “I hope the mad Catholics there have enough consciousness” about art, Sitthiket told Cruz.
Ioana Georgescu, an artist from Canada, wrote Cruz to express her wish “that all this will lead to a better ending or a new beginning.” He called Cruz, a highly regarded contemporary artist who received the CCP’s “13 Artists Award” in 2003, a “very talented and strong” person and that that “should not be forgotten in the controversy that often forgets the work and its true qualities.”
She advised Cruz to be “careful with the media circus.” Artists have partly blamed the media’s handling of the Cruz’s story for the controversy, singling out an ABS-CBN report that took Cruz’s work out of context and misled viewers.
Jürgen Fritz, an artist Cruz met in Germany during one of his many international exhibitions, told Cruz: “You created a piece of art, whose central core was to provoke such reactions from the Church and other institutions. I think this was successful, so congratulation for that. I hope that what is coming now will be fruitful for you and the Filipino art movement.”
Maria Xtina Panis, an artist also from Canada, said “Mideo’s art is definitely doing what it should do – it is provoking critical discussion which is much needed in the Philippines. It’s just not fair if they are threatening your personal and physical safety.”
An artists’ group in Italy, the Polyartistic and Intermedial Association ARKA (H.C.E.), released a statement expressing “full solidarity” with Cruz. The group said it “considers very intrusive and inappropriate the current criticism by the Philippines’ conservative Catholic Church” of Cruz.
“Any form of censorship and obscurantism against art, today as in the past, must be regarded as an unlawful abuse of power and as a real ‘sin’ against the human spirit. The Catholic Church should be ashamed of their own crimes against humanity throughout its long history, rather than deal with contemporary art,” said the group’s
Massimo Zanasi and Paola Cao.
A colleague from Canada named Mary Ann told Cruz: “It’s unbelievable how ignorant so many people are! They’ve ruined the face of Catholic as a religion. They’re supposed to be forgiving to all but they resort to death threats and childish/homophobic insults, and they choose to get suckered into all this hatred they don’t fully understand.”
Caesar Barona, an artist from Australia, said the closure of the exhibit “did more than just shut the doors of a gallery exhibiting Kulo – it surrendered the rights of artists and allowed censorship in.”
Barona said what happened to Cruz “affects our rights as a whole. Threats against artists are threats against the rest of us. We want discourse, not hysteria. You just don’t shut doors just because you feel offended — let’s talk about it.”
The Surreal Arts Club, a collective of 400 visual artists all over the world, also released a statement expressing “deep sympathy” toward Cruz and denounced what it called an “act of treachery.”
“What are should be and what are should be not are concerns that are in the entire dispersal of the artist,” the group said through Hector Pineda, its founder and administrator based in Mexico, and Gromyko Semper, a co-founder based in the Philippines. “And morality is never the concern because too much chain, too much prohibition blocks the imagination from realizing its own capacities to express into art,” the group said, adding, “We declare war on censorship!”
Charo Oquet, of Edge Zones Art Center in Miami, Florida, said she “fully supports Mideo Cruz and his exhibition. We have invited him to exhibit in Miami as one of our international artist and believe he is an outstanding and accomplished artist which the Philippines should be very proud of to support him and hope that this incident with the Catholic Church will dissipate as his work is very serious and should be viewed.”
Meanwhile, faculty members of the Department of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines in Diliman have urged the CCP to reopen “Kulo.”
“While there are contending interpretations of an image presented by art, the ethical course of action is to process the contentions and that is what art ensures: a process of communicative action. The closure of an exhibition only achieved the closure of democratic, informed and thoughtful engagement,” the art educators said in a statement.
Last week, Palayain ang Sining, a group of artists, announced that Cruz’s “Poleteismo” will be brought back to the CCP on Aug. 21, the supposed last day of “Kulo.” The group said they are now in negotiations with other venues that are interested to show “Kulo.”
Below is the rest of the educators’ statement:
“While freedom of expression and artistic license are not absolute and must be guided with reflexivity, accountability and responsibility on the part of makers of art, the freedom is fundamental, and inalienable. The work in question is art, and while it is a site of struggle over meanings and definitions, it is protected as expression in a free society. It may violate and offend community and common standards of morality, but it would be more productive for us to bring the discussion in a well-informed manner, to study and discuss our own responses and in the process, gain new knowledge and insights, and hone our visual competencies and literacy. Why for instance do images have the power to offend and provoke an excess of emotion and action?
“Now, without the artworks to look at and experience in actuality, and without benefit of proper framing and venue, such informed and engaged discussions cannot take place and so many important ideas are consequently repressed. We sadly observe that the issue has been reduced to the level of polemics, grandstanding and shouting matches over the more vital meaning of art and what role artists play in contemporary times.
“The CCP should protect its mandate, reclaim and maintain its autonomy. It must take the lead, not only in guarding artistic freedom but also in ensuring a safe haven where artists as public intellectuals have the freedom to exhibit. We educators will rally behind a cultural institution that will provide the venue and platform for artists, educators, policymakers, students of art and the “public” – by no means homogenous – to come together and raise and address issues in an atmosphere conducive to forming a community of critical audiences of art.
“Re-open the exhibition! Defend the freedom of expression!