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Postwar Modern, Age of Many Posts, and Freedom of Expression

by Abbas Faiz

Postwar Modern installation shot
27 Apr 2022

Human Rights lawyer and poet Abbas Faiz has written a short essay for us covering his reflections on our current exhibition Postwar Modern, how it intersects with humanitarian issues and his involvement in Abbas Zahedi's Age of Many Posts project.

It can be said that some legal practitioners might find it hard to approve the way the artists function. Don’t the artists bend the rules, challenge principles, hurt the feelings of the law-abiding citizens, and ridicule social standards?

Not just that. When it comes to the rules of artistic production, don’t the artists take the law into their own hands, change the goal posts at will, distort accepted values, and proudly boast about their (mis)conduct? On top of that, they may even claim reward for breaking taboos and demolishing aesthetic norms.

We know, of course, that such comparisons may be farfetched especially in a society like the UK. Sadly, though, it is not unusual for legal practitioners in many parts of the world to use similar arguments to ban artists from exercising their right to freedom of expression.

Artists are persecuted under censorship regulations imposed by repressive rulers, ideologies, political doctrines, or religious traditions. These practices ban artists from choosing at will either the forms in which they wish to express themselves, or what they wish to express, or both.

Where such impositions have been absent for a noticeable length of time, the arts have flourished, as have human rights, which is the field in which I am a practitioner. I find the flexibility and elasticity of the arts a great counterbalance to the rigidity of the laws and regulations.

This urge is what took me to the Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945-1965 exhibition at the Barbican. It was a boosting experience. A journey into the feelings and thoughts of the photographers, painters, and sculptors of the 20 year period the exhibition covers.

Postwar Modern installation shot

Art is the artist’s expression of what they consider to be their experience of something. Through viewing, we engage with the artists to make sense of how they express themselves, how their expression reveals their perception of an event, and what they are promoting or blocking in their art.

The materials the artists use, the shapes they come up with, the colour, the view point, the dimensions all work as clues enabling us to create our own understanding of what the piece of art is about, and how we relate to it.

The arts are as necessary for the growth of human perception and culture as air is for our physical survival. For our sense of perception to flourish through the arts, the artists must be able to express themselves freely, and this is where art and human rights meet: freedom of expression.

The images on display at the gallery speak for themselves. There are paintings refusing to show logical bodily lines, a heart-shaped image blown to hugely exaggerated proportions, statutes made from roughly cut metal pieces, sculptures missing a leg, a hand, or a head, flimsy structures unable to withstand exposure to anything more than a gentle wind.

The photographs, paintings and sculptures offer a fascinating encounter with the past, with each display appearing to your eyes (sometimes gently, sometimes not so) affecting your feelings and your thoughts and then merging with you on the way to the next thematic encounter. They enable us to confront the horrors of the Second World War but also to take comfort in seeing the hopes for a more peaceful future that some of the displays express, which were to a good extent justified.

Eduardo Paolozzi, St Sebastian III (Figure with words), 1958

The 20-year period (1945-1965) that the exhibition covers is the time when the society has shaken off the fears and anxieties of the immediate past and allowed itself to dream a different future.

The outcome of this hope could be seen in some of the most endearing developments either in Britain itself or co-sponsored by Britain.

We have the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 in which the UK had a considerable input; the European Convention on Human Rights co-authored by the UK came into force in 1953; Amnesty International, still one of the most credible human rights organizations was founded in the UK in 1961; and the emergence of a new wave of women’s rights groups in the 1960s.

There were brutal failures too, but these more positive developments would have further strengthened the environment for freedom of expression, better enabling the artists to present their own individual take on the legacies of the past and the uncertainties of the future. The displays do not directly engage with these developments.

The failures and shortcomings have found their space (and rightly so) in the exhibition as highlighted by Jane Alison, exhibition Curator and Head of Visual Arts at the Barbican: ‘Indeed, it is clear that the two main battles for rights during the postwar period were over the twin claims of gender and racial equality, and Postwar Modern reassesses the art produced by both groups.’

The viewer trying to make sense of today from the vision highlighted by the artists some 60 years ago might notice a gap of that length between themselves and the exhibition. What about the despair and loss of hope in the 1970s; the postmodern doubts and uncertainties of the 1980s; the impact of the proxy wars of 1990s and 2000s; and the migrant crisis of the 2010s testing the boundaries of rights and tolerance?

While Postwar Modern does resonate the fears of a nuclear confrontation in our own time following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, those other questions which cannot be separated from our experience of today’s life in Britain, need to be addressed.

Outpost Poetry event

Here is where Abbas Zahedi’s project, Age of Many Posts come into play to ‘speaks powerfully to the present moment’. Zahedi, an interdisciplinary artist, describes Age of Many Posts as a parallel program responding directly to artworks and themes presented in Postwar Modern through ‘a series of conflations between the postwar era and that of our current situation’.

Age of Many Posts is designed to engage with contemporary issues ‘post’ to an event such as post truth, post gender, post human rights, post humanity, post-Facebook and so on.

Outpost Poetry was one such event. It brought together poets and poetry admirers after they had all visited the gallery. They engaged in a  fascinating debates, exploring the connection between the poems read and the themes on display at the gallery against today’s experiences.  

Age of Many Posts is a valued addition to Postwar Modern. It is an experiment with promising outcomes. As Zahedi puts it, it will give us the chance to know ‘what can be made with that which remains, or should we just upload ourselves and call it a day?’

Biography

Abbas Faiz is an International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law practitioner. He is currently the Special Envoy to the Government of the Maldives assessing the country’s criminal justice system in its response to a terror attack. He has lectured on human rights at the School of Law, University of Essex. Formerly he was a senior researcher at Amnesty International. Faiz is also an award-winning translator of Persian poetry, a film and theatre critic and a member of the Exiled Writers Ink.  

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