New Internationalist

Art for life - and death

Issue 393

Lindsey Collen on the fragile freedom of artists to speak their minds.

Sarah John
Sarah John

‘Do you think I’ll get stones thrown at me?’ Krishna Luchoomun asks me, standing in front of his installation just before opening day of a collective art exhibition on the theme ‘For freedom, against repression’. It’s a strong piece. A tall, old, weather-beaten bit of once-squared wood holds up a diminutive, humiliated form in a slightly bloodstained shroud ensnared in barbed wire. The exhibition opens on the World Day of Solidarity with Victims of Torture and Krishna’s exhibit is a shocking reminder of perhaps the most famous torture victim of all time, Jesus Christ. It also conjures up the nightmare of Guantánamo Bay.

Krishna’s question is not unreasonable. Artists in Mauritius are too spot-on to be ignored. Their work exposes too accurately the invisible violence against the powerless, and the hypocrisy of leaving it hidden.

This has meant that art has repeatedly been suppressed since Independence. Dev Virahsawmy’s play Li was outlawed for years in the 1960s for political reasons. Even the VS Naipaul short story ‘The Overcrowded Baracoon’ was banned in the 1970s for being ‘overcritical’ of Mauritian society. Often banning comes precisely when politicians curry favour with extreme sectors of religious lobbies. Krishna’s installation has clear religious resonances.

When my novel The Rape of Sita, a modern-day story, came out just over 10 years ago, some religious extremists said: ‘The Christians have had The Last Temptation of Christ, the Muslims have had Satanic Verses, it’s our turn now. We want our ban for the Hindus!’ That is the fundamentalists’ logic, the mindlessness of an escalating stand-off. It would be childish, if it weren’t so dangerous. And this handful of men, as well as threatening to kill me, succeeded in making an admittedly unpopular Prime Minister set the police on me. He hoped he could chivvy up some clientelist electoral support for the impending elections by burning a handy witch. He wasn’t elected, and after a protracted battle of ideas, the novel got back on the shelves.

But Krishna is also remembering that only two years ago, a band of men from the Voice of Hindu descended on the Mahatma Gandhi Institute to abduct a painting by force. The woman artist in charge of the exhibition stood up to them and saved the painting.

Music has also been targeted. The composer-singer Kaya whose gentle lyrics were an inspiration for two generations of young people, was killed in police custody in 1999, after taking part in a concert in aid of lifting repression against marijuana smokers. His popularity and his anti-establishment music were too much for the status quo. His death led to days of nationwide rebellion so strong that the police were defeated.

In the same week as the exhibition’s opening day, MP Alan Gunoo from the Mouvement Militant Mauricien, once upon a time a leftwing party, asked a Parliamentary Question about whether the Government would allow The Da Vinci Code to be shown in cinemas. The old schema would have dictated that the hierarchy of the Church then got into a tizz about the novel and the film and the Government felt it had to respond. Instead, this time the Bishop announced that he had not called for any ban, thank you.

So this is a change. The Church hierarchy, often the worst offender at ethno-religious stake-raising in the past, has begun to show signs of a less repressive outlook.

Later that week the State accepted liability and paid out compensation to Martine Desmarais, a woman wrongly arrested and tortured by police officers in the context of a murder investigation. For five years she has confronted the police not just about her own case, but in association with others, including Kaya’s widow, about all cases. As the State prepares to pay compensation for Kaya’s death in detention, everyone knows that this victory is the result of ongoing protests.

At the exhibition, there is also a life-sized wood carving by Lewis Dick, showing Kaya being brutalized by a reluctant uniformed police officer, while disembodied hands hold him down from below, from out of sight. Among the paintings on the walls hangs the work of six detainees in the Richelieu Prison.

The present Government’s new budget will cause so much hardship if imposed that there will be uprisings and the State will resort to more repression. Artists, in their wisdom, are already raising their voices. Even while asking: ‘Do you think I’ll get stones thrown at me?’

Lindsey Collen is a Mauritian novelist.

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