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The artists taking on Middle Eastern censorship

Much of the Middle East has suffered from a lack of freedom of expression for years. But a new wave of artists are using images and sound to challenge censorship.

‘Fireworks can seem like bombs to some people,’ says Simon Coates, founder of Tse Tse Fly Middle East (TTFME). He’s been told in the past that his work can sometimes be too aggressive. But he doesn’t mind that.

Artists in the west have been documenting events and expressing their political views through paint strokes and rap lyrics for centuries. A prime example is Banksy, the notorious British artist and political activist, but not everyone has this freedom.

Coates is leading the wave of artists trying to change that.

He started his non-profit in Dubai in 2015 with a monthly club night featuring live experimental performances and film screenings. ‘We were loud and boisterous,’ he says. ‘But there were lines we couldn’t cross for fear of punishment.’

In 2017, TTFME was reinvented as a non-profit online platform that produces and showcases live events, radio work and artworks bringing attention to human rights and freedom of speech. Coates also produces a monthly show for UK arts station Resonance EXTRA and the occasional programme for Moscow-based New New World Radio, under the pseudonym ‘Ubu Kung’.

‘My time in the Middle East opened my eyes to how easily human beings can make other human beings suffer,’ he says. ‘Without feeling any remorse.’

In February 2020, Coates received a Special Mention for his work in the Amnesty International Brave Awards.

TTFME features artists from across the Middle East, North Africa, and India. Among them is Mariam Rezaei, an Anglo-Iranian based in Gateshead, England, who notes that a lot of work Coates does is to break the algorithm of many people’s social media accounts.

‘They are often geared towards capitalist agendas and it’s important for us to recognise that what we consume online is tailored and designed for us to observe,’ Rezaei says.

Due to underlying political messages, some contributors prefer to create work under a pseudonym, while others don’t necessarily have political motives. Some contributors, like 27-year-old Nour Sokhon, just want new audiences to hear their work.

The Lebanese sound artist lived in Dubai for over 22 years, and, after getting her master’s at The Glasgow School of Art in sound for the moving image, she pursued a career dedicated to archiving memory.

‘Dubai is a strange place to grow up in,’ Sokhon says. While she appreciates its business benefits, the ever-changing landscape affects your memory.

‘So I started recording construction, people and other sounds that would help create memories,’ she says. Where 2D imagery is limited, sound helps her capture any of the culture or history lost to conflict and disasters.

Sokhon speaks to me from Beirut in broken speech. The power in her area has been fluctuating for days. ‘We’re living every day with a new surprise,’ she says. Currency, fuel, and food prices are only some of the issues on Beirut’s list.

It’s not the only problem on Sokhon’s radar, either. In the past, she says freedom of expression was more secure. Today, she and other artists are having to use their mediums to protest the control constantly being forced on them. ‘It’s almost like we’re going backwards,’ she continues.

In July 2020, a coalition was formed defending free speech, but a year has passed and nothing seems to have improved.

The artist is not only worried about the consequences this has on human rights, but the mass exodus it’s causing in the art world. ‘If we leave for good, what’s going to be left of the culture?’

She says a lot of artwork disappears into a ‘black hole’, and that this could change if the international community helped encourage and fund artists so their work captures the Middle East but is viewed worldwide.

Rezaei agrees that the most basic human rights — free speech, safety, home, and love — should be upheld everywhere.

‘Those who are privileged have a responsibility to use their voice and means to raise awareness,’ she says. ‘And those who have power should make positive and peaceful changes for all.’

Sokhon feels her skill to express via sound gives her the privilege she needs to raise awareness on censored issues. Her work uses multiple mediums to translate history into something more publicly digestible.

Some of her long-term projects, in collaboration with other artists, teachers and historians, look to address forgotten issues — such as the Beirut port explosions — and educate upcoming generations. ‘So they have a brighter future to look forward to.’