Head of Israel's Freedom Theater gunned down in West Bank

Associated Press, 4/5/11

A well-known Arab Israeli actor, director and political activist was gunned down Monday in the West Bank town where he ran a drama school and community theater, Palestinian police said.  There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Mer Khamis, 52, was the son of a Jewish mother and an Arab father -- a rarity in a land where the two populations almost never intermarry. His split identity fueled a long career as an actor and a vocal activist against Israel's policies toward the Palestinians. He starred in several critically acclaimed Israeli films, and also appeared in the 1984 American film "The Little Drummer Girl."  In 2006, he opened an amateur theater company in Jenin, a city which had been torn by violence during the second Palestinian uprising after 2000. He saw the company, known as the Freedom Theater, as a way of restoring normalcy to the town's youth and opening their minds to the world beyond the harshness of their immediate surroundings. His mother, an Israeli Jew, had run a youth theater in Jenin years before.  The theater drew criticism and vandalism from some Palestinians who were suspicious of Mer Khamis, an Israeli citizen, and saw the theater as a threat to their traditions.  "We lack a culture of criticism. We lack a culture of free thinking," Mer Khamis [said] in 2009, when his company put on a production of Animal Farm. "One of our roles is to challenge this," he said.   Mer Khamis said he had planned to stage The Lieutenant of Inishmore, a satire of armed resistance, but shelved the idea after someone smashed the window of his car.


Commentary: How theatre helps us fight for human rights in Belarus

Belarus Free Theatre co-founder Natalia Kaliada, The Guardian Theatre Blog, 4/4/11

When I was 16 years old I wanted to become an actor, but because my father was vice-president of the Academy of Arts it wasn't possible: children of top officials weren't admitted.  [Last December], my dad was standing at a crossroads attempting to wave in a way that would not draw attention to me. I was sitting in the car, crying and wondering whether it was the last time I'd ever see him. We were on the road for three months. The apartments of my parents and my husband's parents were raided and neighbours were instructed to report to the police if they saw us. We were called "public enemies". And yet all of this is nothing compared to what happens to those who are in prison or under house arrest. Today, 56 people face between three and 15 years in jail.  Why? Because between March 2005 and December 2010, we ran the Belarus Free Theatre. We gathered together to make drama, and to say whatever we thought, wherever and whenever we felt like, performing in front of anyone we cared to. We wanted our spectators to think - this, of course, is the most terrifying part for any dictatorship.  The theatre has now existed for six years, and as I write this it's four months since it left Belarus. We've performed in New York, Chicago, Hong Kong and are now in London. I'm waiting for the moment when we start rehearsals again and I'm keen to see how our new piece is created and how the public responds. But today we understand that it's not enough to be just theatre-makers. And it's important to refer, every day of our lives, to what our patron and friend Harold Pinter said in his Nobel speech:

"A writer has to smash the mirror - for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us ... Despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory. If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision, we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us - the dignity of man."


Sudanese theatre enjoys a revival after decades of gov't repression

Reuters, 4/4/11

In an open-air theater by the river Nile, a crowd whistles and claps as actress Huda Mamoon plays a deranged woman chased by a ghost in a white cape.  Mamoon's play on the suffering of women through the ages is part of a theater festival in Khartoum, where Sudan's once flourishing theater scene is enjoying a revival after years of neglect during bouts of economic crisis and war.  "Theater touches us because it speaks to us through our traditions and language," said actor and dancer Hasun Gozoly.  "Some Sudanese find it hard to get involved emotionally in messages that come from television and the Internet. But theater and plays pass on a message in a traditional way."  Musaab Elsawi, a theater critic, said Sudanese theater enjoyed its golden period in the 1960s and 1970s, before floundering during years of economic hardship and civil war. Skepticism from governments keen to keep tight control on public thought did not help either: "Politicians don't always trust artists. The artist has a message, and it makes people think, which can be in conflict with what a politician wants."  Still, over the past decade, interest in theater has slowly returned, especially after the 2005 peace deal that ended decades of war and spurred Sudanese to reflect on national identity and image, he said.  At a time of upheaval across the Arab world and mounting tensions over a fresh economic crisis and soaring prices, some suspect Sudanese officials are more than happy to encourage cultural activities like theater to distract the masses.  "The government has realized that art and theater is a way for us to bring out our emotions," said Gozoly.  "They realize we're actually helping them by giving people an outlet for feelings of anger and sadness."


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International pressure on China to release a high-profile dissident artist

The New York Times, 4/4/11

The United States, France, Britain and Germany on Monday called on China to release Ai Weiwei, an internationally known artist and increasingly vocal government critic. Mr. Ai was led away by police officers as he tried to board a plane at Beijing International Airport on Sunday and he has not been heard from since.  Mr. Ai, 53, is the most high-profile person to be detained in a spreading Chinese government campaign against its critics. Dozens of people have been rounded up, several have been formally arrested on charges of incitement for subversion and nearly a dozen have vanished into police custody.  Mr. Ai has suffered a number of recriminations in recent months as authorities have grown less and less tolerant of his criticisms of abuses of government power. Still, the authorities had seemed to give him more latitude than other critics, presumably because of his family's status. The son of one of the country's most beloved poets, Mr. Ai is also an architect who helped design Beijing's Olympic stadium.


Related: Ai Weiwei's New York art project to proceed, with or without him

The New York Times, 4/4/11

A large-scale public art project by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in Manhattan starting early next month will go forward even if Mr. Ai, who was detained by Chinese authorities on Sunday, is unable to be present.   "We're moving ahead in the same way that we started," said Larry Warsh, founder of AW Asia, a Chinese contemporary art organization, which arranged the show with the City of New York. "The works are done, the works are here." As for Mr. Ai himself, Mr. Warsh said, "I'm very concerned about him and his safety."   Mr. Ai is due to come to New York the first week of May to unveil the new project.  [His] 12-piece sculpture, "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads," is scheduled for display from May 2 through July 15 at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue.


New documentary tells story of 'forbidden' Soviet art saved from Stalin's fury

Lewis Beale, Miller-McCune, 4/4/11

One of the most astonishing art collections on the planet is housed inside an obscure museum in the dusty Central Asian town of Nukus, Uzbekistan. The Igor Savitsky Museum is home to thousands of paintings and sculptures made by artists the Soviet government had banned, all collected by a former artist and archeologist who traveled throughout the Soviet republics in a desperate search to uncover these hidden treasures.  Savitsky, who is quoted in The Desert of Forbidden Art, a documentary PBS will broadcast [tonight in many U.S. cities], said: "I ended up with a collection that no one in the Soviet Union would dare to exhibit."  These works were the fruit of many artists who moved to Uzbekistan after the Russian Revolution, where, 1,700 miles from prying Moscow commissars, they painted freely for a while, until the Stalinist purges of the 1930s sent many of them to the gulag.  As seen in [this] film, the collection is truly world class.  Although many of the artists are hardly household names in the West, their collected works constitute one of the most significant outpourings of avant-garde art the world has ever seen. More than that, The Desert of Forbidden Art is a tribute to a man who, singlehandedly, did whatever he could  to preserve a precious cultural resource; Savitsky, who died in 1984, eventually saved 44,000 works of art. And it is another reminder of the myriad ways in which Stalinism corrupted culture and the minds of men.  A Savitsky quote at the end of the documentary seems to sum up his enterprise perfectly: "I like to think of the museum as a keeper of the artist's souls."

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