Melbourne visual artist Van Thanh Rudd’s art work titled Pop Goes the System, which depicts Justin Bieber supporting Palestinian human rights, was banned from the 2011 Human Rights Arts and Film Festival by festival organisers.
The work was to be part of a group exhibition, “Create an Example”, at No Vacancy Gallery in Melbourne’s QV shopping centre, from May 12 to May 23.
Rudd’s art work consists of two cartoons painted on the front and back of a large piece of canvas. When exhibited, it can be viewed from both sides. One side of the canvas depicts a cartoon figure “exploding with people power” – a tribute to the democratic revolutions taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. The other side shows global pop icon Justin Bieber spray painting on Israel’s separation wall in support of the pro-Palestinian BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) campaign against Israel.
Inspired by the struggle of South Africans against apartheid, the Palestinian-initiated BDS campaign is conducted in the framework of international solidarity and resistance to injustice and oppression. It calls for non-violent punitive measures to be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognise the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with international law.
According to Rudd, the exhibition organisers strongly opposed displaying the side of the canvas that depicted Bieber, saying it incited “racism”, “violence” and “division”. Bieber is shown painting a logo of Israeli-owned chocolate company Max Brenner Chocolate, which has been a target of the boycott campaign due to its support of the Israel Defence Force units that participated in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, resulting in the death of more than 1300 Palestinians, the majority of whom were civilians, including 300 children.
“I wanted to imagine if Justine Bieber decided to support the BDS campaign – what impact that would have on the youth who worship him”, said Rudd.
“There is clearly no incitement of racism and violence in this work. It strongly opposes it. The incitement of racism and violence clearly comes from the Israeli state towards Palestinians. It maintains the world’s largest open air prison, conducts frequent military raids, maintains hundreds of military checkpoints, illegally constructs settlements and conducts massive military bombardments.”
Justin Bieber recently performed in Israel, defying the requests of Palestinian civil society and Israeli supporters of the BDS campaign not to entertain apartheid. In a letter to Bieber, Israeli supporters from the Boycott from Within campaign called on Bieber to “create an example” and listen to the voices of the oppressed.
Rudd asked to be sent an official statement from the festival organisers as to the reason for the work’s rejection. So far the organisers have refused to do this, informally saying that the work “doesn’t fit the theme of the show”.
“This banning is not only antithetical to the quest for human rights and freedom of expression on a global scale against colonisation and occupation, but it also infringes on the individual human right of freedom of expression through art”, said Rudd.
“The fact that a human rights arts festival bans an art work that contributes to a discussion on very important human struggles shows that they breach the very position they seek to uphold and are not committed to their own mission statement, which advocates encouraging debate on human rights issues and providing festival patrons with a way to take action by connecting them to human rights campaigns.
“This week also happens to be the commemoration of the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe), in which, over 60 years ago, more than 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their homeland by Zionist forces. Today Palestinians make up the largest refugee community in the world, with more than 7 million living in exile. So debate and action on the issue of human rights for Palestinians are crucial.”