Sport & Culture

Art and Democracy

Burma Installation in New York’s Grand Central Station was a reminder of how art can shape public opinion.

The visit to Burma last week by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and his meeting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, made headlines around the world. Ban hailed the encounter as an opportunity to relax sanctions against the country in the name of a greater cause: the people. This comes against the backdrop of a range of reforms after forty years of oppressive military rule.

Suu Kyi’s resilience, and the plight of the people she has fought to represent, have impressed and touched the world. But while celebrating what appears to be a victory for democracy, and recognizing the political efforts that have gone into achieving this, it’s worth remembering some of the more subtle influences in shaping awareness and change.

In June 2010, Human Rights Watch launched an exciting exhibition called “Burma Installation” at New York’s Grand Central Station as part of a campaign for the release of all political prisoners in Burma. The installation, accompanied by the chanting of mantras by Buddhist monks, wasn’t only a visual project, but called on passengers crisscrossing the station to stop, listen, look and participate in the interactive exhibition.

A notice board asking people to interact was a clear invitation to the crowds to play a small part in helping free political prisoners by encouraging them to sign for their liberation. The installation itself was formed by hundreds of miniature pictures of the prisoners behind prison cell bars. The bars of each cell were formed by detachable pens. Removing the pens from the installation removed the bars from the cells, symbolizing how passengers’ support could help liberate real people. The pens were used by thousands of people from all walks of life and nationalities passing through the station, including myself.

An abstract of the event can be found on the organization’s website here.

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And what was the end result of this exhibition that so moved me?

The original book containing the signatures was sent to Senior General Than Shwe, while a copy was dispatched to the U.N. secretary general and the leaders of countries with strong ties with Burma. Under the tagline ‘The Power to Free Burma’s political prisoners is in your hand,” the art and visual images in this interactive exhibition undoubtedly helped at least in some small way to raise awareness and pressure.

In his statement, Ban insisted that the lifting of political and economic sanctions on Burma wasn’t enough. The international community, he said, must do more. As an art lover, I was inspired by “Burma Installation” and believe such works can play a real role in encouraging the international public to stay engaged and supportive of Suu Kyi and those like her all over the world.

Burma Installation is testimony to the fact that even art projects have a role to play in democracy.

Monia Acciari teaches film and television at Swansea University, where she specializes in popular Hindi cinema and world cinema.