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Artist Depicts Grim Reality of Uzbek Jails

  • Sergei Ignatyev’s paintings attempt to convey the horrors of Uzbekistan's prison system. (Photo courtesy of S. Ignatyev)
    Sergei Ignatyev’s paintings attempt to convey the horrors of Uzbekistan's prison system. (Photo courtesy of S. Ignatyev)
  • The images were inspired from prisoners' own accounts, often written on scraps of paper smuggled out of jail.  (Photo courtesy of S. Ignatyev)
    The images were inspired from prisoners' own accounts, often written on scraps of paper smuggled out of jail. (Photo courtesy of S. Ignatyev)
  • Sergei Ignatyev. (Photo courtesy of S. Ignatyev)
    Sergei Ignatyev. (Photo courtesy of S. Ignatyev)

An exhibition of paintings depicting the brutality of Uzbekistan’s prison system goes on tour this autumn, in what artist Sergei Ignatyev says is an attempt to use art in support of human rights. 

Ignatyev, originally from Uzbekistan and now living in the United States, is coordinator of an arts project for the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia as well as painting himself.

A selection of 44 of his works based on letters and stories from Uzbek prisoners goes on show at the Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy in the Peruvian capital Lima this October, before moving on to Brussels and Paris as part of an exhibition highlighting the plight of political prisoners in the former Soviet Union.

In an interview for NBCentralAsia, Ignatyev described how letters smuggled out of prison inspired his work.

Sergey Ignatyev: When I saw evidence of the extreme brutality to which Uzbek prisoners are subjected, I conceived the idea of doing a series of pieces. The subject-matter came from letters written in prison, from former political prisoners, from photos of the bodies of prisoners who died from brutal treatment, and from reports produced by human rights defenders and journalists.

For example, the painting “Dream” was prompted by the lines, “I was unable to free myself from the illusion that dull obedience to the regime would release me from humiliation. I wanted to survive, but freedom soon became just a secret dream.”

The wife of an inmate at the Jaslik prison in northwestern Uzbekistan suggested the theme of “Wings”. She wrote to me of her husband, “His bruised hands were cold and had no nails. He could not hold a spoon. He was always silent.”

A letter from Andijan prison addressed to an inmate’s mother that described daily life and routine cruelty inspired the paintings “Prison Football” and “The Search”.

These letters are small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, and are in tiny handwriting. Often the authors don’t sign their names… there’s a big danger the letters will be found in their relatives’ possession after a prison visit. If prison staff find the letter, the inmate will lose the right to visits, he will be placed in solitary confinement and receive an additional sentence as a punishment. They use torture to make them beg President Islam Karimov for forgiveness.

NBCentralAsia: How do you come up with the unusual images in your paintings?

Ignatyev: One letter from an inmate describes a superintendent calling prisoners “walking meat”. A former political prisoner described how jail transforms a person into an animal whose only aim is survival.

If you are lucky enough to escape from this hell, you can never go back to the way you were. You can never see life in all its colours; there is only infinite fear.

NBCentralAsia: How compatible do you think art and human rights are? We generally think of protecting human rights as something serious involving reports and protests rather than paintings.

Ignatyev: Hollywood actors have joined in the protests against restrictions on human rights. Caroline Aaron and Reno Wilson played leading roles in “Cries From The Heart: Freedom Needs a Voice” [theatrical performance in support of Human Rights Watch, May 2012], which depicted the brutal repression of rights and freedoms in Uzbekistan. In my opinion, this was one of the finest examples of the solidarity between artists and rights workers.

At a concert in Moscow, Madonna appeared on stage wearing a mask and called for the release of members of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot.

NBCentralAsia: What’s the main aim of your project and what audience do you hope to reach?

Ignatyev: We want to reach out to people who are ready to speak out against torture, to speak up for human dignity and for people’s right to express their views.

That aim comes out of the position in which independent artists find themselves in Central Asia. They have to work within limitations, avoid many taboo themes, and work under assumed names. As a result, Central Asian artists rarely engage in political themes, cartoons or street art.

Art that concerns itself with human rights evokes a sense of inner freedom. And the manifestation of freedom always brings down dictatorships.

This article was produced as part of News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.

If you would like to comment or ask a question about this story, please contact our Central Asia editorial team at feedback.ca@iwpr.net.

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