Today, as we in the United States live our first day under a new administration, we bring you John Zarobell’s “Precarious Citizenship.” Originally published in Art Practical’s issue 8.1, this article explores the “precarious citizenship” of Gazi Nafis Ahmed, a Bangladeshi artist whose rich black-and white portraits of queer communities have gained unwanted fundamentalist attention, making it unsafe for him to remain in his country. Zarobell says, “Precarious citizenship is a fact for countless artists, and we must seek justice and asylum for these artists who cannot be safe in their home country.” As we take to the streets today, we march with those across the world whose citizenship does not guarantee or accept their very identity.
In the United States, we tend to think of citizenship as a privilege, but it is not hard to imagine how it could instead be a curse when your very right to exist is challenged in your home country. In 2015, Europe received more than a million refugees—many of whom destroyed their own identity cards in order to erase their national identity so that they could not be deported back to their home countries. The UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention guarantees asylees the right of non-refoulement, which prevents any signatory state from sending refugees back to countries where their lives are in danger due to persecution. This was a response to the persecution of Jews and others under Hitler’s Third Reich, and the Convention constitutes an effort to ensure that such genocides never happen again. But as the global refugee population climbs to sixty-five million, receiving countries struggle to adjust, and many countries have closed their borders altogether so that refugees might never arrive. Forced migration is an issue that often remains in the shadows, but many artists are struggling to find a place where they can express their own views without fear of persecution.
The singer Paul Robeson famously quipped that he was a citizen of the world, and while this sentiment is more common than ever in our globalized age, Robeson’s own experience demonstrates citizenship’s limitations. While speaking out against injustice in the United States, he was hounded by Joseph McCarthy’s infamous House Un-American Activities Committee and was even denied the right to travel abroad in the 1950s. Robeson’s story is tragic and represents a kind of wound that many artists confront to this day. Ai Weiwei was jailed in 2011 and had his passport confiscated for years by Chinese authorities due to his criticism of the government. These cases are but symptoms of a much larger trend of persecuting artists whose work transgresses the norms of their eras or expands social or political conversation beyond the views advocated by the government. Robeson and Ai allow us to see how making art with a conscience can lead to a form of precarious citizenship.