The Shared Spaces Between Arts and Human Rights

Cyrine Saada
Outreach and Content Management Officer at LEED Initiative
3 mins

"Freedom of expression thrives through practice and becomes an empty word without the arts, culture, heritage and creativity, while without freedom of expression, the arts, culture, heritage and creativity wither”. - Jaroslav Andel

It might come as a surprise to many but there are a plethora of overlaps and commonalities between the realms of arts and human rights. Both of these worlds are utterly interested in the essence of being, raising existential questions about humanity, identity, dignity, ethics, empathy, and the like of vital concepts. They are quite universal and transcendental, fueled by a mutual vision for the future and mankind.  

The field of human rights creates spaces and offers platforms for visual and digital artists to fully express themselves and engage with their surroundings as this is only possible through the recognition and protection of the right to be creative, unpredictable, subversive and uncanny. Human rights provide the much-needed space and protection for artists to adopt new ways of thinking and seeing. Indeed, Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers”. Hence, through the protection of human rights, artists uncover uncomfortable truths, speak the outspoken and make the invisible seen.

Likewise, and at the other end of the spectrum, art invites the viewer to ponder, to reflect, to engage, and to respond respectively. In this light, art is more than aesthetics but rather a gate towards being in tune with our inner thoughts and emotions, which trigger themselves a recognition of one’s humanity and a step further towards contemplating our collective humanity. This aesthetic experience makes us questions our choices and our decisions. One example is UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage. Created during the summer of 2017, this multi-media installation is the work of Syrian-born artist and architect Mohamed Hafez and Iraqi-born writer and speaker Ahmed Badr. This project sculpturally re-creates rooms, homes, buildings and landscapes that have suffered the ravages of war. Each is embedded with the voices and stories of refugees who have escaped those rooms and buildings in hope of a fresh start in the United States.

Furthermore, art can chronicle human rights abuses and violations, consequently providing for a unique form of witnessing, storytelling, reporting and accountability. For instance, the Face of War, a painting by the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali, depicts a grieving face hovering against a barren desert landscape. As a reminiscence of the Spanish War, this painting is a savage indictment of the horrors of war.


Divergences Between Arts and Human Rights

Even though the fields of arts and human rights share many overlaps and commonalities; there are quite divergences between the two realms. Indeed, art is sometimes used to violate human rights, acting as a memorable reminder of humanitarian abuses and violations. This is the case of works that celebrate Colonialism or other schools of thought like Orientalism. Some of these artworks are seen now to be delivering messages that are abhorrent. However, they were once seen before as normal and acceptable by the public.  Furthermore, this is also the case with many blockbusters and Hollywood franchises. Many of these movies tend to have a misogynistic and sexist outlook on women, manifested in objectifying and sexualizing them.

To conclude, what is necessary to emphasize here is that freedom of artistic and creative expression needs to be protected by law and from any agenda that propel divisive narratives, censorship, intolerance, hate, or any form of pressure and intimidation.


The article represents the views of its writer and not that of LEED Initiative.