The “Feminnale” exhibition at Kyrgyzstan’s National Art Museum in Bishkek centers on the theme of economic independence for women, intentionally challenging gender norms in the country. But instead of treating the event as an opportunity to foster conversation, opponents have instigated an intense backlash, involving verbal abuse and death threats, the resignation of the museum’s director, removal of several artworks, and finally, calls for law enforcement to get involved.
The exhibition, which opened on November 28, coincides with the annual campaign 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence taking place in Kyrgyzstan and around the world. Members of a conservative nationalist movement objected to artwork incorporating nudity, and accused the artists of “perverting young people.”
The National Art Museum’s director, Mira Dzhangaracheva, was forced to resign following threats to herself and staff, including threats she said to “tear me apart, to rape me.”
Rather than enhancing protections for the artists and organizers, Kyrgyz Minister of Culture Azamat Zhamankulov sided with those seeking censorship, meeting with them to hear their complaints and calling for the removal of several artworks he deemed “provocative” and “amoral.” The censored artworks involved representations of naked women.
Then on December 5, some members of parliament spoke against the exhibition. One deputy, Kurmankul Zulushev, said law enforcement should open an investigation into the more controversial pieces on display.
International human rights instruments enshrine the right to freedom of expression, including through art. Limits to artistic freedom must be necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim, such as to defend national security or ensure respect of others’ rights. A United Nations cultural rights expert cautioned governments against curtailing the rights of artists, highlighting the importance of freedom of artistic expression to cultural and political progress. In response to the threats against Feminnale organizers, the United Nations office in Kyrgyzstan called on the government to ensure debate about gender takes place “free from incitement to hatred and violence.”
Rather than limiting public access to thought-provoking art, the Kyrgyz government should protect its creators against threats of violence and support freedom of expression, including about women’s rights. The government took steps in this direction on December 6, announcing it had opened an investigation into threats against the former museum director. It should ensure the investigation is thorough and fair and continue to act when violence threatens free expression.