Ashraf Fayadh, a poet recently sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia by beheading, relayed a simple but grim message to the world from his prison cell.
"I'm an artist and I want my freedom," Fayadh, 35, said over the telephone last week as he spoke with colleagues from the art collective Edge of Arabia, who have been advocating for his release along with a number of other artistic and human rights groups.
Fayadh is charged with blasphemy for penning a book of love poems allegedly containing atheistic writings and uttering religiously blasphemous comments in an Abha café in 2013.
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An avant-garde painter and celebrated curator whose family is of Palestinian origin and is not a citizen of any country, Fayadh is also accused of having illicit relationships with women. He was originally sentenced to four years in prison and 800 lashes in 2014, but his appeal was dismissed and he was retried. He denies all of the charges.
"It's a pretty shocking case," says Adam Coogle, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Jordan who has seen and verified the court documents of Fayadh's case. Coogle says that Fayadh can appeal the charge.
"This gentleman was essentially sentenced to death based on the analysis of some love poems he had written many years before which were determined by the religious authorities to contain atheism and all kinds other things," Coogle says. "For this thin evidence to result in a criminal conviction, much less a death sentence, tells you how problematic certain aspects of the Saudi criminal justice system are."
The judge's ruling was so severe, Fayadh's father had a stroke shortly after learning of his son's sentence; Fayadh's friends confirmed to VICE that the elder Fayadh died last week.
"I was horrified by [Fayadh's] death sentence," says Christopher Stone, an Arabic literature expert who directs the Hunter College Arabic Program in New York. "It's absurd that the things he was accused of are crimes in Saudi Arabia to begin with. The death penalty is a savage response to crime."
In Saudi Arabia, a deeply puritanical country where many aspects of life are governed by religious sharia law, censorship is common and artists must be careful not to push boundaries lest the authorities crack down on them. Fayadh's case, extreme as it is, highlights the risks involved in challenging conventions. In January, a liberal blogger was flogged for questioning the powers that be, and few people risk showing films of any sort in public.
The death sentence is shockingly common in the country—there were at least 151 executions in 2015 as of early November, according to Amnesty International, the most since 1995. People can be put to death for offenses ranging from blasphemy to dealing drugs.
"The religious authorities [in Saudi Arabia] have a real stranglehold on the propagation of free ideas in society," explains Coogle, the Human Rights Watch Middle East expert. "They have instituted a very top-down, very homogenous narrative about what society is and how it should be. It's intolerant of other opinions. To go against that and all it's might, makes it very, very difficult for [artists]. Artists have been stifled for many, many years."
Nouf Alhimiary is a 23-year-old Saudi Arabian conceptualist feminist photographer based in the port city of Jeddah who has felt constrained by the religious state in every aspect of her work. "It's goes beyond censorship," she says. "There are 'no photography' policies everywhere," she added. "People will be in their niqab and they're still afraid to be photographed. A picture is used against you here."
Alhimiary, whose photographs were featured in a 2013 exhibit curated by Fayadh, learned of his sentencing last week on Tumblr, because Saudi media was not reporting it. Given the tense climate artists operate in the country, Alhimiary was not overly shocked by the ruling
Although women registered to vote for the first time in Saudi municipal elections this year, they are forbidden from venturing into public without male chaperones and are forced to conceal much of their bodies. This sort of ideology bleeds over into the art world.
Alhimiary once applied to a gallery to exhibit a series of photos she took of women in public, showing the clothes they normally wear underneath their abayas or niqabs. That idea was rejected by the curator for fear of upsetting the authorities. To avoid government interference in her work, Alhimiary exhibits mostly outside her home country, in places like the British Museum in London or exhibitions in Venice.
"I feel really sad that I can't share [my work] here that I can't freely speak about the things I want to address," she says. "Even sometimes when I want to post an opinion [on social media] I have to think and rethink is this appropriate for everyone to read while I'm in Saudi."
The Ministry of Culture and Information—the governing body responsible for regulating all publicly displayed art in the country—rules the Saudi Arabian art world with an iron fist. The ministry goes so far as to perform on-site inspections before shows open. Criticizing religion and the royal family are absolute no-nos in any medium, punishable by imprisonment, lashings, and even death.
Earlier this year, Basmah Felemban, a Saudi mixed media installation artist, was censored by the ministry before an art show for referencing a verse from the Quran in an installation.
"[I was told] the Qur'an shouldn't be in artwork," explained Felemban, 22, who's now based in London and working with British architects to bring Saudi art into the Jeddah public transport system.
"When you're born there, you're just raised with a natural ability of filtering your thoughts in a way to say them to people in a specific way so you don't offend anyone or put yourself in danger," she said.
Correction 11/30: An earlier version of this article misspelled Ashraf Fayadh's name in the title.