Artists can be selective when it comes to choosing icons

Artists can be selective when it comes to choosing icons

RECENTLY, the movie Exit Through the Gift Shop was shown at the European Film Festival in Bangkok.

Directed by the infamous street artist Banksy it was thematically about provocation and kicking against the dictates of authority.

Among those starring in the film was Banksy’s American counterpart, Shepard Fairey, who, it was revealed last week, has painted a striking image of Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Fairey’s creation is being used as a poster for French director Luc Besson’s new movie about Suu Kyi, aptly called The Lady, which will premiere next Monday at the Toronto Film Festival.

It is likely to become as famous as Fairey’s iconic Hope poster of Barack Obama that he did for the then-senator’s 2008 presidential campaign.

His latest portrait is an amalgam of Suu Kyi herself and Malaysian actress and former ‘Bond girl’ Michelle Yeoh, who plays her in the movie, opposite David Thewliss, as her late husband, Michael Aris.

In June, Yeoh was blacklisted by the Myanmar government for her role in The Lady and was rudely deported when she flew to Yangon.

It was eerily reminiscent of the way another pro-democracy activist, Vo Van Ai, was blacklisted by the Thai government last year and threatened with deportation if he flew to Bangkok.

Acting under pressure from Hanoi, the Thai foreign ministry rescinded a visa that its Paris embassy had granted Ai one week earlier.

As chairman of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights, Ai was scheduled to speak at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand about the lack of freedom of expression in his country.

It is characterised, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said later, by “severe jail sentences for political activists, attacks on bloggers, and restrictions on Internet and religious freedom.”

By a strange quirk, on the same day that news came about Fairey’s imposing poster for The Lady, it was announced that Ai had won the ninth Special Prize for Freedom by Italy’s Società Libera.

The award was given to mark his lifelong work to promote greater respect for human rights and the rule of law in Vietnam.

Regrettably, it received little press coverage, but as Ai himself said: “The Western media sees Vietnam simply as a tourist haven and a lucrative business venue.”

He added: “There is rarely a word about the thousands of democracy activists and human rights defenders who put their safety on the line day after day to claim their legitimate rights.”

The contrast with Myanmar is intriguing and raises issues like why the Lonely Planet guide to that country has an introductory think-twice section entitled ‘Should you go?’, but does not for its Vietnam book.

Likewise, it is perplexing that the Rough Guide publishers bring out an edition on Vietnam, and even on North Korea for God’s sake, but recoil at the prospect of one on Myanmar.

Perhaps this is why Banksy and Fairey have done no street art about Ai or any of Vietnam’s 450 pro-democracy detainees.

Someone like Cu Huy Ha Vu, for instance, who got seven years in April for “spreading anti-state propaganda” by simply suggesting that the Communist regime should let other parties exist.

Aside from also having a difficult four-element name, Vu has other similarities to Suu Kyi in that he is the son of a famous revolutionary hero, Cu Huy Can, a comrade of Ho Chi Minh and a renowned poet.

As with Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s revered founder, General Aung San, Vu’s lineage did not prevent him from being locked up.

Certainly, it would be nice to see an iconic Banksy image of Vu, and perhaps later, a movie called The Poet with Jet Li in the title role and Jackie Chan as his father, Uncle Ho’s buddy, Can.

It may yet happen. As Ai said: “The seeds for an ‘Arab spring’ in Vietnam have been sown and they are growing.”

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