Unknown Numbers – Oslo Mural Celebrating Free Speech Champions
Unknown Numbers is a 60-meter-long tribute to and celebration of freedom of speech that appears on the Peace Wall outside of the Nobel Prize Center.
Central among the stark, sometimes brutal imagery are portraits of eight free speech champions, some of whom have paid for their fight with their lives. One of those is Digna Ochoa y Placido, above, a Mexican human rights lawyer who was found shot dead in her Mexico City office in 2001.
Others portrayed include Carl von Ossietzky, a journalist imprisoned by the Nazis; Ayat al-Qurmezi, a poet and teacher from Bahrain arrested, jailed and tortured by authorities after she read a poem criticizing the regime; and Adnan Hassanpour, a Kurdish journalist imprison in Iran since 2007. (More on others portrayed follows below.)
The interpretation of Ochoa’s post mortem is one of the strongest images that make up this collaboration between artists Shwan Dler Qaradaki and Johannes Hoie, created over the span of four weeks in May and June 2016, and officially opened on June 9, the day I visited.
“Most of the people portrayed on the wall are alive today, and in the middle of their struggle,” said Qaradaki. “But some of them have died in their fight for free expression.” The exhibit’s title, “Unknown Numbers”, he said, suggests that there is no shortage of others facing the same fate.
Qaradaki is an Iraqi Kurd, who came to Oslo as a refugee 16 years ago. His brother, Kamal Rauf Rasul, who was imprisoned and tortured in the 1980s after his arrest at a protest in Iraq, is among those portrayed.
“Free speech a very personal theme to me,” Qaradaki said.
The mural exhibit’s opening coincided with the opening of The Dangerous Prize, an exhibit about von Ossietzky, who received the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in exposing Germany’s clandestine re-armament. By then he had already spent several years in prison and in concentration camps for his writings critical of the Nazi regime.
“From many countries, we are receiving signals about bad conditions for freedom of speech and of the press,” said Liv Tørres, executive director of the Nobel Peace Center. “By shedding light on the stories of some of the individuals who are risking their lives for their freedom of speech, we want to remind all the people who are passing by, that freedom of speech is a right we need to defend and protect.”
The Peace Wall is a temporary exhibit space that surrounds the construction site of Oslo’s new National Museum. “Unknown Numbers” will be on display through spring 2017.
Ochoa was a former nun who went on to represent some of Mexico”s poorest constituents against powerful government interests. She also uncovered torture and other abuses by the Mexican military and police. Ochoa worked on behalf of peasant ecologists in the state of Guerrerro, Zapatistas guerrillas in Chiapas and indigenous Indians in her home state of Verazcruz. At the time of her death, she was defending three men charged with bombing banks in Mexico City to protest against globalization.
At the time of her death,
She was thirty-seven years old and had received many death threats. In fact, when Ochoa was twenty-four she was kidnapped and raped only days after discovering a blacklist of union organizers and political activists in the office of the state attorney general.
Carl Von Ossietzky
A German pacifist, journalist and whistleblower convicted for high treason after reporting on Germany’s illegal rearmament in the 1920s. He was sent to concentration camps when the Nazis took power and died in captivity in 1938. He was awarded the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize, the first time the prize went to a dissident convicted for treason.
Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza
A human rights activist and democracy campaigner from Rwanda who headed the Unified Democratic Forces, a coalition of Rwandan opposition parties and groups. Umuhoza returned to Rwanda in 2010 after 16 years in exile to run as a candidate in the national elections that year, but was banned. In 2012 she was sentenced to eight years in prison for “conspiracy against the country and terrorism” and remains under arrest.
A Kurdish/Iranian journalist, Adnan Hassanpour was accused of espionage and working with outlawed parties and sentenced to death in 2007. His sentence was later reduced to 15 years.
A pro-Kurdish lawyer and human rights activist who helped start Amnesty International in Turkey, Tahir Elci was shot and killed while delivering a press statement in November 2015. He was arrested a month earlier after speaking in support of the PKK on Turkish television. 100,000 people attended his funeral.
A Saudi Arabian blogger and co-founder of Free Saudi Liberals, Raif Badawi was arrested in June 2012 for “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and several other charges, including apostasy. In 2014 he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes; he suffered his first flogging, consisting of 50 lashes, in January 2015; subsequent floggings have been postponed, presumably due to Badawi’s poor and failing health. His imprisonment and sentence has been widely condemned internationally. The Guardian takes a look at his writings.
Ayat al-Qurmezi is a poet and teacher arrested, detained and tortured by Bahraini authorities in 2011 after poems she read at pro-democracy gatherings critical of the Bahraini government were circulated around the world via social media. Wikipedia has a detailed timeline of her case, from the time of her public readings, her arrest and subsequent torture.
Kamal Rauf Rasul
The brother of exhibit artist Shwan Dler Qaradakis, Kamal Rauf Rasul was arrested in 1983 during a demonstration against the Iraqi regime and imprisoned and tortured for three months in Sulimani, Kurdistan in northern Iraq. Today he works as a physics teacher.