Self-determination The Price of Freedom

A Ugandan artist painting a mural, on which the shape of Africa is drawn and filled in with colour.
Ugandans take part in painting activities during the Mara Mara peace festival in Kampala, Uganda. The festival drew inspiration from the African Union’s declaration of 2020 as the year for “silencing the guns”. | Photo (detail): Ronald Kabuubi © picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS

At a time when freedom in the world is on the verge of collapse due to restrictions by authoritarian systems and the Corona pandemic, it is becoming clear how public space is rapidly shrinking. What role do artists play in the defence of freedom?

By Martial Pa’nucci aka Moyi Mbourangon

In the face of censorship and deprivation of freedom, the situation is confusing and the future is no longer as secure as it was thought to be at the beginning of the century. In this confusion, it is important to urgently pose a few questions: What does it mean to be free from an artist's perspective? Are we already on the precipice in terms of individual, local, regional and global freedoms? What can we do as individuals or collectively to preserve this very freedom?

What Does Freedom Mean in the 21st Century?

If freedom is defined as the inalienable power or right of the individual to dispose of his or her person; to think or act without constraint, then it can also be seen as the essential characteristic that primarily defines the human being. The ideal would be to be born, grow up, live and leave (die) in freedom. But this requires an environment where all these dimensions are secured. A lot of evidence point to the fact that, contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not all “humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights” in the twenty-first century.

Being free in the present century still depends on where you were born or where you live. And even the art world, to which this rule did not apply, has finally given in with the hyper-industrialisation of culture and the hype of turning artists into stars.

Depending on whether you are born in Berlin or Brazzaville, Paris or Ouagadougou, Beijing or Dakar, Johannesburg or Libreville, Lusaka or New York, Bogota or Tokyo, Port-au-Prince or New Delhi, your freedom will not have the same meaning, let alone the same value. For example, in terms of mobility, a person can freely leave Dublin or London and travel more easily to Nouakchott or Banjul, but the reverse is almost or all but impossible. The treatment of humans in this context shows us that being free nowadays depends more on your social standing, your bank account and your country of origin, than on your human condition.

… art still has the capacity to transcend differences and bring people together, where politics and borders oppress and divide.

We should therefore, as artists, question and amend the way our societies function on this issue and propose ways of thinking through art to improve the situation. But is that enough? The question arises - and we must make up for this big imbroglio - that is to say, we must make sure that every human being enjoys the same freedom irrespective of his or her social rank or place of birth. This is one of the greatest challenges of our time, in my view. And we artists should fight and endeavour to make this possible because art still has the capacity to transcend differences and bring people together, where politics and borders oppress and divide.

The Price of Freedom is Audacity

In December 2020, I arrived at Blaise Diagne airport in Senegal, where the second edition of the UPEC (Université Populaire de l'Engagement Citoyen) organised by Afrikki, was to be held under the theme Autocratic push: citizen action in question. I was unexpectedly sequestered for three days and it was only on the third day that I learned, through a note from the Senegalese Ministry of the Interior, that I represented a threat to public order (because of my artistic activism) and that I would be expelled to Burkina Faso, where I had been living in exile for five years. Except that there would be no deportation and I would end up spending two more nights in confinement sleeping on the floor. It was only thanks to a video I posted on social media - I filmed myself at the airport despite the ban to denounce this situation - that I was able to regain my freedom and be deported to Burkina Faso. Once outside Senegal, I learned that the Congolese regime was trying to have me extradited from Senegal to Congo-Brazzaville, an autocratic regime that I have always denounced.

This experience proves that without audacity in the 21st century, we humans would continue to live under the rule of states and systems that are becoming more and more authoritarian. We live in a time when we leave our freedoms in the hands of a minority of people who govern us and do not always respect the established social contract. Many find this normal, but some don't and neither do I. What would happen if one day this minority in power decided to take over or to deny these freedoms? This has already happened to me because I grew up between coups and dictatorships.

We live in a time when we leave our freedoms in the hands of a minority of people who govern us and do not always respect the established social contract.

Most of the time, a situation of simple denial of freedom leads to reactions, and sometimes these reactions manage to move the lines thus making it possible to reclaim bits and pieces of freedom. But it all depends on the environment in which you are operating. Because in situations of war, coup or dictatorship, people's reactions are either stifled or suppressed - there are no half measures. And in such situations, as an artist, you have to be bold, stand up and fight for your freedom and those of your fellow human beings.

No Freedom Without Humanity

Artists must know how to respond to situations of violation or denial of freedom, even in dictatorships. They must bring courage and light where darkness prevails. An artist should not just entertain, but also enlighten. Audacity enables artists to write, paint, sing, dance, draw, play, recite poems, put up graffiti in public spaces in order to defend the weakest and allow them to dare to be free.

To return to the example of freedom of movement: The absence of reciprocity has led to clandestine migration. Without wishing to encourage the practice, it must be acknowledged that these hundreds of migrants who land on European shores are daring. Deprived of legal means due to harsh migration policies, they risk their lives.  This could not be described in any other way than the audacity to show the world their humanity. But, above all, they perpetuate a practice as old as humanity: emigrating because one aspires to better living conditions.  This is the freedom of each and every human being on earth.


  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • Felwine Sarr, Afrotopia, Editions Philippe Rey, 2016, pp. 92-93
  • Sony Labou Tansi, La Vie et demie, Seuil, 1979