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Cultural boycott: useful or not?

Is a cultural boycott useful or does it in fact do just the opposite of what it is intended to do? This question was the focus of a panel discussion during the WOMEX World Music Fair, which was held from 22 to 26 October in the Spanish city of Seville.

Since the cultural boycott against apartheid in South Africa, sanctions in the domain of art have been a favourite tool to force questionable regimes to change their behaviour. Cuba has been on an EU blacklist since June after opponents of the Castro regime were arrested. The Havana Biennial, which begins in November, must operate this year without donor funds from Europe. The Senegalese Singer Youssou N'Dour recently cancelled his American tour to protest the war in Iraq. In Great Britain there are discussions about boycotting Israel and the Arabic world has been boycotting Israeli artists for some time.

The Palestinian singer Amal Murkus lives in Israel and has an Israeli passport. The Arab world continues to be closed to her; nor can she visit the occupied territories. For the most part the Israeli music world ignores her because she is Palestinian. This Palestinian is not a proponent of cultural sanctions. 'I do not accept any money from the Sharon government. That would be a slap in the face to the people with whom I fight against the Israeli regime. But I believe it is wrong not to attend a festival because Israeli musicians are performing. I prefer to use such festivals to let my own voice be heard.'

Cultural sanctions mean that artists lose their platform for expression, according to Jonathan Walton of YaD Arts production company in London. 'It is understandable that as a Muslim Youssou N'Dour refuses to play in the United States. But in so doing he loses the opportunity to have a dialogue with the public about America's practices.'

The risk is also that the musicians from the country being boycotted will be used as pawns. Amal Murkus: 'Outside Israel the government attempts to bring Palestinian and Israeli musicians together to show that we live in so-called peace. But they would never support such a thing in Israel.'

'A cultural boycott is always abuse', says British musician Ian Smith. 'Musicians become invisible pawns in political wars. I do not believe that sanctions work. Freedom has a great deal of import: musicians want to communicate.'

Inge Ruigrok

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'Current Affairs' since september 2001