Speech to the Overseas Chinese Democracy Coalition's 4th Annual Conference Washington D.C., January 26, 2002

Speech to the Overseas Chinese Democracy Coalition's 4th Annual Conference
Washington D.C., January 26, 2002

I want to thank the Overseas Chinese Democracy Coalition and Mr. Wei JingSheng for inviting me here today and giving me the honor of saying a few words to you.

I am an artist and the creator of the Human Rights Painting Project. Working in conjunction with Amnesty International, I am using art to raise funds for and awareness of Amnesty's important work. I am also donating 50% of all sales of the paintings to them.

As I am sure many of you already know, Amnesty International is a worldwide, grass-roots movement of people who campaign for human rights - writing letters, issuing reports and acting as a necessary, independent watchdog of the international community. Often, Amnesty members are the only people providing hope to imprisoned men and women struggling against oppressive regimes.

The Human Rights Painting Project involves my painting portraits of human rights defenders and other freedom fighters. The portraits themselves are emotional, uncomfortable looks into a world where basic human rights are not guarantees - but something to be fought and even died for. Sometimes disturbing visions of tortured young boys and girls; men and women oppressed only for their belief in democracy or equality, or a haunting image of an imprisoned general, caught on the wrong side of his government's horrible fight - these paintings make real the ideas that Amnesty International works so hard for.

It is not an exaggeration to say that at times I have felt physically ill when I read the stories of 12 year-old boys being beaten or of beautiful young women having their lives stripped from them for no greater offense than desiring to learn to read and write. I have tried to channel these intense feelings into the paintings themselves, making them testaments to the memories of these unknown heroes.

I have been very encouraged by the excitement generated by this idea to fuse art and human rights. The AFL-CIO, the national labor union of the United States, is hosting the kick-off event at their headquarters in April 2002. In addition, Mr. Wei JingSheng has been a great help and a strong supporter. Many people have donated their time and money to make sure that we will produce a catalogue to accompany the show - giving viewers a document with images and stories to remind them of this important struggle. And nine congressional sponsors - including Senators Paul Wellstone and John Kerry and civil rights hero Congressman John Lewis have signed on as honorary co-sponsors of the venture.

Through this art project, I am trying to create awareness for new audiences of the difficult and important struggle for human rights that these figures represent. Sometimes, faced with an image both beautiful and painful, a person might become inspired to stop simply thinking and start acting - and become part of this vital work. By introducing these issues in such a personal and emotional way, I hope turn more people into activists.

Ultimately, my motivation in undertaking this project is a personal one. I certainly have never been subjected to the kind of horrible circumstances that so many people that I have painted have undergone. However, I feel passionately that I must be a part of this struggle - indeed, that we all must be a part of this struggle - and that we must use whatever skills we have been given to fight for justice for all peoples, wherever and however they live. It is necessary that each of us do our part, however small - that each of us raises our own, small voice to object to the shocking occurrences happening every day, around the world.

After all, the sound of a thousand individual voices raised together is a roar - and the roar of justice is just what the leaders of countries, all countries - must hear from their citizens to inform them of how important these ideas of rights and justice are to the average man and woman.

The Spanish have a saying - "Tu indiferencia te hace complice" - that is to say; if one lacks concern for the rights and needs of others, this lack of concern makes them a silent collaborator in the repression of those persons. We must care - and I hope that by sharing my personal passion for this struggle for basic human privileges through my art, that I can touch something in others, inspiring them to become part of this fundamental effort.