Artist hangs reworked Al-Jazeera logo to stir censorship debate

A neon sign that reads "Shame on you" in Arabic now greets students approaching Carleton University's journalism building.
The artwork's location on the journalism building is the perfect context, said artist Jamelie Hassan. ((Kate Porter/CBC))
A neon sign that reads "Shame on you" in Arabic now greets students approaching Carleton University's journalism building.

The artwork, intended to stir debate about censorship, is designed to resemble the logo of the Arabic television news network Al-Jazeera, said Jamelie Hassan, the artist who crafted it.

Hassan will be holding a public dialogue Monday evening at the university about her pieceAl Jazeera and the controversial Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission decision that inspired it.

In 2004 the national broadcast regulator ruled that Al-Jazeera could broadcast in Canada, but required companies carrying the channel to monitor it 24 hours a day for offensive content. The apparent unwillingness of any cable company to do so has been blamed for the fact that none carry the network, which has both Arabic and English-language services.

Hassan calls the CRTC  decision censorship.

Her luminous teardrop-shaped piece is a little larger than a bicycle wheel and hangs two storeys up against the red brick wall of the St. Patrick's Building. It has an interior criss-crossed by a sweeping, curved script.

Hassan said its display on a building used by students of journalism, cultural studies and visual art is the perfect context to explore her idea.

"Because there are so many people there who are trained to think, to ask the questions," she said.

She added that she hopes it will make people wonder about Al-Jazeera and the issues surrounding the CRTC decision.

"Maybe this will bring some of the school of journalism students into the art gallery. That in itself would be a big step."

Karim Karim, head of the journalism department at Carleton, will be joining Hassan for the public dialogue, which will be moderated by Canadian studies professor Eva Mackey.

Karim said the piece, which he sees daily on the way to work, made him think more deeply about the way the Canadian system works.

"If we do uphold the freedom of expression, then maybe we shouldn't hide behind seven-second delays and other mechanisms, which basically lead to the censoring of certain voices in our society," he said.

Hassan's piece is part of the Carleton University Art Gallery exhibition ImagiNation: New Cultural Topographies, which showcases work by seven artists about Canadian identity and will run until November.

Students responding

Many students passing by the neon work last week were unaware of its significance.

"It's got a graffiti kind of look to it but it looks really cool," remarked Justin Morvay, who admitted he didn't know what it meant, but was interested to find out.

Fellow student Renato Giamberardino said he wasn't sure about the medium, which he thought was out of place at a university.

"Seems a little Vegas," he said.

But when told about its meaning, he was clearly intrigued.

"That's a little controversial … It's weird, now I'm going to be looking at that all the time," he said, adding that he has three classes at the St. Patrick's Building.

The piece has prompted at least some students, like Adam Chenard, to think about what he also called a controversial issue.

"But, I mean, it's also something that's related to some people's culture," he said while standing outside the building. "So I don't see why in a multicultural country like ours, we'd be censoring something like that."

The dialogue with Hassan was scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday in the Carleton University Art Gallery.

Also under discussion will be a companion piece to Al-Jazeera called Prisoner 345, inspired by the case of Sami Al-haj, an Al-Jazeera cameraman who was detained at the Guantanomo Bay prison for more than six years but released this past May after a 16-month hunger strike during which he was kept alive through force feeding. That piece is on display inside the gallery.