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Darfurnica: Art must offend, shock and disturb

Aug 24, 2011

Danish artist Nadia Plesner’s painitng, Darfurnica establishes the irony of media’s obsession with celebrities and showbiz while ignoring real stories of deprivation. The painting of a naked African boy carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag has drawn attention to the genocide in Darfur, and become a symbol of freedom of expression.

Artists and activists all over the world can now take heart. Not only has an artist had her exhibition of paintings extended twice in a prestigious art gallery, she has won a legal victory against an internationally acclaimed fashion house to espouse her cause through art. 

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Danish artist Nadia Plesner succeeded in a suit against iconic accessories giant Louis Vuitton in a case upholding her freedom of expression when the court in The Hague ruled in her favour in May 2011. It declared that artists enjoy "considerable freedom" with regard to artistic licence, in which art may "offend, shock or disturb". The court reversed its earlier order and asked Louis Vuitton to pay Plesner's legal fees.

When the young Plesner, a struggling artist, took on the power and reputation of Louis Vuitton at The Hague earlier this year for her right to express and espouse the cause of Darfur, many viewed it as a symbol of internationalism, while others gasped in disbelief at her audacity. 

But apart from the thrill of the battle fought between the small and the mighty, the artist succeeded in indicting mainstream media's obsession with triviality and celebrities. The case also highlighted the conflict of interest between artistic expression and intellectual property rights fought over images and symbols used in a painting to depict the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

Unlike in oil-rich Libya, a strategically important geo-political country, where western democracies eagerly jumped into the civil strife to "protect" civilians against Muammar Gaddafi, the world continues to dilly-dally on the ongoing genocide in Darfur in western Sudan. The International Criminal Court (ICC), led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jody Williams, indicted President Omar al-Bashir for genocide in 2010. Williams told the media that a firm international stance, similar to that which brought an end to apartheid in South Africa, is needed in Sudan. 

The Sudanese government has been accused of orchestrating and participating in the atrocities in Darfur. According to UN estimates, more than 200,000 people have been killed since extreme violence broke out in 2003. Human Rights Watch reported last year that government-led attacks have killed and injured scores of civilians, destroyed property, and displaced more than 70,000 people, largely from ethnic communities linked to rebel groups. "Darfur once commanded the headlines, but now risks being forgotten," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

The 'Darfurica'

Plesner's controversial images have been displaying a naked African boy with a look-alike Louis Vuitton Audra bag slung stylishly over one hand, while perched in the crook of his other arm is a Chihuahua dressed in a pink sweater, a satirical allusion to Paris Hilton, photographed several times with these accessories. Plesner first used this startling image in a series, Simple Living, on T-shirts and posters, and later in a painting.

"Since doing nothing but wearing designer bags and small ugly dogs is enough to get you on a magazine cover, maybe it's worth a try for people who actually deserve and require attention"
Nadia Plesner, Artist

The irony of the image can hardly be missed. Plesner, who has been deeply moved by the crisis in Darfur, is trying to expose and establish the incongruous contrast between the media's obsession with showbiz and celebrities while the cruel reality of people's lives go largely ignored. "Since doing nothing but wearing designer bags and small ugly dogs is enough to get you on a magazine cover, maybe it's worth a try for people who actually deserve and require attention. If you can't beat them, join them!" she says.

The diminishing boundaries between editorial, news and entertainment are an all-too-familiar media scenario for media consumers in India. The craving for celebrity stories is increasingly addictive and people follow these "news items" with more passion than real stories about real people. Celebrity pregnancies, celebrity waistlines and abs make frenzied "news", while millions of malnourished children and thousands dying of pregnancy-related problems in an India that's recording impressive growth figures even in a recession-hit world, do not merit sustained coverage.

In 2007, the Pew Research Centre Publications' Public Blames Media For Too Much Celebrity Coverage shows that an overwhelming majority of the public (87%) believed that celebrity scandals receive too much news coverage. Virtually no one thinks there is too little coverage of celebrity scandals. Asked who is most to blame for the amount of space these stories are given, the majority of respondents pointed to the media. The same situation prevails in India.

Plesner's attempt to prompt a somnolent public engaged in navel-gazing to take an interest in the real world of wars, deprivation and starvation certainly drew the attention of Louis Vuitton. Louis Vuitton did not want to be associated in the public mind with the situation in Darfur. According to court papers (after a prompt acknowledgement of my email, the company did not get back to me), though Louis Vuitton found the campaign for Darfur "praiseworthy", it opposed the "unauthorised" use of its handbag as a violation of its intellectual property rights. 

The company accused Plesner of attracting public attention to her own products by using the intellectual property rights of Louis Vuitton, and of "free riding". In January 2011, it obtained an ex parte order from the district court in The Hague that Plesner should stop using the image of the Audra bag in her painting and other works, or pay 5,000 euros every day she exhibits in galleries or online.

The immediate reason for the legal pressure on Plesner was her painting Darfurnica, which is now being exhibited in Copenhagen's prestigious art gallery HEART (the exhibition has been extended twice on popular demand). 

The painting was inspired by Pablo Picasso's 1930s anti-war painting Guernica. The child carrying the Louis Vuitton bag is shown in Dafurnica between media celebrities like Paris Hilton and Victoria Beckham, and the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil world leaders like the heads of China, Russia and the USA, with a leering Bashir, president of Sudan. The painting shows mass graves juxtaposed with images of English TV star Jade Goody, who made headline news as a member of reality shows (including the Indian Big Boss) and subsequently made headlines again when she was told – on camera – that she had terminal cancer.

Plesner first stepped on Louis Vuitton's toes when she used the image of the African boy with the handbag in the Simple Living series on T-shirts and posters, the money collected from sales donated to Darfur. In May 2008, Louis Vuitton obtained an ex parte order from a French court seeking monetary penalties of 5,000 euros every day. But Plesner remained adamant. "Just because I paint on T-shirts and posters to raise an issue does not make them merchandise," she argued. "Simple Living is an artwork." 

Legal struggle

In January 2011, when the court issued an ex parteorder, Plesner took the offensive. "My only option to get rid of these growing fines was to counter-sue to try and have the order lifted. I felt nervous as I realised what a big opponent they (Louis Vuitton) are; on the other hand I felt so violated."

In response to Plesner's counter-suit, the court said in May 2011 that the case involved "fundamental rights that are on equal footing but conflicting" and found that Plesner's intention was not to free-ride on Louis Vuitton's reputation in a commercial sense. It was Plesner's artistic prerogative, said the court, to use the image of Simple Living as an eye-opener, which does not make it unlawful. The court quashed the earlier ex parte order of January 2011 and asked Louis Vuitton to pay Plesner's legal fees.

In the meantime, artists have been watching the entire legal battle with trepidation as Plesner's case could have a deep impact on their own work. Artists from all over the world not only sent solidarity messages to Plesner, some even accompanied her to court. Galleries like the HEART made a political statement in support of artistic freedom by exhibiting Plesner's paintings. Museum Director Holger Reenberg said: "We decided to exhibit Darfurnica because common sense told us that it could not be right for a private company to censor the content of a painting."

If artists like Plesner face the pressure of corporate might on grounds of infringement of intellectual property, India is today witnessing increasing attacks by moral police and right-wing groups on artists and writers for hurting the "morality" or "sentiments" of people. Books, cinema and art are being targeted today. The most recent instance of state indifference and apathy was its inaction when the vandalism and threats of right-wing groups caused M F Husain to leave the country and eventually die in exile.

In a world that appears to have turned upside down, perhaps it is not so surprising that an expensive and fashionable handbag could actually draw attention to the genocide in Darfur, and become a symbol of freedom of expression.

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