What happens when a piece of feminist artwork is turned into anti-Islamic propaganda?

Canadian artist Rosea Lake has seen her artwork appropriated by a far-right political group in Belgium and used to oppose 'Islamification'.

Rosea Lake's original artwork

 

When Canadian artist and graphic design student Rosea Lake released an artwork that criticised society’s view of women, she could have never guessed that it would go transatlantic. Even less likely was that in doing so, it would end up in the hands of a far-right political group in Belgium who would appropriate it, and then spearhead their campaign against 'Islamification’ with a xenophobic version.

While at university in 2012, Lake shared a piece online that she had created for a design project. It featured a woman’s legs and a skirt, with terms from ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ to ‘prudish’ and ‘matronly’ written at the appropriate measuring points. Almost immediately, the image went viral.

‘We measure women the same way we measure cylinders,’ she told The Huffington Post that year, in an interview that followed up her startling internet success (over 100,000 reblogs in 24 hours), ‘but no one says it because it’s mean.’ Clearly, terms like ‘asking for it’ – another example from the artwork – are meaner than stating the situation outright.

Fast forward a few short months, and Lake is now leading a Facebook campaign in support of ‘artists who have been ripped off everywhere’ following the unauthorised use of her image by Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest.) The group has a murky history, originating from a party (Vlaams Blok) that was effectively shut down by a court ruling in 2004 declaring it racist. Vlaams Belang is supposedly a less extreme version of its predecessor, which advocates strict limits on immigration and opposes multiculturalism.

Anke Vandermeersch, senator of the Vlaams Belang party and President of related group Women Against Islamification, apparently lent her own legs for a recreation of the image which uses the words ‘steniging’ (stoning) at the top, ‘gematigde Islam’ (moderate Islam) at the ankles, and the self-explanatory ‘Sharia-conform’ underneath the feet.

On the Women Against Islamification website, an article by Anke Vandermeersch states that the group are against ‘the authentication of mosques, the subsidisation of Muslim associations, Quran schools and mosques, the payment of imams, etc.’ She also warns, in the scaremongering tones so beloved of the far right, that ‘[i]f Europe does not strike back, the dire menace of Islamic colonisation will sooner [or] later become true.’ There is more than a trace of irony in the fact that Lake named her original artwork ‘Judgments’ (Vlaams Belang reimagined it as ‘Vrijheid of Islam? [freedom or Islam?]’)

Lake, who intended her original work to promote tolerance and discussion, says that she does not have the means to pursue legal action against Vlaams Belang or Anke Vandermeersch. In her original Tumblr post sharing her work, she wrote: ‘I used to assume that all women who wore Hijabs were being oppressed, slut-shame, and look down on and judge any woman who didn’t express her sexuality in a way that I found appropriate. I’d like to think I’m more open now.’ Sage advice that Vandermeersch and her compatriots would do well to follow themselves.

Meanwhile, Lake hopes to use the same social media tactics which made her artwork so successful in the first place to spread the word about Vlaams Belang’s underhanded tactics. Although financial compensation seems logistically impossible to guarantee, she considers it important from both a political and artistic perspective to raise awareness.

It remains to be seen whether the Vlaams Belang party or the Women Against Islamification project will pay her any attention – one of many debts which they owe her.

Rosea Lake's original artwork
Holly Baxter is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Guardian and The New Statesman. She is also one half of The Vagenda and releases a book on the media in May 2014.
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear