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.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496