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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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