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Danish art project deemed racist by Swedes

Published: 19 Aug 2014 10:34 GMT+02:00

A Danish performance art project meant to combat discrimination and celebrate diversity has been deemed racist in Sweden. 
 
The Copenhagen-based theatre company Global Stories’ project Through Different Eyes has been removed from the Malmö Festival after more than 200 Swedes signed a petition accusing the project of racism. 
 
Through Different Eyes invites the public to have their appearance altered by make-up artists so that they can temporarily assume a different ethnicity or gender. Participants are then invited to walk around in a crowded public space to experience the feedback they receive when in someone else’s skin.
 
“This is a project that celebrates diversity. We work with make-up artists and provide all kinds of transformations: from white to brown, brown to white, man to woman and woman to man. We are also looking in to transforming from young to old to address the age discrimination,” Through Different Eyes project leader Morten Nielsen told The Local. 
 
 
The project was supposed to have been part of the currently-running Malmö Festival, but festival organisers on Sunday pulled the plug after the Swedes’ negative feedback and accusations that the project resembled offensive blackface performances.
 
“We apologise if people feel aggrieved and we have taken the criticism seriously. This part of the programme took an unexpected turn and we have decided to cancel it,” organiser Pella Ström wrote on the festival’s website. 
 

A Global Stories spokesperson said the festival only used photos of white people having their skin darkened, when the project also allows for temporary transformations of all sorts. Photo: Anna Andrea Malzer,Global Stories
 
Ström told Berlingske that the cancellation of the project was a sign that Sweden “has advanced much further in the debate on integration and equality than Denmark”. 
 
Danish historian and author Mikael Javling however had a much different take on the decision to cancel Through Different Eyes. 
 
Javling, who has previously spoken with The Local about Swedes’ “downward spiral of silence” on issues of immigration and integration, called the cancellation “nearly comical”.
 
“We could laugh at it as we normally do when we talk abut Sweden, because their ideological discussions seem almost comical, but this is really serious. Sweden is a country where politicians, the media, the cultural elite – everyone, really – that has something to say [about integration issues, ed] is under severe pressure due to immigration and current issues,” he told Berlingske.
 
Nielsen, however, said he didn't want to "turn this into another Swedish and Danish fight".
 
"This is a very complex debate and I hope we don't lose the complexity when discussing Swedes' and Danes' differences. I can understand how minorities in Malmö might have seen this as a blackface project, but it is everything else but that. It is very hard to be accused of doing something that is the exact opposite of its intention," he told The Local. 
 
Global Stories put on the Through Different Eyes project at the Malmö Festival last year without incident. Nielsen said that the festival "made a serious mistake" this year by only featuring a photo of man who had his skin darkened and claims the festival only added a second photo after the controversy had gotten out of control. 
 
NOTE: The Local replaced the original image that ran with this story at the request of Global Stories, who said that they no longer allow children under the age of 14 to participate in their project. 

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Justin Cremer (justin.cremer@thelocal.com)

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