This week sees the start of the latest in a series of trials against Swedish self-declared artist Dan Park, convicted in August of defamation and incitement to racial hatred. The controversial art pieces – banned by several galleries in Sweden following the indictment – are now on sale online in Denmark, where the Danish Free Press Society will also display the pictures at an art gallery in Copenhagen later this month. The society seems to pursue what looks increasingly like a tradition of swapping a responsible use of freedom of expression with some sort of ‘entitlement racism’, therefore claiming a ‘right’ to insult and bully ethnic minorities.
Dan Park notably created and distributed posters with a picture of the human rights defender Jallow Momodou, Chair of the Pan African Movement for Justice (Afrosvenskarnas forum för rättvisa) and Vice-Chair of the European Network Against Racism, superimposed on the image of a naked slave in chains. Park's posters were distributed around Malmö and also included Momodou's name and contact details. Other pieces by the ‘artist’ include a picture of three black men hanged on a bridge, one of whom is Jallow Momodou and the other is a victim of racially motivated violence, with the caption ‘hang on Afrophobians’.
This questions the extent to which art can be used freely to offend minority groups, in this case the millions of people of African descent living in Europe, and in the most extreme cases, incite to racial hatred.
Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of democracy, in particular for artists and journalists. Extensive and vibrant case-law by the European Court of Human Rights shows that the balance between freedom of expression and other individual or collective rights is a matter of careful analysis. However, it is clear that when art or freedom of expression crosses the line into incitement to, or the promotion, of hatred, we need to set certain limits. The glorification of violence by the Swedish artist against identifiable individuals is clearly incompatible with fundamental rights. Hate speech can be perceived as an authorisation to take action and often does lead to violence.
This case reveals a worrying underlying problem: the denigrating and dehumanising portrayal of black people. These representations are not isolated incidents and are the result of a long European history of negation of Africans’ and black people’s humanity, rooted in the legacy of slavery and colonialism.
Some 150 years after the abolition of the slave trade, black people continue to be perceived and constructed as second class citizens in European societies. The fact that our parents or grandparents might have visited human zoos, in which Africans were exhibited in cages, is but one indication of the bedrock of racism that underlies the mentality prevalent in European societies. Human zoos are still a reality today, albeit in a slightly more subtle format: an installation that replicates the ‘human zoo’ has been touring different European cities this year.
Such representations of black people reinforce deeply ingrained negative stereotypes and perpetuate power structures within European societies, leading to high levels of discrimination. They also send the message that racist prejudices are socially and legally acceptable.
It is therefore essential that everyone acts responsibly to redress these twisted representations, in particular through intelligent and sensitive art. In addition, European states must show political will to combat the specific form of racism that is Afrophobia. They must recognise the severe and ongoing impact of Europe’s history of hostility and violence towards blacks, and develop effective strategies to counter the structural and everyday racism that prevents the inclusion of many blacks in European society.
Sarah Isal is the chairwoman of the European Network Against Racism, a Brussels-based group that connects local and national anti-racist NGOs throughout Europe