Artwork showing Sylvanian Families terrorised by Isis banned from free speech exhibition
by Claire Armitstead
Visitors to a London exhibition celebrating freedom of expression this week found plenty of familiar taboo-busting work, from Jamie McCartney's The Great Wall of Vagina, a nine-metre long cast featuring the genitals of 400 women, to Kubra Khademi's video of an eight-minute walk she made through Kabul in Afganistan, dressed in lushly contoured body armour. But they will have looked in vain for one work detailed in the catalogue by an artist known only as Mimsy.
Isis Threaten Sylvania is a series of seven satirical light box tableaux featuring the children's toys Sylvanian Families. It was removed from the Passion for Freedom exhibition at the Mall galleries after police raised concerns about the "potentially inflammatory content" of the work, informing the organisers that, if they went ahead with their plans to display it, they would have to pay £36,000 for security for the six-day show.
In Isis Threaten Sylvania, rabbits, mice and hedgehogs go about their daily life, sunning themselves on a beach, drinking at a beer festival or simply watching television, while the menacing figures of armed jihadis lurk in the background. "Far away, in the land of Sylvania, rabbits, foxes, hedgehogs, mice and all woodland animals have overcome their differences to live in harmonious peace and tranquility. Until Now," reads the catalogue note. "MICE-IS, a fundamentalist Islamic terror group, are threatening to dominate Sylvania, and annihilate every species that does not submit to their hardline version of sharia law."
The decision to remove the work from Passion for Freedom came after the Mall Galleries consulted the police, who raised "a number of serious concerns regarding the potentially inflammatory content of Mimsy's work". The gallery cited a clause in the exhibition contract which allowed it the right to request removal of an artwork.
The curators of the not-for-profit exhibition said: "To our shock the highlighted work was humorously mocking the despised terrorist organisation that causes suffering to many, not only in the Middle East, but also here, in Europe and the America," adding that, in view of the decision, the word "uncensored" had been removed from all their publicity for the show.
They pointed out that Isis Threaten Sylvania had already been exhibited, and "enthusiastically received", as part the Art15 art fair at London's Royal College of Art in May, in a section entitled Freedom Audit, curated by former Royal Academy director Kathleen Soriano.
Mimsy, a London-based artist, was particularly outraged by the suggestion, allegedly made during discussions with the police, that Isis Threaten Sylvania "isn't real art", raising the question of what an appropriate artistic response to such extremism might be. Other installations in the exhibition include Iranian Maryam Deyhim's lifesized figure of a woman in a hijab decorated with chains, and the naked torso of a woman about to be stoned for adultery, by the British-Yemeni artist Tasleem Mulhall.
Mimsy said she had adopted a pseudonym because, as the daughter of a Syrian father whose Jewish family had to go into exile in Lebanon when he was a child, she was acutely aware of the potential risk of speaking out.
"I love my freedom," she said. "I'm aware of the very real threat to that freedom from Islamic fascism and I'm not going to pander to them or justify it like many people on the left are doing."She added that the idea of using Sylvanian Families "just popped into my head" as a way of demonstrating that fanaticism was not a question of race. Though the jihadis in the work are called "MICE-IS", some are clearly cats or koalas and others have rabbits' ears popping out of their masks. "I'm sick and tired of people calling criticism of fanatical Islam racist, because racism is about your skin colour and radical Islam is nothing to do with that. There are millions of Muslims who are shocked by it too," said Mimsy.She added that she had made the tableaux between December 2014 and May 2015 and had looked on in horror as, one by one, her imagined scenarios came true. In one scene, jihadis lurk outside a schoolroom, while a class of girls sit at their desks; in another, gunmen bristle on the horizon as holidaymakers sunbathe on a beach. "It was creepy, because each time I imagined a scene it happened in reality. I made the beach scene before the Tunisian massacre and the schoolroom scene before Boko Haram abducted the schoolgirls in Nigeria," she said.
A spokeswoman for the gallery said: "Mall Galleries was approached by Westminster Police who expressed concern about the potential risks of including Mimsy's work. They made it clear there would be an additional policing cost if the work was included in the exhibition and indicated this cost would be passed on either to the artist or to the exhibition organiser. Mall Galleries relayed this information to the exhibition organiser, whose Board met and decided to remove the work from the exhibition."
Jonathan Jones reviews Isis Threaten Sylvania
The harmless animals who inhabit the happy land of Sylvania are studying in school, watching television and celebrating Gay Pride. But a black-clad army of Islamic State-like terrorists keep interrupting the cuddly peaceful ways of the toy rabbits, squirrels and other furry creatures.
In one tableau, a jihadi arrives in paradise to be greeted by 70 Sylvanian virgins. Each woodland beauty is swathed in little white robes the artist made by hand. These carefully constructed and photographed scenes of terror in Sylvania have been censored by the Mall Galleries on the advice of the police. The fact they have been removed from an exhibition called Passion for Freedom adds to the surrealism of a cowardly suppression of artistic free speech.Sylvanian Families, the popular toy that allows children to collect a whole miniature world of old fashioned shops, VW cars (that's another opportunity for satire right there), water mills and canal boats populated by cutely costumed mammals, lends itself to dark humour. It creates such a bland fantasy of innocence that it seems to invite disaster. The arrival of Islamic State is it.
The satire is not on Islamic State so much as on the west, living out our Sylvanian idyll, pretending this is not happening. The violence of the black-clad terrorists keeps interrupting domestic tranquility and public peace. Girls getting an education are about to be kidnapped. Violence is about to shatter a day at the beach. All that is missing from these funny yet grisly glimpses of our time is a scene of Sylvanian jihadis demolishing ancient temples.
How can the Queen's safety by threatened, as the artist says she was told, by a picture of a Sylvanian family watching TV? On the screen is something terrible: a hostage is about to be executed by terrorists.
Satire is not meant to be subtle. These works of art are viciously funny - and for once the joke is directed against a truly dangerous target. But is it such a dangerous target that no-one can make jokes about Islamic State any more? If an artist can't show art on the grounds that it might provoke terror, the terrorists have plainly won. The suppression of these Sylvanian satires is as absurd and sinister as the reports that police officers asked for the names of British people buying Charlie Hebdo. What's happening to us? Are we already ruled by black clad puppets of intolerance? This art is brave and witty. It deserves to be seen. To let fear of bigots and maniacs rule our art galleries is a betrayal of the civilisation we claim to uphold.
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