The past two weeks have witnessed a firestorm in the Netherlands, where late in November 2007 Wim van Krimpen, director of the Hague Gemeentemuseum, ordered two photos and a film by Iranian-born artist Sooreh Hera removed from an upcoming exhibition. It may well mark the first time that a Dutch museum, as opposed to a government body, has censored an artwork from its own walls.
The images, part of a series of photos of homosexual couples titled "Adam and Ewald," depict a pair of gay Iranians disguised by masks, a statement van Krimpen appeared to recognize and consider in his decision to exhibit the works as part of "Seven Up," Dec. 15, 2007-Mar. 2, 2008, a group show featuring art by new graduates of the Vrij Academie, an art school in the Hague.
Shortly afterwards, Hera gave a newspaper interview in which she praised van Krimpen for his courage in selecting photographs of gay men disguised as the Prophet Mohammed and his son-in-law, Ali.
"Oh, is that who they are?" van Krimpen seemed to say, and dropped the metaphorical guillotine on their metaphorical necks.
Why?Van Krimpen has come up with several answers to the question. One is that such pictures are upsetting to some in the Muslim community. Salafism bans all images of the prophet, and Islam generally views homosexuality as evil, making the combination of the two especially incendiary. Van Krimpen has also claimed that the works "aren’t that good, really," which makes one wonder why he selected them for exhibition in the first place (and also offered to buy them for the museum and exhibit them "when things are calmer"). There were also protestations that the artist was using the museum as a PR tool.
In a country still reeling from the calculated murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim radical just three years ago, the controversy hit not just the art community, but the political sphere, like a missile. Parliamentary sessions were called. Editorials filled both newspapers and online media. Bloggers raged, raved and ranted. Prominent political figures called for a boycott of the museum.
Sooreh Hera believes that van Krimpen fears reprisals, and that this concern has influenced his decision. Van Krimpen, in an interview with Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad, retorted, "Afraid? Me? Nonsense."
Then, asked the NRC, "why did you choose to remove them?"
"Because she sought publicity," said van Krimpen, whose own actions have succeeded in bringing national attention and curiosity to an exhibition few would have otherwise known or cared very much about.
"Why did you remove them?" asked another daily, de Volkskrant.
"Because it is an invitation to unrest," said Wim van Krimpen.
Indeed. On Dec. 3, 2007, the Islamic Democratic Party issued a statement calling for a mobilizing of forces. Mosques, according to Hera, followed suit. On the forum of an Internet site, www.marokko.nl, the 34-year-old Hera was described as a "devil artist" responsible for "a barbaric exhibition" and an agent of Zionists "busy with plans against Islam."
"There have been no threats against the museum," insisted van Krimpen, who ignored numerous requests for an interview with Artnet Magazine.
Hera is unconvinced. "Of course he’s afraid," she says, "but he won’t admit it. He has chosen for fear." She told Nova TV that it’s as if "an Islamist minority now decides what is and is not on view in a museum." Moreover, she stated, a spokesperson for the Gemeentemuseum had asked her to cease talking with the press, as the museum was being besieged with threatening phone calls. (The spokeswoman later denied this.)
Hera, meantime, has not slept at home in days, hiding with various friends throughout the country while she dodges the anonymous callers who continue to threaten her with death. But she has found some hope in the offer of Ranti Tjan, director of MuseumGoudA, in Gouda in the western Netherlands, who has offered to exhibit the controversial photos and the accompanying film, Allah o Gaybar.
But uncertainty remains as to whether or not this plan will actually go through. Already newspapers have reported protests, and Tjan has had to enlist government bodyguards in the face of various threats. A spokesman for the local Muslim community, identified only as A. al Mahi, told Gouda’s mayor, "I don’t know what freedom of expression has to do with recklessly upsetting people by, for instance, showing a prophet as a homosexual."
But Hera, for whom the government has not provided a security detail, and who says she has been given the runaround by police, says provocation isn’t the point. "Sexuality and religion has been my theme for years," she says. "I come from a country where this is such an issue -- it’s completely logical." Concern over upsetting members of the public cannot be used as an excuse, in her view. "Think of Pasolini, of Fellini."
On Dec. 10, 2007, Hera sent a letter to Holland’s Minister of Culture, Ronald Plasterk, which was then published in the NRC.
"I know what I am doing," she wrote, noting that the Iranian regime would long remember her. "On Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2007, in the middle of the night, Makvan Mouloodzadeh was hung in Iran for homosexuality. That is a clear signal from the Iranian regime. I take it that men in Teheran have heard about me. And I view the hanging of Makvan as their answer. The Mullahs exhibit clearly that they have no sense of human rights, for the freedom of the West and respect for homosexuals. The Iranian government sees my artwork as an attack on their Shari’a. I hope that this signal will also be heard in the Western world, and that the West remains alert to the dangers of Islam."
That danger, Sooreh Hera believes, will continue. "Muslims are very sensitive, but it doesn’t interest me. They have to understand that in a free land, such things must be accepted."
Nonetheless, she is optimistic -- and unwavering. "I hope I can let my work be seen as much as possible," she says, "and I hope my next exhibition will be problem-free. But I stand by my work. I will not go back."
ABIGAIL R. ESMAN is an art critic and journalist based in New York and Amsterdam.