Sweden: Art under threat
Several Swedish artists live under constant threat from nazis and extreme rightwing groups. For years, they have been subjected to threats, harassment and attacks directed at their art and themselves. The artists despair at the inability of the state to protect them.
By Sanna Samuelsson INSIGHT
Published in collaboration with Konstnären/The Artist
One artist who chooses to remain anonymous has been regularly harassed by nazis from the 1990s to the present day. The threats come in waves, triggered by media attention to the artist and themes in the artist’s work. A swastika was painted on the artist’s door, there were disturbing telephone calls and emails and the artist’s Facebook account was hacked. Mail order goods were delivered in the name of the artist. Nazis would attend the artist’s exhibitions and review them in extreme rightwing forums.
“It’s definitely organised. There must be a list or something where your name gets added. A lot of things happen suddenly and in a short space of time,” says the artist.
The way threats come has changed since the 1990s, says the artist. These days there is less overt organisation but a greater online base and social media input. It’s still aggressive but in a different way.
People threaten violence while manifesting a lack of knowledge. Their criticism is not verbally sophisticated. The artist has neither made a formal complaint to the police nor gone to the media, for fear of provoking more attacks.
“I don’t want to give them that, since I know they want the publicity. I keep it quiet,” says the artist.
But the police have been helpful in checking the mail to filter out faeces, pornography, and bizarre orders for guns and furniture in the artist’s name. The police have also filtered the artist’s email on occasion.
The threats have not stopped the artist from creating works on “sensitive subjects” but have certainly caused the artist to occasionally think twice, especially when the artist’s children were young.
“I haven’t sacrificed much but I would have liked to have known more. I’m interested in a range of things. Sometimes the subject matter provokes people, sometimes not.”
Rightwing extremism on the rise
Extreme rightwing activity in Sweden has increased considerably in recent years according to a recent report by Expo, the Swedish anti-racist magazine. The increase has come after a decline in the years up to 2012. The increase has principally been in activities such as propaganda dissemination, demonstrations and rallies. Nazi violence has visibly risen in [Stockholm suburb] Kärrtorp, Malmö and Jönköping in the past year. Nazi organisations Svenskarnas Parti (the Party of the Swedes) and Svenska Motståndsrörelsen (the Swedish Resistance Movement) have both increased their membership according to Expo.
Increased activity can be ascribed partly to an election year, especially since Svenskarnas Parti had candidates in several local elections. In 2014, the party was represented at the annual summer political showcase at Almedalen on Gotland island and gained permission to hold rallies in downtown Visby, the island’s main city. They are beginning to be seen in places that were not long ago closed to them. The development is also linked to an increased nazi and fascist presence in the rest of Europe. In Sweden, the increase is most visible in the success of the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna). The party has become more active in culture politics.
The Sweden Democrats have strongly focused on preserving cultural heritage at the cost of supporting contemporary culture. Leading Sweden Democats have publicly attacked contemporary art.
Sweden Democrat Member of Parliament Margareta Larsson was quoted as saying in a parliamentary debate in June 2014 that Carolina Falkholt, an artist, should be incarcerated for creating a highly stylised mural depicting a vagina for a school canteen. The crime, according to Larsson, was sexual harassment of minors.
The politics of culture have always been vital for xenophobic, nationalistic, racist, nazi and fascist movements and parties.
Several Swedish nazi websites have published lengthy articles and columns on art, often in historical perspective but also contemporaneous. Neither is it coincidental that Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto scrutinised the role of culture. His “2083 – A European Declaration of Independence”, even cautioned of the difficulties of targeting well-protected intended victims, harder to approach than the less-protected. He noted that “Marxist artists” often lack bodyguard protection, as do media personalities, politicians associated with multiculturalism, journalists, professors and chairs of voluntary organisations.
Art under threat
Artists Dror Feiler and Gunilla Sköld Feiler found a swastika painted on their door in May 2013. This was after Dror Feiler’s name and picture had been displayed in nazi online forums following his participation in a protest march against Svenskarnas Parti in Jönköping that same month. To paint the swastika, the nazis had first to gain entry to an apartment block and climb several flights to the Feilers’ apartment. Feiler discovered the vandalism when he went to take out rubbish the next morning. He felt repelled.
Feiler was also verbally attacked while walking in Malmö not long after. A few men in a car followed him, shouting “Communist bastard”, “bloody Jew” and “pig”. Feiler filed an official police complaint. The police recorded the incident as harassment rather than hate crime.
“I’m not sure the police are taking this seriously. I still haven’t been debriefed,” says Feiler.
It is still unclear who the attackers were but it is probably no coincidence that the incident happened immediately after the online forums had posted his name. “There are extreme rightwing groups that have targeted artists, Jews, HBTQ people and leftwingers – all those they consider degenerate and strange. It might also have been idiots who were fired up by newspaper reports. It’s hard to know,” says Feiler.
A number of artists and art exhibitions have been attacked by nazis in Sweden since the turn of the century. Some artists live under constant threat. One of them is artist Nathalia Edenmont, whose exhibition, Still Life, at the Wetterling Gallery in Stockholm was vandalised in 2004. Four masked men walked into the gallery in broad daylight and ripped down her photographs. When someone tried to intervene, that person was assaulted with a baseball bat. The exhibition had previously been called controversial in the media because of the dead animals in Edenmont’s pictures.
The police initially believed animal rights activists to be behind the assault but it turned out to be neo-nazis. “Support members” of a group called Nationell Ungdom (National Youth), with connections to Svenska Motståndsrörelsen, later claimed responsibility for the attack. According to a nazi website, Nordfront, the exhibition showed “remarkable repugnance”. Edenmont had an “anti-Nature temperament” which in some way connected to communism.
The article explained that art should express “the people’s soul”. “Healthy art” is uplifting and character-building. “Un-healthy art” expresses the individual artist’s “degenerate character” or craving for attention. This is the kind of art that Sweden’s “culture elite” have lavished praise on in recent times, surreptitiously “destroying a genuine culture”. The text empathised with any individuals who might feel impelled to take action against this “cultural oppression”.
Nathalia Edenmont reported the attack to the police. Silence followed. The investigation was abandoned.
“The worst threats I’ve had came this year, after my exhibition at the Galerie der Stadt Tuttlingen in Germany. I have had threats in England and Germany that showed a deep hatred for women. They tell me they want to cut me into pieces,” says Nathalia Edenmont.
She filed another formal complaint. Again the investigation was abandoned, but then the police called, months later, to say they had taken up the case again.
“It was on their initiative. I don’t know. They called me in the middle of summer and talked for an hour. I was surprised. I hope it leads somewhere and that things don’t get worse,” says Edenmont.
She carries an alarm with her constantly. At first it was programmed to alert two security guards, now it will bring armed police officers. She has to pay for the security alarm. But Edenmount won’t let threats change her art.
“It doesn’t affect me at all. I’ve been criticised so much and had so many threats that I’ve had to tune out. I wouldn’t be able to develop as an artist otherwise,” says Edenmont.
Another artist frequently targeted by threats is Makode Linde. Late one July evening in 2013 when he was putting the finishing touches on his Taboo Fetish exhibition, due to open in a few days at a venue in Strömstad, an aggressive man walked in, carrying a Swedish flag. When asked to leave, he attacked Linde, screaming “fag bastards” and that he himself was “a taxpayer” and threatening to return with 30 others. It took 45 minutes for the police to arrive.
“The police are understaffed and are doing the best they can, I told myself. Then I read what the police chief said,” remembers Linde, who filed a formal complaint but the investigation took time.
The local police chief, Henrik Rörberg, summarising the year in the Strömstads Tidning newspaper, dismissed the attack as “insignificant [ren skitsak]”. He was later forced to apologise when the LGBT magazine QX highlighted the quote. In an interview, it became apparent that Rörberg had not expected that Linde would see the comment.
The attack in Strömstad was one of the only assaults directed specifically at Makode Linde’s art but the homophobic component was obvious, yet it was not registered as a hate crime.
“The police have never labelled any of the attacks on me hate crimes. Even if the attackers call me “bloody queer” and “nigger bastard” and I’ve been careful to include that in my complaints. For a police chief to call it ‘insignificant’ is odd when Swedish law takes hate crime seriously,” says Linde.
But he always files complaints, out of principle and because it’s his duty, even if it’s not easy.
“The police don’t believe what you tell them. Online, people doubt you and you get called all kinds of names. People say you’re making it up for the publicity,” says Linde.
Despite his formal complaints, he has had no official support, except for one time when he had to be evacuated from his apartment in connection with what became known as “the chicken trial”. He had been charged with cruelty to animals after taking chickens to a nightclub. His address was posted on a chat site, Flashback, and stayed up for a full day.
“Someone posted a butchering chart of me. I was attacked in my home at the time so it’s hard not to put two and two together,” says Linde.
He reported the incident to the police but the case was quickly dropped. He offered to bring police the door handle, which presumably had fingerprints since the man had pulled on it. The police weren’t interested.
“Nothing, that’s what the rule of law has given me,” says Linde.
Vandalised art exhibitions
Artist Joanna Rytel was one of the feminists mentioned by terrorist and massmurderer Anders Behring Breivik in his manifesto, ‘2083 – A European Declaration of Independence’. The reason was an agitprop action (‘Gubbslem’) by an art group she belonged to, Unfucked Pussy, at the Miss Sweden contest in 2001, and for her public opinions on white men. Breivik cited her as an example of how Western feminists are paving the way for an alleged Muslim invasion by making white men weak. Rytel has received hate mail from abroad after the Breivik trial. Her name has been posted in extreme rightwing forums. The threats increase when she has had media exposure, she says.
Her identity has been protected for years. Following the widely publicised feminist protest (‘Gubbslem’) she made a formal complaint against a man who had made a threatening phone call. She says the police did nothing and she has not bothered to file complaints since. Rytel has herself been the object of a police complaint by nazis, alleging that her statements regarding white men amount to hate crime. She says the threats have made her slightly paranoid, making her uneasy if someone is walking behind her late in the evening, but that her art has not been affected.
“I see it as affirmation that my art is important,” says Rytel.
Several art exhibitions in Sweden have been vandalised by nazis in recent years. Andres Serrano’s exhibition, A History of Sex, in Lund in 2007 was trashed by masked men. Nazis claimed responsibility. “Against decadence, perversion, for the people and for edifying culture” was their proclamation on a nazi website.
An exhibition in the Gallerian shopping mall in Stockholm by Doctors Without Borders in 2013 was attacked by nazis. They threw smoke bombs and leaflets into an area showing a 3D installation on a refugee camp in Sudan by filmmakers Peter Norrman and Anders Birgersson.
Many artists Konstnären has spoken to strongly doubt the ability and willingness of the police to investigate this kind of crime. Investigations are dropped, plaintiffs are not questioned and possible evidence is ignored.
Ulf Haquinius, the police officer responsible for coordinating victim complaints in Stockholm province, says there is no special support for artists or culture. All formal complaints are treated in the same way. However, he emphasises the usefulness of filing complaints, regardless of a victim’s lack of confidence in the ability of the police to act. The police need to document threats and violence to assess risk.
“When something big happens – say, on the tenth time – previous complaints have their value. If there are none, the police can’t see the background,” says Ulf Haquinius.
The police base risk assessment also on the vulnerability factor of the person targeted, such as where the person lives, the person’s social situation, and how he or she travels. Different types of protection can be authorised by the public prosecutor, such as alarm phones and restraining orders.
The police have to concentrate on investigation rather than protection, Haquinius points out. But they also have a duty to inform people about what external society can provide. Cases might be dropped because of weak evidence or lack of witnesses, but also because in many regions, the police are overwhelmed with work, says Ulf Haquinius.
“The police have to put energy into this. They can knock on doors or compare images from previous incidents. But the inflow of cases is like a handbasin constantly running over. If there’s nothing solid to go on, they rarely take it further, says Haquinius.
Swedish local authorities are responsible for the safety of citizens and support for them if they’re under threat. This is true for women subject to violence from men as well as for artists who have been threatened. Local authorities should help relocate people and compensate for lost earnings. But in reality, it does not work like that.
Stockholm’s city council has started mapping threats to culture workers, especially female. This follows a public debate about online hate and the threats against the Turteatern theatre in Stockholm and actor Andrea Edwards after the performance of “The SCUM [Society for Cutting Up Men] Manifesto”.
Stockholm city councillor Madeleine Sjöstedt, in an opinion piece for the Svenska Dagbladet daily in 2013, wrote that protection of artistic freedom was at the core of her Liberal Party’s (Folkpartiet) culture politics. The goal was an action plan to reinforce artistic freedoms. In early 2013, Stockholm’s city council and its culture administration carried out a survey of those applying to the culture administration for grants, receiving 134 responses. Of those, about 12% were artists and the majority working with dance or theatre.
Seven percent of the respondents said they had been threatened in connection with their work in the preceding year. Three percent reported multiple threats. Most of the threats were face-to-face; fewer than expected were via telephone or online. Many of those surveyed said they had been scared but none wanted to alter their themes or change profession because of the threats.
The responses were scarce and the outcome uncertain. Madeleine Sjöstedt expessed surprise over the meagre result, even though that itself was positive. But she felt that it differed from the reality that she had witnessed among cultural workers. She still believes in the need for an action plan.
“Culture workers are the first to be affected by totalitarian ideas. A culture war is being waged in Europe. There is a need for heightened awareness in many parts of Sweden,” says Sjöstedt.
The Stockholm survey is a good example of local government reacting to threats against artists and culture workers, if it leads to concrete measures.
Transit Kulturinkubator, a voluntary consultancy for culture workers, is currently looking at how people in the arts can be given protection if threatened in connecion with their work. The aim is a checklist of advice and recommendations for those who have received threats.
Artistic freedom curtailed
That nazis are both provoked by and drawn to art is nothing new. They regularly write about art on their websites, more than other forms of culture. This is probably because art, by its nature, is confrontational. It is visible, whether the viewer wishes it or not. The way nazis view art is also relevant: art should shape the soul of the people and have a character-building effect.
The artists written about by nazis on their websites are often the ones subject to threats in what appears to be a trigger effect for extreme rightwing threats, hate mail and comments.
With increasing media exposure and political influence for the Sweden Democrats, artistic freedom risks restriction. SD pronouncements on “provocative” modern art are similar to the rhetoric of the more openly nazi groups who fulminate against art they consider offensive or “unsound”. If developments continue in line with the last two years, it is not unlikely that we will see more vandalism of art and threats to artists.
So it is especially worrying that the police and local government have not been able to support artists and culture workers at risk. The signal this sends, as can be inferred from the testimony of the artists in this article, is that an artist, a culture worker or public figure, stands alone against violence, that it is the artist’s own fault, if the art is too provocative or the subject matter too daring.
This applies particularly to artists under attack for both their artistic expression and their political stance, or background, gender or appearance. For them, the signals from society and the police are very clear when crimes are neither properly investigated nor filed as hate crimes. When society fails them, it remains for the affected artists to either tone down their art or political involvement or live with the threats and violence. Neither alternative is acceptable in a democracy that places value on artistic freedom and freedom of expression.
Sanna Samuelsson is a Swedish freelance journalist.
Translation by Kim Loughran.
Published in collaboration with Konstnären (The Artist) – a Swedish art magazine published by KRO, the Swedish Artists’ National Organisation, and KIF, the Association of Swedish Craftsmen and Industrial Designers.
This article is part of a Freemuse INSIGHT series compiled by Marie Korpe.
It was published in May 2015.