World Culture Museum removes painting after complaints

The World Culture Museum in Gothenburg managed to stay open for about a month before finding itself in the middle of a controversy that has attracted international attention. This week the museum removed a painting from "No Name Fever", an exhibition on HIV/AIDS.

The painting in question is an erotic scene with a few lines from the Koran written above.

It’s a work by French-based artist Louzla Darabi. Darabi told TV4 that while she can understand the critique that has come about, she was not trying to provoke; she wanted simply to underscore the relationship between love and God.

Some vocal members of the Muslim community in Gothenburg and abroad, however, launched a letter-writing campaign that resulted in hundreds of e-mails and letters. Most, according to the museum’s director, have been respectful.

Expressen’s columnist looked into the online message boards that are buzzing with the debate, and reported finding messages along the lines of “remember what happened in Holland”.

The museum, however, insists that the “threats” it received have nothing to do with the removal of the work; it seems they don’t want to feel that they can be bullied.

Jette Sandahl, the museum’s director, told the press that the removal is all about focus: the exhibition was meant to be an educational one about HIV/AIDS, not freedom of expression, and she is simply attempting to bring the focus back.

Of course, removing a painting from an exhibition and then sending out a press release is not the best way to keep the conversation away from freedom of expression. The Swedish press vacillates between complete understanding and righteous outrage at the museum’s actions, and some Christians see the move as particularly discriminatory.

A letter printed in Göteborgs-Posten told the story of a controversial exhibition in a church in Uppsala wherein Jesus was represented as a homosexual; though several Christians complained, the exhibition got the go-ahead from the priest and bishop.

While the conversation around freedom of expression sparked by the painting is an interesting one, in removing the work the museum might simply have been doing its job.

The museum’s goals are to present the world’s cultures to all visitors – and to draw visitors from all the world’s cultures. It hopes to be inclusive; the mission is obviously different from that of an art museum and the inclusion of the painting in the first place could be seen as a curatorial mistake.

Sources: Dagens Nyheter, Expressen, SR, Göteborgs-Posten, Reuters