Interview: Lars Vilks

Swedish artist Lars Vilks sparked international controversy last summer when several Swedish newspapers published his drawings portraying the Muslim prophet Muhammad as a so-called roundabout dog.

Rami Abdelrahman caught up with the artist on the sidelines of a seminar arranged by Equal Rights Now in Stockholm to coincide with International Women’s Day. Earlier in the day, Vilks projected a number of photos and paintings highlighting instances of discrimination against women in Iran.

You are in the process of producing a musical right now. What’s does it deal with?

It deals with the whole process of creating “Muhammad: the roundabout dog” and all that happened. It is an ecstatic documentary in musical form.

Where will the premiere for the musical be?

In Denmark. The first part is a trailer which you can see and listen to on YouTube, and a second trailer will follow in a couple of weeks.

How did the idea of producing a musical come to you?

The presentation of the idea involves a huge artwork, so one way to collect all the parts is to make it a musical. The musical is a long project. We don’t really have plans yet on how to arrange it.

Is it going to be a comedy?

I wonder. It will mainly be a documentary, but there will be some funny parts. It will be a mixture of projecting pictures and live performances.

CNN reported that your life is under threat, and more recently local media reported that maps detailing the interior of your house were found in the possession of suspected terrorists. How does this affect your life and art?

Not very much any more. I am living a normal life… Well you have to look around a bit, but I am used to it. This has been going on for more than half a year now and eventually one gets used to this lifestyle.

I mean, mainly this is propaganda. They are trying to frighten people with psychological warfare, which is the main thing… I hope.

Did it change the direction of your art?

No. On the contrary, it is more interesting since there is a new interest in art among terrorists. It is a new field for them.

Recently, there were commentaries in the Arab media suggesting that several regimes in the Middle East were using the “cartoon controversy” as an excuse to suppress freedom of expression in their countries. They said it provided the basis for people to insult religion and spread hatred. How do you react to such statements and political stances?

This is just nonsense. Freedom of expression does not exist in these countries, there is only the voice of governments and leaders. They do not understand that outside their world there is an independent voice of freedom.

Did you imagine that these leaders would use this very voice against freedom of expression?

I couldn’t foresee all these things… I started my project in a modest way… I did not see that they would use art as a political weapon but now I can expect anything out of them.

However, looking at the bigger picture, you should see that something is happening. The more cartoons and drawings are made, the less interesting it will be. In the end people will get used to it.

I think the west is making a very big mistake by not publishing them, because if they publish them, then the secrecy and mystery would disappear.

How do you think the Arab and Muslim world could become more open and embrace such freedoms as the freedom of expression that we have in the west?

These countries still have a long way to go. Well, at least some of them… since some have more or less democratic values, but are overruled by religion. It was like this in Europe in the Middle Ages. So we know the developments ahead.

An example of which is perhaps Iran, which was the focus of your presentation today…

Yes, I was trying to spread attention about how politicians do not care about the situation of women situation in Iran. Why should they? They did not get any votes for that. We have to work hard to get the media’s interest to put pressure on regimes.

I mean, criticism is not popular in these subjects, because they say that it will be understood in the wrong way, as if the criticism is against all Muslims. So it is better not to criticize at all. We must be able to separate normal, ordinary Muslims from those who run dictatorships.