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Art exhibit sparks censorship flap

A prominent Norwegian artist is crying foul over censorship, after two of his paintings were removed by French officials at an exhibit in Damascus. The officials claim they simply wanted to avoid any offense.

This is one of the paintings that prompted French officials to remove works from Håkon Gullvåg's exhibit in Damascus. PHOTO:

Instead that’s what they’ve created, with offended artist Håkon Gullvåg threatening to shut down his show and both the Norwegian and French embassies facing a diplomatic incident.

It all began during the weekend, reports newspaper Aftenposten, after Gullvåg had enjoyed by all accounts a successful opening of his art exhibit Terra Sancta in the Syrian capital last Thursday. His paintings, said to be “an homage to the children of Gaza” and a study of children’s “fate in the inferno of war,” earlier had been shown in Beirut, without incident.

But after the opening at the French Cultural Centre in Damascus, which followed months of cooperation between Gullvåg and officials at both the French and Norwegian embassies, two of his paintings suddenly disappeared. On Saturday, when the exhibit re-opened after the Friday sabbath, Gullvåg discovered that the two paintings, which feature the Israeli flag, had been replaced with other paintings.

“With no warning or information, someone had gone in and removed two of the paintings,” Gullvåg told Aftenposten. “For me, this is pure censorship. It’s an encroachment and a form of vandalism of my work.

“I have experienced a lot of things during my career, but nothing like this.”

‘Not taking any chances’
The paintings, reports Aftenposten, were removed on order from the French ambassador in Damascus after some Arab students had “reacted negatively” to the Israeli flag in Gullvåg’s art. Patrick Perez of the Centre Culturel Francais said it was not because of any pressure or reaction from Israeli interests.

“The majority understand what the pictures mean, but because we got such reaction to the opposite, the embassy isn’t taking any chances,” Perez told Aftenposten. “If just one person thinks this is a pro-Israeli exhibit, that’s one too many. We want to be very careful, there has been a lot of tension and unease here lately.”

Perez confirmed that the Syrian government had approved the exhibit. Gullvåg has said the French embassy officials also were well-acquainted with its contents. “We are nonetheless not taking any chances of offending anyone,” Perez said.

They have offended the artist, though, with Gullvåg continuing to insist his work has been censored by the French officials. Norway’s ambassador in Damascus, Rolf Willy Hansen, said he was as surprised as Gullvåg over the French officials’ actions.

“When an artist has mounted an exhibit, it’s completely wrong that paintings are removed and replaced with others, without consulting the artist,” Hansen told Aftenposten. “We have pointed that out.”

Venke Aarethun, project leader for the exhibit in Damascus, said the exhibit ran in Beirut without a single reaction to Gullvåg’s depiction of the Israeli flag. “This clearly is about politics, and how France wants to position itself to have a role in the Middle East,” Aarethun said. “For me, this is clearly censorship, and even worse for France as a cultural nation.”

Gullvåg, known for his portraits of prominent Norwegians including King Harald and Queen Sonja, has demanded that either the two paintings be returned to the exhibit, or the wall where they hung must remain blank with a note explaining that the French Embassy has censored the paintings that were there.

“If this isn’t done, the exhibit will be dismantled,” Gullvåg said.

The exhibit is supposed to run until next month before moving on to the National Gallery in Amman, Jordan early next year.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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