UPDATED: Bergen residents woke up on the last day of Norway’s long Easter holiday on Monday to a new work of street art. It depicts former Justice Minister Sylvi Listhaug as crucified amidst media microphones and flowers like those sent by several hundred supporters.
Listhaug was forced to resign just before the holidays began because of an uproar she created by claiming that the Labour Party puts the rights of terrorists above national security. That left Listhaug facing a proposed lack of confidence vote against her that was supported by a majority in Parliament and nearly brought down Norway’s conservative government. Listhaug’s attempts to apologize were not accepted on the grounds they were insincere, even though she finally admitted on the floor of Parliament that her inflammatory claim against Labour was “of course” not correct.
The latest Listhaug controversy finally died down during the Easter holiday week, only to immediately resurface after the highly provocative street art appeared in the heart of downtown Bergen. Painted on the wall of a building at the corner of Fosswinckelsgate and Hans Holmboes gate is the depiction of a naked Listhaug wearing a crown of thornes and hanging from a cross. Another cross symbolizing the one she often demonstratively wears in public is depicted hanging around her neck. The nails on the cross, meanwhile, are emblazoned with the logo for the Reds Party that proposed the lack of confidence vote in her. While the Progress Party is the most right-leaning party represented in Parliament, the Reds are the farthest to the left.
The logo of her conservative Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP) is seen on her left shoulder while the words Min kamp (My struggle) are printed on her stomach. The latter is apparently a reference to Listhaug’s vow to continue her fights against terrorism and in favour of restrictive immigration from Parliament, where she’ll now be taking a seat after resigning her ministerial post. The Progress Party confirmed on Tuesday, however, that Listhaug instead will join the Parliament’s health and welfare committee and now work with health- and elder-care issues.
Artist’s ‘checkmate’ against Listhaug
The new Bergen street art was created by the artist known as AFK, who posted various photos of it on his Instagram account with the title Making a Martyr. He told newspaper Dagen on Tuesday that “I of course don’t want to crucify Sylvi Listhaug. The painting is meant as a commentary on her rhetoric.”
That rhetoric, AFK told Dagen, has included portraying her resignation as a “sacrifice” to keep the Progress Party in government, and “telling an assembled press corps that her own freedom of expression was cut off when she in reality was stopped from expressing right-wing extreme opinions, conspiracy notions and hatred by a majority in Parliament.”
AFK insisted he wasn’t attacking Listhaug personally, but rather trying to artistically “describe the situation she created,” after she upset many survivors of the attack by a right-wing extremist that killed 77 people in Norway in 2011. She also caused great political distress, not only in Parliament but within Norway’s conservative coalition government in which she served. AFK said he expects that Listhaug won’t comment on his own “commentary,” but added that “she must tolerate it.”
Frode Bjerkestrand, culture editor at the local newspaper Bergens Tidende, called the street art an interesting addition to the debate over freedom of expression. “Listhaug has portrayed herself as one of the great defenders of freedom of expression,” Bjerkestrand said. “Now she’s in a bind. She’ll have to defend the artist’s right to express himself. It’s a ‘Catch-22,’ a checkmate against Listhaug. That’s rather amusing.”
The residential building in Bergen on which the street art appears is privately owned and it remained unclear whether its owners approved the project. A member of its homeowners’ association told newspaper Dagbladet on Tuesday that it will let AFK’s work stand, at least for now.
Local police had earlier told newspaper VG that they were “handling the street art like completely ordinary tagging,” and were working to find out whether it was done with the building owner’s permission or whether it can be seen as vandalism. No complaint about the artwork had been filed with police as of midday on Tuesday.
AFK has attracted attention earlier when his depiction of a baby waking up was painted over by the state highway department. He once told state broadcaster NRK that “I think people can view me as a pessimist, but I’m actually the opposite. I’m an optimist and I create everything with love.”
‘Freedom of expression’
The leader of the Progress Party’s chapter in Bergen, Christoffer Thomsen, didn’t seem convinced of that when he met NRK outside the building on Monday. “It’s a special picture,” he told NRK, calling the Min kamp text that also was used by Adolph Hitler “an ugly reference they (the artist or artists) should have been above using.” It’s also, however, the title for a series of best-sellers by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård.
Thomsen added that the artist “must be allowed freedom of expression like everyone else fortunately has.” Listhaug complained just before leaving on her own Easter holiday that Labour, because of its strong objections to her false claim against her, was guilty of hindering her own freedom of expression.
Kristian Larsson, communications leader for the Progress Party, told Bergen-based TV2, which first reported on the street art Monday, that Listhaug was not avaliable for comment during the Easter holidays. She flew off to the US with her family shortly after resigning her post and posing with flowers from well-wishers, who reportedly included right-wing and anti-immigration organizations.
Judging from a post she added to her Facebook page late Monday, which featured a photo of a large Cadillac SUV with Utah license plate that she’d been happy to drive, she was aware of AFK’s street art. She referred to the Cadillac as “a work of art on four wheels that I like.” She also wrote that she hoped “everyone had a fine Easter. I have.”