Artist Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin: “Our allies have abandoned us”
The Swedish artist behind the controversial exhibition Ecce Homo on the “white hot hatred” received from the far right and the silence of our allies
Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin's reworked version of Last Supper
The spring of 1996 was a dire time to be LGBT in Sweden. Aids took lives. Many of my friends were ill, dying, or had just lost a loved one. Conservative preachers meanwhile declared Aids to be the punishment of God.
I returned to the New Testament, the gospel of love. Everything I’d ever learned from Sunday school was how Jesus challenged hate and prejudice. That he consistently sided with the least and the weakest. No matter the cost for him.
I began my work with the images who were to become the exhibition called Ecce Homo. I used iconic scenes from the New Testament and recreated them with lesbians, gays and transgender people as my way of showing the similarities between the breaking of norms in biblical times and today. It was my way of assuming that Jesus, if he lived and worked today, would have been on our side.
It may sound strange now, but the hatred that followed shocked me. You must remember that Sweden is at its core a highly tolerant, secularised country. At this time, the late 1990s, discussions about the exhibition with representatives of the Swedish church, pastors, gallerists, and politicians, were met with encouragement. “This could be the starting point for an important conversation,” they said.
So no, I wasn’t prepared for death threats in my mailbox, death threats sprayed in meter-high capital letters on the walls of the museum. I wasn’t prepared for facing demonstrations wherever the images were exhibited. I was not prepared for international consequences. The exhibition was debated in the European Parliament and Pope John Paul II canceled a scheduled meeting with the Swedish Archbishop.
Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin
The opening of Ecce Homo coincided with Sweden’s very first Pride parade. This year, 2017, was therefore the 20th anniversary of the Swedish Pride Festival. The Stockholm Pride organisation asked me to help them mark the 20 year anniversary by placing one of the images from Ecce Homo in a contemporary context. I accepted.
I placed the Last Supper, one of the best-known images from Ecce Homo, in a new context. It is now seen exhibited in a gallery, observed by seated visitors. Behind them are images of current, ongoing abuse of members of the LGBT community in Chechnya, Turkey, and Russia. What I wanted to show was this: even if we’ve come far in these 20 years, we have a long way to go.
Again, I faced white-hot hatred. Not sprayed on walls this time, but on social media, from across the world. Far-right media published “news” stories using chopped up quotes from decade-old interviews. I was accused of insulting Christians, turning a blind eye on Islamists, and defiling Jesus.
The difference is this time no one asked me. There were no questions about what my objective was, or what I wanted to say with the image. There were no interview requests. Meanwhile the distorters and haters are given free reign. I realise now that the question we’re facing isn’t how far we have yet to go; the question is what we are about to lose. I realise now what has changed. The violent haters are loud. The majority is silent. Our allies have retreated.
Why? My only conclusion is that those who hate us have changed tactics. They used to threaten, abuse and kill those who didn’t fit their mould: us, the LGBTQ community. But for some time now, they’ve gone after anyone who raises their voice for our rights. And they have been successful. They have silenced our allies.
Let me be specific: in recent years, several collections of my images have been exhibited. Images from Ecce Homo are naturally often included. If exhibitors previously approached the work with curiosity and interest, they now look at it with worry. ”Can we guarantee the safety of our visitors,” they say. “Of our employees?” This is new. Decisions previously made by curators and artistic leaders are now made by security directors.
Self-censorship in the media is increasing at a shocking speed. Journalists, editors and columnists who make space for our questions and as much as imply that we deserve equal rights are threatened, harassed and abused; sometimes into silence.
I see a pattern. In Sweden, as in the US and across Europe, hate-filled, reactionary rhetoric is advancing. White nationalist parties are gaining seats in our parliaments; fascists and Nazis use violence and threat of violence as means to frighten the majority into silence.
And so the 20th Pride week in Stockholm ended with self-professed Nazis attacking the Parade. It was a violent, hate-filled extremist attack on people manifesting their love and their identities. And in one of the world’s most tolerant countries, this generated nearly no media coverage.
Are we getting numb to this? Are we normalising the violence and the hate? I pray that isn’t the case. I pray that we aren’t too afraid to defend the progress we’ve made in the past 20 years.
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