When Swedish artist Lars Vilks drew the Islamic prophet Muhammad as a dog in 2007, the cartoon – which earned him death threats from radical Islamists and may have triggered a weekend attack in Copenhagen – was not intended to provoke Muslims.
Its aim was to challenge political correctness in the art world, he said after the sketch sparked an uproar in the Islamic world, and he had been naive to think its effect would be limited.
Since then, Vilks has had a $100 000 bounty put on his head, received death threats and a firebomb in his house, been given a round-the-clock police guard and seen several would-be killers, including one calling herself Jihad Jane, sent to prison.
Fatwa against Rushdie
Saturday’s attack on the Copenhagen meeting he attended, which was meant to mark the 25th anniversary of an Iranian fatwa against British writer Salman Rushdie, killed one person. Vilks (68) was whisked away to the safety of a cold storage room.
Danish police say the gunman appeared to have been inspired by the radical Islamist attack in Paris last month that killed 17 at the Charlie Hebdo weekly and a Jewish grocery store.
Before 2007, Vilks was a little known painter, sculptor and art theorist. That year, he drew three cartoons of Muhammad for an exhibition on dogs in art, to test whether the politically correct organisers would dare show them. They did not, citing security reasons.
Boundaries of art
“In art, it is said there are no longer any boundaries to cross,” he wrote at the time. “The little drawings made it possible to show that boundaries undoubtedly exist.”
The rejection of his cartoons did spark a debate on free speech in Sweden, and several newspapers printed them.
Vilks said he had thought a controversy over Mohammad caricatures in the Danish newspaper Jyllens-Posten, which sparked violent riots in the Middle East in early 2006, was “already water under the bridge”.
“What I expected was that my contribution would be a local event,” he wrote. “But I was naive about this … Wrong, the issue was very much on the agenda and remains so.”
On his blog, Vilks has been critical of Islam, which he says “needs to be modernised”, and upheld the need to debate issues that the religion considers taboo.
But while the controversy over his cartoons has gained him fame in his native Sweden, he says his career has suffered due to the security concerns among galleries and art institutions about exhibiting even work unrelated to Islam.
“Just meeting me or learning I am going appear somewhere creates waves of fear,” he told Reuters last month. “They think the whole world will come storming over there and blow it all sky high.” – Reuters