Street artist Obey says French far right ‘hijacked’ iconic image - GulfToday

Street artist Obey says French far right ‘hijacked’ iconic image

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A vistor attends the media preview of Shepard Fairey exhibition in Milan.

Having gained worldwide renown for his Barack Obama campaign poster, it was a shock for Shepard Fairey, better known by his tag Obey, to discover his work being used by the far right in France.

“It’s so ridiculous it’s hard for me to even believe,” Fairey told reporters in Paris, where an exhibition of his work is running at the Itinerrance Gallery until July 15.

The 54-year-old American is one of the most famous street artists in the world, but is also a long-time social justice campaigner.

So he was unimpressed to discover that his image of Marianne, the symbol of the French republic, hangs in the office of Jordan Bardella, president of France’s far-right National Rally —the party leading in polls ahead of this weekend’s fraught elections. “My work’s been hijacked for political purposes, but usually it’s subverted in a way that makes sense,” he said.

“The audacity to take an image that was about peace and compassion after a terror attack, and also embracing the French slogan, which is a beautiful slogan — liberty, equality, fraternity... Right-wing people don’t have those values.” Fairey created his version of Marianne on a red, white and blue background as a gesture of solidarity after the terrorist attacks of November 2015, initially as a mural in southern Paris.

A print ended up in President Emmanuel Macron’s office and was seen by millions during a TV broadcast in 2017, forcing Fairey to defend himself against claims of political bias.

Fairey will not take legal action against Bardella for the same reason he would not do so if former US president Donald Trump used one of his works. “If I were to take legal action against Trump using one of my images, he would just turn it around as a victory in some way, saying he’s being persecuted,” said Fairey.

“Trump only rose because he was given attention that he shouldn’t have been given. He has the mindset of an angry toddler. He should have been ignored by all the media from the beginning.”

Ultimately, though, Fairey says his years campaigning for causes around race, gay rights and climate change have taught him a simple lesson: “Stupid politicians exist because the public allows them to exist.”

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Shepard Fairey poses for a photo session during an exhibition at the ‘Itinerrance Gallery’ in Paris. AFP

Coming from the punk rock and skateboarding scenes of the 1980s, Fairey broke into street art with his iconic “Obey” stickers, and graffiti or posters denouncing homophobia and nuclear weapons dotted around New York and later all over the world. His 30-year career has featured 135 murals, hundreds of illegal works and 18 arrests, he said. Although he says he frets about countries such as Britain, Greece, Italy and France moving “dangerously close to fascism”, he retains a faith in the power of art.

“Art is a joyful medium and when you look at how heavy things are in the world, how much brutality, how much injustice, if you can’t face that with something that gives you joy, then you might not want to face it at all,” he said.

“It’s not only how we confront difficult topics, it’s also how we shape culture and connect with each other.” On the other hand, Invaders in the Petit Palais: some 60 of the world’s most renowned street artists have been invited into the rarefied confines of a Paris institution, even if some admit it raises questions about whether they belong. The Beaux-Arts palace on the banks of the Seine houses an illustrious selection of 19th-century painting and sculpture.

But the “We Are Here” exhibition sees the street artists infiltrate it with graffiti, murals and graphics dotted among the portraits — even adding cartoon wings to statues.

Some merge almost too well — a freshly made portrait by Tunisian artist DaBro looks perfectly at home in a cluster of solemn 19th-century street scenes until you realise it features break-dancers. Others are more jarring, such as the pixelated alien by the French artist Invader sitting above a Monet sunset. It is, say some of the artists, a logical step.“Street art always has the spirit of invasion. We always want to take over spaces that are not open to us,” said Inti, a Chilean artist who provided a huge mural. But the exhibition has also made him question himself, he told reporters: “To enter into a closed space like this is to enter into an institution — it’s a bit counter to what we try to do outside.”

He was concerned, too, that street art has become too commercialised, undermining its rebellious spirit. A painting by US artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who started out in street art before moving into galleries, sold for $110 million in 2017; a shredded artwork by Britain’s guerilla street artist Banksy went for $25 million in 2021.

Hush, a street artist from the north of England, agrees that art movements die when they become too accepted by the establishment. But its ethos still challenges the elitist atmosphere of galleries, he said.

“As a working-class guy, you don’t always feel accepted in art museums. With street art, everyone feels allowed to come in,” he told reporters.

“And you can still be disruptive, you can still have fun. The good thing with being from this scene is you don’t feel like you have to say yes. It means we’re still in control.”

One of the first items to strike visitors is a giant aerosol can emerging out of the ground with cartoon wings, courtesy of London-based artist D*Face.

Agence France-Presse

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