Line between art and PSA blurs as Serie A's 'monkeying around' exposes glaring ignorance about racism

  • Artist Simone Fugazzotto was commissioned to create anti-racism art by Italian football's Lega Serie A in May this year

  • As a piece of art that seeks to critique society, it works quite well in terms of holding up a mirror to society

  • But as a public service advisory, it smacks of recklessness and insensitivity in the face of what is a very serious issue

At first glance, it's not too difficult to imagine the triptych below having been dug out of some lost Andy Warhol collection. There's a definite pop arty vibe to the set of paintings.

 Line between art and PSA blurs as Serie As monkeying around exposes glaring ignorance about racism

Lega Serie A CEO Luigi De Siervo (centre) and artist Simone Fugazzotto (right) unveil the football league's anti-racism campaign. Screenshot from official Serie A website

Take another look and a few peculiarities emerge: One of the chimpanzees appears to have crystal blue eyes, while another has eyelids with very apparent epicanthic folds.

A bit odd, certainly, but hey! It's art! Art is meant to provoke.

It's only after a bit of context emerges that two points become clear: First, it's that this is what Lega Serie A considers an anti-racism campaign and second, that this could possibly be the most bizarre thing to emerge out of the Italian league since the 2006 corruption scandal dubbed Calciopoli.

***

The story goes that artist Simone Fugazzotto (who has 'been painting monkeys for five to six years' and whose other pieces you can see here) was commissioned to create anti-racism art by Italian football's Lega Serie A in May this year. And his work was finally unveiled on Monday by the league's CEO Luigi De Siervo, who outlined that one prong of the three-pronged battle against racism would be a cultural aspect (the other two prongs being sporting and security aspects).

And as part of the cultural aspect, Lega Serie A intends to approach artists from all fields to create works of art that tackle racism — a noble sentiment indeed. The league has reportedly said that the paintings are to be exhibited permanently at the entrance to its main hall "to underline the commitment of the world of football against all forms of discrimination".

Fugazzotto's involvement came in the wake of racial abuse suffered by Napoli's Senegalese defender Kalidou Koulibaly during a match at Inter Milan last season. He noted, "I got so angry that... I got an idea. Why not stop censoring the word monkey in football but turn the concept around and say instead that in the end we're all apes?"

"With this trio of paintings," he continued, "I would like to show that we are all the same race... in fact when Lega Serie A commissioned a work against racism last May, I immediately thought of painting a western ape, an Asian ape and a black ape, because I would like to change people's perceptions by my work. My paintings fully reflects the values of fair play and tolerance, I use monkeys as a metaphor for human beings because the colour of our skin is not important."

Lega Serie A appeared to be on the same page, insisting that the artwork "aims to spread the values of integration, multiculturalism and brotherhood".

Expectedly, a number of parties have already started going ape-sh*t (it was unavoidable) at this campaign led by Serie A club AS Roma issuing a statement on Twitter, saying, "We are aware that the league wants to fight racism but we do not believe that this is the right way to do it." European anti-discrimination watchdog was a bit more scathing in its criticism, stating, "In a country in which the authorities fail to deal with racism week after week, Serie A have launched a campaign that looks like a sick joke." There's more, but in the interest of brevity, we'll move swiftly on.

***

As always, there's two sides, at least, to every story, so let's first examine Serie A and Fugazzotto's likely perspective.

First, and as stated above, it's art! Art isn't art unless it's provoking a reaction, whether it's an "ooh", an "ah" or a foul-mouthed shriek of revulsion.

DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover — with its lurid depictions of sex, Andres Serrano's photograph Piss Christ and the music of Neue Deutsche Härte band Rammstein are a few examples of the sort of works of art that fall into the third category. But you don't always have to offend in order to provoke. Street artist Banksy's work deftly balances the art of being provocative without being too offensive.

So what of Fugazzotto? The creatures that appear to be his preferred medium for artistic expression, apes — specifically the Pan genus, comprising the bonobo and common chimpanzee — come together in a throwback — intentionally or otherwise — to the spirit of the United Colors of Benetton advertisements and promotional materials that showcase people belonging to various races side-by-side. There's also a heartwarming sense of childlike innocence and naivety on display in the idea that despite all our differences, we are all just apes. How the Catholic Church reacted to that notion is as-yet-unknown and, frankly, irrelevant.

As a piece of art that seeks to critique society, it works quite well (if a bit on the nose) in the way it inverts the narrative around that quintessential arrow in the quiver of racist epithets — the monkey (or in this case, the ape) as a derogatory slur. The colour schemes employed for the face paint of each ape probably has some significance, but it isn't all that clear. Overall, it's a bold, bright and effective statement. As a piece of art.

Second, and infinitely more troubling, is the use of this art for an anti-racism campaign in Italy —  a country where racism is more prevalent than in most other parts of Western Europe.

The ape or monkey has unwittingly found her/himself used as a form of racial abuse largely in football, but a few stray instances have popped up in cricket (the 2008 Harbhajan Singh-Andrew Symonds spat dubbed Monkeygate and the monkey sounds that saw fans evicted from the Wankhede Stadium in 2007) as well. In football, this hasn't been limited to just verbal taunts with gestures and bananas being thrown onto the field also being part of the racism arsenal.

In Italy, aside from the Koulibaly incident, Romelu Lukaku and Mario Balotelli (sadly, all too frequently) have found themselves, among others, on the receiving end of monkey/ape-related barbs. In fact, the concept of targeting a black player with monkey/ape slurs has become so 'accepted' that Inter Milan — the club at which Lukaku presently plies his trade — fans actually tried to explain away the taunts in an open letter. They claimed that Cagliari fans were aiming those chants at him "as a form of respect for the fact they are afraid of you for the goals you might score against their team".

In this climate, serious questions need to be asked about the appropriateness, sensitivity and wisdom in not just commissioning, but brazenly defending Fugazzotto's work as part of its anti-racism campaign. It's here that a clear delineation needs to be made between what works as art and what works as a public service advisory. Certainly, there can be an overlap between the two, but in a sensitive situation such as this, efforts to be too clever with messaging have an ugly habit of backfiring spectacularly.

At best, it'll be laughed off as yet another instance of how out of touch football administrators in Italy truly are with on-ground realities. But that is unlikely if the ongoing backlash against the campaign so far is anything to go by. After AS Roma issued its statement, The Telegraph quoted Lukaku's agent Michael Yormark as saying, "Every time Serie A comes out with anything with regards to racism and their strategy to combat it gets worse."

A more realistic and plausible outcome is that it will legitimise, normalise and reinforce in equal measure the idea that somehow apes/monkeys are fair game in football.

After all, as the artist says, "[W]e're all apes". If we're all apes, what's wrong with one ape signalling another in their apparently common language and hurling across a mid-match snack? Us apes must stick together, right? Let's not even get into the problematic imagery of the blue-eyed "western ape" (Calm down. No one said, 'Aryan master race') and the "Asian ape" with the aforementioned epicanthic folds (Are there no other types of Asians?).

It's most often the case that a simple, clear, direct and blunt message works far more effectively in campaigns that deal with such sensitive topics as racism than an artsy, meta and self-referential piece of art. Clarity and directness ensures there's no room for interpretation or 'explaining away' of racism. A case in point is the simple, but clear cover image on its social handles.

Screenshot of Lega Serie A's Facebook page

Screenshot of Lega Serie A's official Facebook page. The same image also appears as a cover image on the league's Twitter handle.

Simple, direct and blunt. Which is how anti-racism messaging should be.

Unfortunately, by trying to be avant-garde and provocative, Lega Serie A has demonstrated a great deal of ignorance and recklessness, and inadvertently shot its message in the head. And this sort of 'monkey business' is unacceptable when it comes to combating racism.

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Updated Date: Dec 17, 2019 16:40:55 IST