In the last round of European elections, the far right party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) in Germany designed a campaign billboard that misappropriates an orientalist painting from the 19th century, “The Slave Market” by French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. The painting portrays the sale of a naked white slave to three Arab men donning turbans. Surrounding the young woman, who is reduced to an erotic object, they examine her as an object of desire, one of them putting two fingers into her mouth.
Considered the master of orientalist painting, here Gérôme recreates the Orient as seen by his contemporaries, an Orientalist view in line with the 19th century Western imagination: A fantasized image imbued with exoticism and romanticism, that combines sensuality and violence. To this extremely loaded painting, the AfD adds a controversial slogan in bold type: “Europeans vote for AfD” and “So that Europe won’t become ‘Eurabia’”. For this unapologetically nationalistic and Europhobic party, the message is clear. The co-opted image represents an archetypical Oriental man, violent and barbarous, who threatens the freedom and integrity of the Western woman, white, pure and innocent.
A wave of protest quickly swelled on social media. The Clark Art Institute, which owns the painting and is located in Williamstown, Massachusetts (USA), took offence at the painting’s misuse and strongly opposed its use to advance a political agenda. But much to the Institute’s director, Olivier Meslay’s regret, the image is part of public domain: “there are no copyrights or permissions that allow us to exert control over how it is used other than to appeal to civility on the part of the AfD Berlin.”
The Christian-Democrat Union (CDU) of Germany, party of German chancellor Angela Merkel, also denounced the poster’s blatant racism by tweeting: “No, real Europeans do not elect racists. Real Europeans do not defend Europe with fear and hate”.
If the press and Web seem in concordance against this explicit xenophobia, it is not the first time that the AfD used controversy to gain publicity. During their legislative campaign in 2017, they used the seductive image of nude women for another poster, adding the following message: “Burka? We prefer bikini.”
The vulgarity and manipulation of these billboard campaign images recalls another scandal: that of Robert Ménard, the infamous mayor of Béziers, France, who made front-page news with his provoking municipal flyers. One of them boasted the “police force’s new friend” with a large-scale image of a gun (2015). Another depicted Islam as a religion of conquest, or even invasion, by using a photo of a crowd of migrants alongside the slogan “The State ordered them, so here they come!” (2016).
Almost everywhere in Europe (aside from Luxemburg and Ireland), international conflict, terrorism and the arrival of thousands of migrants in various countries have accentuated an anti-immigration sentiment that far right political groups usurp and exploit as they please. Some political extremist personalities do not hesitate to make openly racist statements, such as Tomio Okamura (president of the Freedom and Direct Democracy movement in the Czech Republic) or Geert Wilders, head of the PVV (Party for Freedom) in Holland.
Translation by Maya Dalinsky
Cover: Campaign billboard, 2019, Germany. © RR