by Rosie Alfatlawi
A piece of street art containing the phrase “sex with refugees is jasmine-scented and beautiful” in large letters has caused controversy after it appeared in London over the weekend.
The words, which were a promotional gambit for a clothing store, have been branded “horrific,” “appalling” and “weird.”
UK: Alleged art in Shoreditch, #London. Stupidity devours the brain. pic.twitter.com/16NV9s16fa— Onlinemagazin (@OnlineMagazin) December 18, 2017
Artist Robert Montgomery, who wrote the original text, said it emerged in workshops on reversing “the stereotyping language used to represent refugees in the mainstream media.”
Critics suggested that the line instead served to cement cliched orientalist narratives.
In addition, much of the discussion fed by images of the graffiti shared online centered on the prejudiced assumption that refugees are more likely to be sexually violent.
Academic and commentator Amro Ali criticized the mural in a tweet, emphasizing that “supporting refugees does not include turning them into an orientalist fetish.”
According to theories of orientalism, Middle Eastern women have historically been reduced to exoticized and eroticized images in European artwork.
“Imagine reducing refugees' values' as people to sex,” tweeted @AKHTARKHATA.
Making reference in this way to a vulnerable group of people with the aim of selling clothing was felt to be “in poor taste.”
“Where do they get off exploiting humans who have already suffered unimaginable horrors to sell overpriced [rubbish]?” asked comedian @JenBrister.
A disgraceful ‘selling’ tactic!— Paula McIntosh (@SmileyMissP) December 18, 2017
Instead of promoting positivity towards refugees, the words were seen as an example of “racism,” generalizing and sexualizing a wide group of people.
'Artwork' by @MontgomeryGhost in Shoreditch. When will people stop commissioning work by white male artists??? Don't know what else I have to do to prove that racism is rife in the UK pic.twitter.com/JEwWh4pofD— Samar Ziadat (@samarziadat) December 17, 2017
A local resident in the Shoreditch area of East London where the work was displayed told Vice news: “‘Jasmine-scented’ seems very racist, doesn't it? It’s trying to say refugees smell nice, but jasmine-scented is a bit near the line, definitely.”
It was also criticized for being insensitive given the violence and ill-treatment often faced by refugees.
@JimmyRushmore wrote: “This is wrong on so many horrific levels - not least because refugees (both male and female) suffer terribly high levels of rape and sexual exploitation.”
In June 2016, Amnesty International published a report indicating the female refugees from Syria and Iraq “face violence, assault, exploitation and sexual harassment at every stage of their journey, including on European soil.”
Responding to criticism in a Facebook post, artist Robert Montgomery on Monday apologized for any offense caused by the mural, which he did not paint himself.
He said that the “words were taken out of context in a way I did not authorize.”
"It was excerpted from a much longer text that came out of workshops I participated in on how it might be possible to reverse the stereotyping language used to represent refugees in the mainstream media.”
"The workshop was about experimenting to find language that might reverse the tone of dehumanization applied to refugees by certain media.”
While Montgomery, and the unknown individual who painted the statement, may have been attempting to do good, the art seems to have missed the mark.
Someone really thought they were making a positive statement in a negative world. Someone was sadly mistaken.— MikamKciredor (@RoderickMakim) December 17, 2017
Jesus Christ this gets worse the longer I look at it.
In fact that very “dehumanization” Montgomery says he was trying to reverse is evident in responses to the artwork on Facebook and Twitter.
Comments suggested “sex with refugees” is “always rape,” claimed refugees do not respect women and made repeated reference to “women in Sweden and Germany.”
In February this year, U.S. President Donald Trump implied that large numbers of asylum seekers in Germany and Sweden had made them less secure.
“We’ve got to keep our country safe,” he said. “You look at what’s happening in Germany. You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden [...] They’re having problems like they never thought possible.”
A few days later, British politician Nigel Farage claimed Sweden was “the rape capital of Europe” as a result of “young, male migrants.”
Snopes, however, said the claim was not reflected in the evidence. Levels of rape had, in fact, dropped following an influx of refugees in 2015.
Meanwhile, on New Year’s Eve 2015 a large number of sexual assaults and rapes were reported in the German city of Cologne. The incident caused a massive backlash against refugees who were blamed by the authorities.
Having made an in-depth enquiry into the incident, Netherlands-based The Correspondent concluded “that more accurate description [was that] several dozen young men, many of North African origin, are suspected of sexually assaulting and robbing hundreds of women in the crowd.”
But, they said, “the initial impression of a mob of 1,000 refugees going after the women of Germany never went away.”
The media furore around this incident had a real effect on the lives of refugees in Europe, who faced threats and, in some cases, violence. Fighting negative images of refugees, including the claim that they are a sexually violent group, certainly has an important role to play, then.
Declaring “sex with refugees is jasmine-scented and beautiful” seems to have been a very misguided way to go about it, however.
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