I was on holiday when I received the news that my work, “ISIS in Sylvania” had been effectively banned by The Mall gallery and The Metropolitan police. The organisers of the Passion for Freedom exhibition had hired the venue with funds they had been saving for over a year – putting away money from their own salaries and fund raising where they could. Such is their admirable commitment to free expression. Despite all their attempts to negotiate with the gallery and the police, when faced with a “security” fee of 36,000 they didn’t have the money or the choice.
I received a number of forwarded emails from the police stating my work was “not art”, and that “all mentions of it should be removed from the promotional materials, social media etc”’ Now that the images have circulated half way round the world, I think that someone at the Metropolitan Police is deeply regretting those messages. And so they should, because it was ultimately an act of national cowardice dressed up as health-and-safety rhetoric.
“ISIS in Sylvania” is not just about the childish and barbaric ideology of ISIS, it’s about the childish idiocy of the west too. The British political establishment, police, media and universities continually infantilize and portray those going to fight for ISIS as innocent children, duped by nasty older men. It’s as if they are toddlers unable to make a decision. When I was 18 years old, I knew not to chop anybody’s head off.
"This is the equivalent of saying an anti-Nazi cartoon in the late 1930s was offensive…to Nazis."
But the decision to censor shows that our establishment is more threatened by satire, clarity and truth than by young men willing to kill, rape and pillage in the name of Islam. Apparently my images were “potentially inflammatory” to terrorists. This is the equivalent of saying an anti-Nazi cartoon in the late 1930s was offensive…to Nazis. Those who justify and protect barbaric totalitarianism, in whichever form, are on the fast track to becoming totalitarian themselves.
I set about creating the first tableaux of “ISIS in Sylvania” over a year ago. After six months of witnessing an ISIS “massacre of the day” hitting my Facebook feed, my feelings of anger quickly built to one large satirical swipe. I wasn't just angry at the ISIS fighters, I was even more angry at my peers, who seemed to say and do nothing about the situation. No millions of people marching in the street, no loud condemnation. Just complete silence and a penchant for calling anybody that raised a squeak about the situation ‘racist.’ The threat we face has nothing to do with race, which is why I used animals to illustrate it.
The first image was composed over the course of two days. I wanted to look as if it came out of an ARGOS catalogue. I hoarded Sylvanian Families figures from a mixture of shops and house clearance adverts. The backdrops were built and lit in my studio, and I set about designing and making tiny costumes with the help of a tailor. The first image was of the ISIS army standing on a hill, looking down at the rest of Sylvania. I wanted the Sylvanians to look wilfully oblivious to the threat they were facing, still indulging in their little day-to-day pleasures. 'It's all happening a long, long way away' they think.
I decided there would be no visual depiction of violence in the images, just the threat. This is because the imagination of a threat is much more powerful than displaying a gratuitous reality – you only have to go on YouTube to understand that. Each tableaux illustrates what Islamic State law describes as “haram”. Drinking a beer, sunbathing, a girl getting an education, being gay – all punishable by execution without trial.
Within hours of the censorship story hitting the press, the response was overwhelmingly in support of my work. Whether people called it ‘art’ or not was irrelevant to me. The censorship of ISIS In Sylvania spoke to many people of the current situation: we are losing our freedom to the bankrupt cowardice of moral relativism.
Left and right wing papers were united in condemnation of the police ad the mall gallery. Ninety-six per cent of Telegraph readers said my work should be shown, as did 96 per cent of Guardian readers. Many of those where Muslims, leaving positive comments about the work.
This tells me that while the media, police and political classes will carry on operating like an ostrich with it’s head in the sand, most people across the political spectrum know what faces us. Deep down, beneath this childish culture, there is a really decent population who know and love their freedom. As my mother (and Abraham Lincoln) used to say "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time."