Lars Vilks: maverick artist who knows what it is to be a target

Even before gunmen attacked the cafe where he was speaking, Vilks had armed protection at home and on the road

Lars Vilks has long known he is a prime target. He lives with a daily threat to his life and plans his activities with precision, placing huge emphasis on personal security. He did so on Saturday at the event to mark the anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

At home in Sweden he has round-the-clock armed police protection and while in Denmark he travels with bodyguards from the Swedish security service, Säpo. After the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, Vilks requested that the security around him be stepped up and later confirmed it had been, without giving details. Yet the events at the Copenhagen cafe proved that the best protection will never be enough to prevent tragedy.

On Saturday night he was in no doubt about the motives of the gunman who left one person dead and three police officers wounded. The intention had been to kill him. “What other motive could there be?” he said in a telephone interview with Associated Press. He added that he thought it possible that the attack “was inspired by Charlie Hebdo”, referring to last month’s attack by Islamist extremists that left 12 dead at the French satirical magazine in Paris.

Vilks, 68, first gained international attention in 2007 when he drew a cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad as a head on the body of a dog. An exhibition to include the work was cancelled when he received death threats from Islamist militant groups and the gallery raised security concerns.

He was prepared for the reaction. As a long-term friend of Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who produced the best-known of the Danish Muhammad cartoons in 2005 – depicting the prophet with a bomb in his turban – he knew of the threats, both verbal and physical, that those who make such drawings attract. Indeed, in 2013 both artists were named, along with eight others including Rushdie, on a “most wanted” list published by al-Qaida.

After the Charlie Hebdo attack, by Islamist gunmen in revenge for the magazine’s publication of cartoon images of the prophet, Vilks said: “This will create fear among people on a whole different level than we’re used to. Charlie Hebdo was a small oasis. Not many dared do what they did.”

Vilks had met the magazine’s editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, last October when he was awarded the freedom prize from the Lars Vilks Committee, a body set up to support Vilks and freedom of expression. The artist believed the Paris attack would make it even harder for him to mount exhibitions and lectures in the future. “I have problems when I have lectures or exhibitions as most things are cancelled because of fright. This occasion here will make things even worse and people will be very scared.”

Vilks said that threats or even personal attacks, such as when he was punched during a lecture he was delivering in 2010, had failed to silence him. “The problem is that we already have a very high level of censorship when it comes to Islam and religion and things like that,” he said. “There have been a few magazines that have tried to keep going as normal and Charlie Hebdo was one of the few.”

Two years ago a Pennsylvania woman, Colleen LaRose, who called herself Jihad Jane, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for plotting to kill Vilks and recruiting others to help. In 2010, two brothers tried to burn down his house in southern Sweden and were jailed for attempted arson.

The same year seven Irish citizens were arrested for plotting to kill the artist. Some of the four men and three women were said by Garda sources to be from the Middle East and others were converts to Islam.

Vilks has long attracted both fame and notoriety for his work. A self-trained artist, he began painting in the 1970s and moved on to sculpture in 1984, turning himself and his car into pieces of art. Other sculptures made from driftwood caused controversy when he put them in a nature reserve.

Saturday’s meeting, “Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression”, was organised by the Lars Vilks Committee’s founder, Helle Merete Brix. Inna Shevchenko from the protest group Femen and Agnieszka Kolek from the Passion for Freedom Arts festival were also due to speak.

Speakers at previous meetings have included British writer David Pryce-Jones, the British journalist and film director Gita Sahgal, the German writer Henryk Broder, the Spanish performance artist Abel Azcona, and Danish artists Kristian von Hornsleth and Bjørn Nørgaard.


Lin Jenkins

The GuardianTramp

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