Displayed within the ‘Rainbow Scene’ exhibition, the works in question opposed Arabic text of the shahada with the image of a nude female from Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Grande Odalisque. The overlay of text and image in the style of the US flag was intended to show the conflict between Islamic extremists and America.
Usama Hasan, head of Islamic studies at the think tank Quilliam, declared the artworks as “really dangerous…it’s The Satanic Verses all over again”. Hasan refenced the 1988 fictional book by Salman Rushdie, which caused major controversy amongst Muslims who accused it of mocking their faith.
The contemporary art gallery initially refused calls to remove the paintings, arguing that it was the visitors’ decision to create their own conclusions on the meaning of art. However, SKU soon suggested as a compromise that their work should be covered up with sheets instead.
“It seemed a respectful solution that enables a debate about freedom of expression versus the perceived right not to be offended”, responded the London-based artist.
According to a recent statement, the Saatchi Gallery “fully supported” freedom of artistic expression. “The gallery also recognises the sincerity of the complaints made against these works and supported the artist’s decision to cover them until the end of the exhibition,” it said.
‘Rainbow Scene’, running from mid-April and finished last Friday (3 May 2019), was an exhibition of new works by SKU. The pseudonymous artist’s attempt to conceal his identity rivals those of street artist Banksy; he has no social media accounts or public presence and his name is inspired by the retail term “stock keeping unit”.
The controversial exhibition was advertised as exploring “how we, as individuals, are subjected to wider cultural, economic, moral and political forces in society”. It encouraged its visitors to “reboot the world”.
This recent incident has resurfaced the age-old issue of whether art should ever be censored. In 2012, Edinburgh airport was also embroiled in a debate about its decision to display, cover up, and then uncover an image of a Nude Women in a Red Armchair by Pablo Picasso.