Thursday, 7 April 2011

Louis Vuitton vs The Artist

 © Louis Vuitton
It cannot be denied that this 21st century world we inhabit is one entirely dominated by an obsession with image and celebrity. Proof, if proof is needed, can be found in a quick glance at topics trending on Twitter: it seems the most pressing concerns for the vast majority of the western world is the significance of Angelina Jolie’s latest tattoo or the current style of Justin Bieber’s hair.

This mania for celebrity, and the subsequent column inches devoted to it, comes at the expense of the many humanitarian crises which have been brewing, largely unnoticed, in the developing world. In particular, the worsening situation in Darfur seems to be roundly ignored by the world’s media which instead clambers to feed our incessant appetite for celebrity gossip and scandal. Fortunately, Nadia Plesner, a Danish artist and activist, is on a mission to change this.

Nadia first made headlines in 2008 when she incurred the wrath of luxury goods manufacturer Louis Vuitton. Plesner used a likeness of one of LV’s designer handbags in a controversial image which juxtaposed symbols of western wealth and excess with a starving child. The controversial picture, which was subsequently printed on t-shirts and posters, depicted a small, undernourished black boy holding a Chihuahua in one hand and a LV handbag in the other. The message was obvious, hard-hitting and made for uncomfortable viewing … and Louis Vuitton didn’t like it.

The luxury goods conglomerate, objecting to the fact that money was being raised (albeit to benefit the people of Darfur) on the back of one of its designs, sued the artist for breach of intellectual property rights ... and won. Plesner was forced to withdraw the t-shirts and posters from sale, and ordered to pay damages to the company. And there the story would have ended, if it were not for the admirable tenacity of Ms Plesner.

Undeterred by her legal defeat, Nadia soon got to work on a more ambitious project. The result is Darfurnica, a modern-day take on Guernica, Picasso’s masterpiece which depicts the horror of the Spanish Civil War. Like its predecessor, Darfurnica is a mish-mash of images – western political and ‘cultural’ icons like Paris Hilton, Victoria Beckham and Barack Obama, vie for space on the canvas with an ominous militiaman and the forgotten victims of Darfur’s civil war. But perhaps the most significant image of all is the re-appearance of the boy with the small dog and the designer handbag …

The artist decided to include the contested image because she believed that, this time, Louis Vuitton had no legal basis to object. Her argument centres on her conviction that Darfunica should be viewed as a whole, with the artist’s right to artistic freedom in mind. Louis Vuitton disagreed, and brought the case to court again. The court found in LV’s favour and ordered Plesner to remove the image from her website and to refrain from exhibiting the piece. The artist refused to comply with the order and is therefore obliged to pay Louis Vuitton €5,000 damages for every day the Darfunica image remains on her website. As of today, Nadia Plesner is in debt to LV for a staggering €350,000 and counting. She has launched a counter-claim against LV, claiming that her rights of artistic freedom have been infringed. The case is ongoing.

This is proving to be a showdown to rival that of David and Goliath. Who will win this epic battle of wills – Louis Vuitton, the ultimate symbol of rampant western consumerism or Nadia Plesner, a lone, brave voice trying to make herself heard in defence of the citizens of Darfur?

Whatever the outcome, we can be fairly certain that we haven’t heard the last from this particular artist – she is already working on her next project, using characters from the Mr Men and Little Miss series.

She has said her first piece will be called Little Miss Child Prostitute ….

 Darfurnica © Nadia Plesner 2011

For more information on Nadia Plesner, see her website:

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