Isis Threaten Sylvania is a series of seven satirical light box tableaux featuring the children’s toys Sylvanian Families. It was removed from thePassion for Freedom exhibition at the Mall galleries after police raised concerns about the “potentially inflammatory content” of the work, informing the organisers that, if they went ahead with their plans to display it, they would have to pay £36,000 for security for the six-day show.
In Isis Threaten Sylvania, rabbits, mice and hedgehogs go about their daily life, sunning themselves on a beach, drinking at a beer festival or simply watching television, while the menacing figures of armed jihadis lurk in the background. “Far away, in the land of Sylvania, rabbits, foxes, hedgehogs, mice and all woodland animals have overcome their differences to live in harmonious peace and tranquility. Until Now,” reads the catalogue note. “MICE-IS, a fundamentalist Islamic terror group, are threatening to dominate Sylvania, and annihilate every species that does not submit to their hardline version of sharia law.…the police, who raised “a number of serious concerns regarding the potentially inflammatory content of Mimsy’s work”. The gallery cited a clause in the exhibition contract which allowed it the right to request removal of an artwork.
Mimsy, a London-based artist, was particularly outraged by the suggestion, allegedly made during discussions with the police, that Isis Threaten Sylvania “isn’t real art”, raising the question of what an appropriate artistic response to such extremism might be. Other installations in the exhibition include Iranian Maryam Deyhim’s lifesized figure of a woman in a hijab decorated with chains, and the naked torso of a woman about to be stoned for adultery, by the British-Yemeni artist Tasleem Mulhall.
Mimsy said she had adopted a pseudonym because, as the daughter of a Syrian father whose Jewish family had to go into exile in Lebanon when he was a child, she was acutely aware of the potential risk of speaking out.
“I love my freedom,” she said. “I’m aware of the very real threat to that freedom from Islamic fascism and I’m not going to pander to them or justify it like many people on the left are doing.”
She added that the idea of using Sylvanian Families “just popped into my head” as a way of demonstrating that fanaticism was not a question of race. Though the jihadis in the work are called “MICE-IS”, some are clearly cats or koalas and others have rabbits’ ears popping out of their masks. “I’m sick and tired of people calling criticism of fanatical Islam racist, because racism is about your skin colour and radical Islam is nothing to do with that. . .
She added that she had made the tableaux between December 2014 and May 2015 and had looked on in horror as, one by one, her imagined scenarios came true. In one scene, jihadis lurk outside a schoolroom, while a class of girls sit at their desks; in another, gunmen bristle on the horizon as holidaymakers sunbathe on a beach. “It was creepy, because each time I imagined a scene it happened in reality. I made the beach scene before the Tunisian massacre and the schoolroom scene before Boko Haram abducted the schoolgirls in Nigeria,” she said.
The Sylvanian families were a great favourite in our house when my daughter was younger. I would have liked to see this exhibit; I think the contrast of wholesome innocence and that which menaces us would be very effective.