Free Speech v. Louis vuitton

What started out as an attempt to shine a light on war-torn Sudan, evolved into a fundamental fight for freedom of speech against corporate interests. An interview with artist Nadia Plesner

In 2007, Danish artist Nadia Plesner drew a picture of an emaciated black boy carrying a dog and a Louis Vuitton bag. The image was intended to draw attention to the trivial way that the media was covering the ongoing conflict in Darfur, Sudan. She printed it on t-shirts and posters to raise money for an awareness campaign.

Louis Vuitton sued and she retracted the posters and t-shirts, but repurposed the image into a larger painting entitled Darfurnica. The fashion giant sued again, and Plesner was fined €5000 per day the painting was exhibited in public or online. She countersued, taking the case all the way to the Hague, where the European Courts cancelled the accumulated €485,000 fine and forced Louis Vuitton to pay Plesner €15,000 to cover her legal expenses. This was only a fraction of her €80,000 legal bill, but her lawyers forgave her the difference.

Plesner has just released a book about the experience, Simple Living, so we called her for a chat.

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Why did you want to become an artist?

I have been drawing my entire life. When I was a child, I would always be doing creative things like drawing and painting. As I was finishing high school, I told my student counsellor that I wanted to be an artist, but she told me that it was practically impossible to get into the Danish art academy, and that I should do something else. Today I think it was a stupid piece of advice, but at the time I followed it.

Instead of applying, I took all kinds of different art courses and kept painting. Then a friend of mine got into the art academy in Amsterdam, and I knew I had to do the same thing. So I applied and got accepted the first time. I realised then that I should have done that from the beginning.

What was your time studying in Amsterdam like?

In the beginning, I was super-inspired by it. About 60 percent of the students were international, and meeting so many people from different countries taught me a lot. It showed me that we all have a very specific point of reference from which we understand the world, and that varies based on where you come from and what kind of culture you grew up with.

But then you had a life-changing accident. What happened?

I had been in the Netherlands six months, and it was the winter holiday. It had been very stressful. I was in an awful relationship with a Dutch guy, and I promised myself that I would just focus on my studies. During the holiday, we were walking and we got into a fight – and as I was breaking up with him, I was hit by a scooter. I landed on my neck, I couldn’t move, and I lost my hearing in one ear and my sense of taste. I would regain those things later, but it was terrible. I was also living in this awful caravan, and I was stuck there. I couldn’t continue my studies, and I thought my life was over. Everything was just torn to pieces, and I fell into a really dark depression. I had no idea when or if I would ever fully recover, but during that dark period, something happened that snapped me out of it.

I was lying in bed reading the newspaper when I saw a teeny tiny update on the situation in Darfur, Sudan. I remembered hearing about it some years earlier, but as I hadn’t heard about it for so long, I had thought it was over. The piece was only four lines long, but on the opposite page was a full-page article about Paris Hilton being sent to prison for traffic violations. I got really angry at the priorities of this serious newspaper. I wanted to make an artwork that could pinpoint my experience of that realisation – something that might kickstart a debate – and that was the inspiration for Simple Living, which brought about my legal problems with Louis Vuitton.

How did they start?

Months went by between having the original idea and finishing the work. I printed it on t-shirts to raise money for humanitarian organisations working in Sudan, and sent it to Go-Card, which distributes free postcards to cafés in Denmark. Then, about four months into the project, I got a letter from the Louis Vuitton headquarters in Paris in which they informed me that I had to stop because my work was too similar to their product. I couldn’t understand their point, as I had removed their logo, and many artists have made references to trademarked products before.

About two months after that, I got another letter in which I was told that they had taken the matter to court in Paris, that I had been found guilty in absentia, and that I had to stop immediately and pay a fine for every day my website was up. But the project was all I had, and I felt violated and bullied, so I decided to take the issue to the media and fight it.

What was the outcome of your legal troubles?

The case got a lot of media attention, and Louis Vuitton wanted me to come and meet them in Paris to reach an agreement. I went with my lawyer to the Louis Vuitton mansion, where we were met by a lot of lawyers. I was told that if I ended the project, never showed it again, and made a public apology, they would use their influence to further my art career, get me into all the best galleries, and help raise awareness about the situation in Darfur.

When I refused and told them that the piece was a statement about media, and that their own actions had brought them into disrepute, they blamed me for ruining the name of the company and threatened to ruin me entirely, both financially and by using their influence to get me banned from all the top galleries.

It was really scary, and I took down my website, but refused to apologise. My lawyer then advised me to incorporate it into a painting, since having it on a t-shirt was on the border of art and design, but if it was in a painting, they couldn’t stop it. So I made a work inspired by Picasso’s Guernica, and put the boy with the handbag into it. That prompted Louis Vuitton to reopen the case and sue me in the Hague, where I was again found guilty.

I knew then that I was not going to cave, and two Dutch lawyers offered to represent me in a countersuit on the principle of free speech. As the first two cases had been conducted without me present, this was the first time I got to argue my case. I explained to the judge the idea behind the work and all the references I was making, and he ruled in my favour, which meant I didn’t have to pay the fine I had previously been ordered to pay. Since then, I have twice been invited to the UN to talk about art and freedom, so I guess my legal troubles had some purpose and a happy ending.

Did your experience encourage you to get more involved in humanitarian work?

It did and it made me feel that I needed to go bigger. So I founded the Simple Living Committee, which is an NGO that focuses on raising awareness and working on causes related to Darfur and other areas in the developing world. We have shipped medicine and educational equipment and this year we have embarked on our biggest project yet, which is the construction of a school in Tanzania.

We have also sent solar cookers to refugee camps, because in many of those camps people have to leave the relative safety of the camps to gather firewood, which often leads to women being raped and kidnapped. But the solar cookers allow families to cook by using the power of the sun.

What has been your experience of raising awareness and funds for your charity work?

Raising money for Darfur is hard and I have heard that it’s because the conflict is not ‘sexy’ enough. It can be very frustrating when you feel you have to trick people into being interested in something, but I must say that my case and the attention it garnered has helped the foundation and our work a lot. For example, the school we are building was funded entirely by this one individual who heard about my case and wanted to get involved. I have also written a book, because I wanted all the trouble I experience have happened for a reason. I also want to show that big companies do try to silence artists.

The final verdict in my case also set a precedent in similar cases, which I’m really happy about, because the struggle has paid off in a way that directly benefits other artists in similar situations. M



By Elias Thorsson

Managing editor. @Eliasthorsson

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