Friday, May 20, 2011

The Diary of Banned Frank

T., Banned Frank, 2008, silkscreen print on paper

Banned Frank is a 2008 image that inspired a great deal of debate in the Netherlands and on that lightning rod of controversy we call the international blogosphere. In this post, I want to write about the image itself briefly and then discuss some of the controversy. The intent is not to feed the fire because honestly, the debate is over. I just recently learned about this image and wanted to offer my own perspective.

Banned Frank is a silkscreen print by a Dutch artist who goes by the pseudonym “T.” or alternately, “t.” It has been reproduced on t-shirts, postcards, and as street art in a couple of major European and American cities. The image depicts Anne Frank, the author of Diary of a Young Girl, wearing a keffiyeh. Westerners know the keffiyeh primarily as the scarf worn by Palestinian militants and radical figures such as Yasser Arafat and Leila Khaled. Because of this, the keffiyeh often functions in the West as a symbol of Arab Muslim identity in general and Palestinian identity in particular. While the keffiyeh in the image above is red, there are versions of this image in which the keffiyeh is blue, green, or pink, so we probably shouldn’t read much into the color.

Even though this is a silkscreen print, T. tried to make it look like graffiti done with a stencil. The thick, fuzzy lines, seemingly unclean application, and “paint drips” create the impression of a hastily-executed piece of street art. Graffiti itself is associated with all things counterculture, and it’s obvious that the artist was trying to capture this feeling. The technique, the dissonance created by the juxtaposition of the image of Anne Frank and the keffiyeh, and the distortion of Frank’s likeness result in this slightly unsettling image.

Obviously, using the image of an internationally-beloved young girl who passed away under horrific circumstances during the Holocaust in this way was not going to be received well. A lot of people accused the artist of anti-Semitism and a Dutch Jewish advocacy group, Centrum Informatie en Documentatie Israel (CIDI), called for the boycott of the image[1] on the grounds that the combination of a symbol of the Holocaust with a symbol of Palestinian nationalism was an allegory for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which the oppressed, represented by Anne Frank, are the Palestinians. Because of all the uproar, the company that was producing the postcards halted their sale and production, though you can still buy t-shirts and copies of the print on this website.

I don’t read this image as an allegory for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I also don’t think this image was intended to defame Israelis, Jews, or Anne Frank herself. I think this was actually a comment on the trend of wearing keffiyeh as scarves that was really popular in the Europe and the US in 2008. But what is the implication behind it?

I think we can understand Banned Frank better by looking at some of T.’s other work. I present Santa Ghraib and I Bombed New York. In both of these images, the “point” is the sardonic humor that results from mixing an iconic and appealing image with a disturbing one. Santa Ghraib presents the familiar image of rosy-cheeked Santa Claus and then “screws it up” (so to speak) with an Abu Ghraib victim dressed as a crude Christmas tree. Likewise, I Bombed New York twists the popular I Love New York logo by replacing the “I” and the heart with pictures of George W. Bush and an airplane, turning the pro-New York slogan into a reference to the decidedly anti-New York events of 9/11. The way T. achieves the desired effect on his viewers is by mixing the appealing with the repulsive.

Keeping this in mind, the message of Banned Frank becomes clear. Obviously, only a very strange individual could consider the image of bright, cheerful, cute Anne Frank to be repugnant or disturbing. I wish the same could be said of the keffiyeh, but obviously some people in the West have issues with it. In order for this image to make sense, viewers have to understand the keffiyeh as a piece of “hate couture” or "jihadi chic." The only problem with this reading is that the keffiyeh is not a symbol of religious or ethnic hatred. It’s a neck scarf in the West and a man’s head scarf in the Middle East. It has acquired these associations with terrorism and anti-Semitism in the West, but that’s only based on a very un-nuanced and simplistic understanding of what the keffiyeh means to people, both Muslim and Jewish, who have lived together in the Middle East for hundreds of years.

I’m not going to say that T. was intentionally trying to say anything about Jews, Muslims, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or whatever because the artist has never made a statement about this work. I would be putting words in his mouth, and that’s unfair. So, for the record, I am not saying that T. is necessarily prejudiced in any way against any religion or ethnicity. But I will say that he is a Dutch artist, and anyone familiar with the Netherlands knows that there is a lot of anxiety and conflict over the recent waves of immigration from Muslim-majority countries. There’s been a lot of hateful language being bandied back and forth and even some violence. So it’s not surprising that a piece that expresses this anxiety like Banned Frank should come out of that cultural environment and that it should cause a lot of controversy. It's possible that this piece was intended to spark debate about the place of Muslims in Dutch society. Without the artist's statement, we can only guess.

Does Banned Frank push the limits of good taste? Yes, intentionally. Is it anti-Semitic? Probably not, but it definitely offended some people, so we need to recognize and respect that. Did I completely miss the point? Let me know in the comments!

 Thank you to Arne and Birgit from Prints & The Revolution for giving me permission to use the images and link to the site! Visit their website to see more "street art" by other affiliated artists.

[1] “CIDI roept op om Boomerangkaart ‘Banned Frank’ te boycotten” (“CIDI Calls for Boycott of Boomerang Card Banned Frank”), January 24, 2008,

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