Just Stop Oil’s Rokeby Venus Attack Contains An Art History Surprise

Arts & Celebrities

Hanan Ameur is beautiful. The 22-year-old girl has dark curly hair, arched brows, and a great sense of fashion. But growing up as a person of color in Britain (Ameur’s heritage is Moroccan), she didn’t always feel that way. The paradigm of whiteness was problematic. And while Ameur is not an art history lover necessarily, better known for her latest action before a Les Misérables performance, the image of the white woman’s nude form in the Rokeby Venus by Diego Velazquez, facing backwards, inspired something in her as a woman of color…perhaps a mixture of rage and determination. Its touting as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ felt off. Because in a globalized world, why is it that those in Asia and Africa suffer while the West keeps drilling?

So when Ameur and fellow protestor Harrison Donnelly smashed through the Rokeby Venus this month, it was a first shattering of the fragile glass of society’s refusal to accept climate change on behalf of Just Stop Oil, declaring the emergency like any other fire or robbery. On Tuesday, a British court found them guilty of causing £6,445 to it on site at the National Gallery, a more violent attack than the paint splashes of previous acts, yet the canvas itself was unharmed.

Housed at the National Gallery in London and named for its provenance at the English mansion Rokeby Park, the painting’s art historical lineage in radical activism is well known. “Slasher Mary” Richardson attacked the painting at London’s National Gallery with a meat cleaver to protest the imprisonment of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader among their ranks. This was a much more damaging incident, and the work was only returned to view more than 100 years later for security.

“We emulate that because it’s proof that it works.” Donnelly said simply.

Just Stop Oil had intended the exact same four major hit spots as Richardson, but Ameur ended up blacking out and missing those marks, adding an extra before symbolically placing the hammers outside the rope.

“We are non-violent,” Ameur explained of their staging. “It’s not something Harrison and I wake up dreaming to do.”

For Donnelly, it was this lineage that carried particular weight. He knew the history of suffrage, and was passionate about changing the narrative around the climate crisis in the global south to something that imminently impacted England’s own backyard. He cited worsening floods in the United Kingdom as evidence that the impact of consumption is not someone else’s problem. The time is now.

“No one else is going to fix it,” Ameur said, describing her initial epiphany about the geopolitical scale of injustice while working as a server with an activist friend at a local London chain restaurant. “…Waiting for [the legislators] to fix it is like jumping off an airplane and waiting for a parachute to appear on your back…We’re just in resistance. Whether we fix it or not, I will relentlessly resist what they’re doing…we don’t comply with genocide, and that is what’s going on.”

“We have no future,” Donnelly said passionately. “The movement is a lot bigger than me. It’s not about why I did the action. It’s about why the action needs to be done. People need to steer away from ‘I like that picture.’ Stop ignoring the science! People are dying. Their mothers, their sisters, their brothers, they’re dying. They’re washed away forever. Why is a piece of glass in front of a painting a bigger problem?”

MORE FROM FORBES“Slasher Mary”: A Brief Introduction To Political Vandalism In Museums

The broader themes of racist, classist, and environmentally unfriendly narratives undoubtedly persist in their rhetoric. But what Ameur and Donnelly did not know was the unique art history of Diego Velasquez. Like the activists of today, Velasquez straddled the paradigms of privilege and whiteness in his daily life as a court painter, painstakingly revering the royal family in their commissioned works while also training his enslaved Afro-Hispanic assistant Juan de Pareja to eventually become a freed working artist in his own right.

The Rokeby Venus is believed to be Velasquez’s only nude, and in that, it begs reflection…quite literally, as the woman gazes at herself in front of a mirror from behind. This is a radical composition in a world of commodified women with a very specific side-cast gaze, comparable only to Titian for his full-frontal confrontational stares and mirrored experimentation. Velasquez played with portraiture and reflection in “Las Meninas’, the family of Felipe IV, where he included his own likeness in the background holding a paintbrush as the aristocratic scene carries on.

But the Rokeby Venus’ face is totally obfuscated except for the mirror, looking outward rather than at her own features. Journalist Vashik Armenikus tells the story of its cursed provenance in the era of the Spanish Inquisition, which Velasquez quietly opposed. The reflection in the work is thought to be a discreet metaphor begging society to rethink its collective hatred. Velasquez may have had Jewish ancestry himself, believed to be a Converso, from a family of Moorish Jews who converted out of necessity.

Armenikus notes that nearly all of the Rokeby owners ended in bizarre and untimely disasters, exiles and deaths before its iconoclastic mechanism of vandalism for suffrage. He argues that the duality of the reflection captures its many viewers through the centuries: good and bad, wild yet reverent.

The world will keep moving, but from Donnelly’s perspective, fossil fuels belong in the past with the dinosaurs. And perhaps Velasquez, pondering his own legacy and experimenting with gaze for the future, would have agreed. The would-be Moorish Jewish artist may have smiled upon the young Moroccan girl, redefining her own rules for beauty and justice.

A subsequent hearing for Ameur and Donnelly will be held at Southwark Crown Court on December 19.


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