Since the announcement a few months ago that Péter Szalay’s statue had won a ninth district art competition, threats and furious reactions have been coming from the far right. Because in Orbán’s Budapest there is no room for a mini-statue of Liberty in rainbow colors that kneels like an American football player.
While the photographers click, Péter Szalay walks over to his car and opens the door. From his backseat he lifts a small sculpture one meter high. It’s a mini version of the American Statue of Liberty, but like a kneeling American Football player. Her right hand is a fist and in her left she carries a stone table with the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ on it. The whole thing comes from Szalay’s 3D printer, printed in bright rainbow colors.
You wouldn’t say it when you see the 40-year-old artist in the middle of Budapest on a sunny Thursday morning, but the atmosphere is tense. Since the announcement a few months ago that Szalay’s statue had won a ninth district art competition, threats and furious reactions from the far right have been raining.
In talk shows it was shameful that the district mayor gave the ‘violent’ movement from America a boost. Sharpener Zsolt Bayer, a confidant of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, vowed to take the statue down within 24 hours. We are going to work on that, said the hard core of the local football club Ferencváros.
With an electric drill, Szalay screws the statue onto a small base. In the plans of the district council it will be fourteen days, but even that suddenly seems very optimistic. A few screws will not stop the men of the far-right movement Mi Hazánk (‘Our homeland’). The night before, they placed a Christian cross twenty meters away. The artist, laconically: ‘They should have placed it next to it, that would have strengthened the dialogue.’
Szalay has never made such a political work of art and is not looking for a provocation, he says a few days before the inauguration in his gallery elsewhere in the capital. Prism, as the sculpture is called, he calls a ‘game with symbols’. For him it is not about the three words, Black Lives Matter, but about ‘the whole phenomenon, the reactions in society and politics. Of course I am against anti-LGBTI violence and racism, but it’s not a statement on my part, it’s about the aesthetics. The judgment is up to the public. ‘
It sounds simple, letting the public judge, but in Hungary today it is highly unusual. Instead of one audience, there are at least two, and after 10 years of Orbán in power, the gap between those camps seems to be widening. The government is billing itself as “pro-family.” You can no longer register a sex change, and a recent constitutional amendment states that the mother is by definition a woman and the father a man. Orbán’s chief of staff Gergely Gulyás said it is not the threats to the artwork that are racist, but the Black Lives Matter movement itself.
A car drives past the square with the window open. “This is disgusting!” Yells the driver. “Shame on you!” Prism denounces racism all over the world, chairman László Kertész argues his jury’s choice, “and the reactions show that it touches on one of the most sensitive topics in Hungarian society: prejudice.”
Among the spectators, district mayor Krisztina Baranyi (53) is hiding behind a golden face mask. The pro-Orbán media portrayed her as the evil genius behind the image. She would like to incite ‘hatred’ against ‘whites and Christians’. A taxi driver she boarded thought, based on the reports, that she wanted to erect a statue “for gay blacks stealing TVs.” Baranyi can laugh about it. “A month later I saw him again and he apologized.” She thinks that the residents of her city are “mature enough” not to destroy a work of art immediately.
She is proven wrong. The artist and the mayor have hardly left when men appear in them white powersweaters and nationalist masks. Instead of destroying the statue, they put four wooden partitions around it with Christian crosses. Prism has been quarantined. “We are against the nepliberalism of the West,” says Attila Nagy (53) of Mi Hazánk, a movement that has not yet established a foothold nationally, but locally holds a handful of municipal council seats. “We saw what Black Lives Matter stood for: white people who had to get down on their knees, begging for their lives.”
Things go fast in the hours that follow. A vandal smears the statue with white paint, and although the police cordons the park off for a few hours, the men of the far right are no longer dissuaded from their plan. In the early hours of the next morning, they return to work on the statue. The head goes off first.
A ‘quite interesting’ development, Szalay responds by telephone, which he is not very sorry about. He regards the escalation as an integral part of his artwork. A new Prism will not come, let the municipality know, that will be too expensive. The square remains orphaned: 24 hours after the dedication, the birds are back in charge.
The art competition in Budapest was the initiative of the Tweestaartige Hondfeest (MKPP), an anarchist artists’ movement that started as a joke in 2006, but took wings in the migration crisis ten years later. In response to Prime Minister Orbán’s xenophobic campaign, activists put up posters with texts such as: “Did you know that Hungarians see more UFOs in their lives than migrants?” Politically, that name recognition paid off in the 2019 municipal elections: the vice mayor in the ninth district, Zsuzsanna Döme, comes from the MKPP.
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