Comparing a person to a monkey is an age-old and harmful racist trope — but an Italian artist claims he’s taking that trope back with a controversial new anti-racism campaign for Serie A, Italy’s top soccer league.
The league unveiled a trio of supposedly “anti-racist” paintings from artist Simone Fugazzotto on Monday, which depict three chimpanzees painted to look like different human races. The paintings are slated to hang in the league’s assembly hall to spread “integration, multiculturalism and brotherhood,” it said in a news release.
However, the images appear to be having the opposite effect, with critics accusing Serie A and Fugazzotto of dredging up a racist trope in a tone-deaf attempt to appear progressive.
“Italian football is so racist that even their efforts to combat racism end up being racism,” Twitter user Alexander Umeakubuike wrote on Tuesday.
“This is a joke,” tweeted Mohamed Ibrahim, in a post featuring the league’s “No to racism” image and slogan.
“This is disgraceful on so many levels,” Brandon Robinson added.
Fugazzotto — whom the league applauded for his “disruptive works” — defended his ape-inspired paintings in an Instagram post.
“I only paint monkeys as a metaphor for human beings,” Fugazzotto wrote in Italian. “We turn the concept back on racists, as we are all monkeys originally. So I painted a Western monkey, an Asian monkey and a Black monkey.”
“True art is provocation,” a Serie A spokesperson told The Associated Press. “The idea behind Fugazzotto’s artwork is that whoever shouts racist chants regresses to his primitive status of being a monkey.”
The backlash should have come as no surprise, as Fugazzotto is not the first person to face criticism for claiming that “we are all monkeys.”
Critics hammered Brazillian soccer star Neymar for posting the same words back in 2014, in a social media post showing him and a boy holding bananas. Neymar was responding to a banana-throwing incident involving a Black player at the time.
Soccer has a long and troubled history with racism that it hasn’t left behind. In fact, a fan allegedly mimed a monkey gesture at a Man United player in the English Premier League earlier this month. The EPL recently launched its own Kick It Out campaign to fight racism in the sport. The league didn’t use monkeys in its advertising.
Serie A has also seen several cases of fans chanting racist slogans at players, including Romelu Lukaku, Franck Kessie, Dalbert Henrique, Miralem Pjanic, Ronaldo Vieira, Koulibaly and Mario Balotelli. All of the players targeted — except for Pjanic, who is Bosnian — are Black, and many of the incidents have gone unpunished.
AC Milan, one of Serie A’s top teams, distanced itself from the monkey campaign in a tweet on Tuesday.
“Art can be powerful, but we strongly disagree with the use of monkeys as images in the fight against racism and were surprised by the total lack of consultation,” the team tweeted in English.
“Once again Italian football leaves the world speechless,” Fare, an organization that tackles discrimination in soccer, said in a statement.
“In a country in which the authorities fail to deal with racism week after week Serie A have launched a campaign that looks like a sick joke.”
—With files from The Associated Press