Artist at center of Italian anti-racism row defends ape pictures

MILAN (Reuters) - Artist Simone Fugazzotto defended on Tuesday a widely criticized anti-racism campaign launched by Italy’s Serie A soccer league which features his paintings of apes.

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Racism has long plagued Italian soccer, with black players frequently targeted by insults at stadiums, and the media showing little sensitivity to the issue.

“I am proud of what I have done because maybe for the first time ... we can really confront this problem,” Fugazzotto told Reuters.

Looking to tackle the problem of racism head on, Serie A has promoted a series of three paintings of chimpanzees by Fugazzotto beneath the slogan “No To Racism”.

The initiative has drawn a firestorm of criticism on social media, and major Serie A teams distanced themselves from the campaign, but Fugazzotto said he had been looking to challenge prejudices.

“I sought to turn around the words of racists. At the stadium they shout ‘monkey’, they throw bananas on the pitch and make monkey noises so I said ... I will turn around this monkey theme and I will say we are all monkeys,” he said.

The artwork first appeared on Italian TV and newspapers in the summer and drew no reaction, but there was a fierce kickback on Monday when it was presented at an event in Milan, with negative comments rapidly tearing through social media.

“I expected some controversy, but not like this,” said Fugazzotto, describing the response as a “complete madhouse”.

Anti-racism group Fare described the use of chimpanzee images as a “sick joke” while leading Serie A clubs AS Roma and AC Milan condemned the campaign.

“We understand the League wants to tackle racism but we don’t believe this is the right way to do it,” Roma wrote on Twitter. Milan said they strongly disagreed with the decision to use monkeys.

The two clubs this month denied access to their training centers to reporters from Italian daily Corriere dello Sport, after the newspaper splashed a frontpage headline “Black Friday” above a picture of two black players.

Milan-born Fugazzotto is famous in Italy for his images of apes. He has said he got the idea for the contested trio of paintings after Napoli’s Senegalese defender Kalidou Koulibaly suffered racist insults during a match at Inter Milan last year.

Fugazzotto said Serie A officials had been brave to embrace his work.

“Art in all the centuries has generated discussion and controversy,” he added.

Writing by Angelo Amante; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Ed Osmond