With the handbag as a weapon
Good art should give rise to discussion and debate, but who could imagine that a lady armed with a handbag could create a fuss almost equal to the reactions following Lars Vilks’ Muhammad drawings or Makode Linde’s Painful Cake?
The famous photograph that inspired “With the handbag as a weapon”. (The picture is cropped) Photo: Hans Runesson
Susanna Arwin’s statue With the handbag as a weapon had already created headlines when Växjö Municipality decided in February 2015 to refrain from buying the statue on the grounds that it would be encouraging violence and after protests from relatives of the woman on the iconic photograph on which the sculpture was based. The photograph, named picture of the century, depicts a lady swinging her handbag against a neo-Nazi at a demonstration in Växjö in 1985.
When Lasse Diding, in September 2015, announced that he had bought the statue and intended to donate it to Varberg Municipality, the debate moved from darkest Småland to Varberg and a mighty stream of popular and professional opinion in both the local newspaper and on Facebook began. In a first comment to Hallands Nyheter, Lasse Diding said he was prepared for a debate. “Some people argue that it calls for violence, but I find it difficult to see the lady who gets angry and strikes with her handbag as a terrorist. To me it’s a fine symbol of anti-fascist resistance, at a reasonable level.” (HN 24/9)
Chairman of the municipal executive board, Ann-Charlotte Stenkil (M), was positive: “I was pleasantly surprised. I would like to see it in a visible and appropriate place in Varberg.” (HN 25/9 2015) Nor did she agree with Växjö Municipality’s argument that the statue would encourage violence: “This reasoning feels exaggerated. I think the statue expresses courage, momentum and fresh air.” Similar views were heard from municipal commissioner Jana Nilsson (S): “To me, the statue stands for resistance against a development in society that goes towards more and more extremism and hatred. It is a symbol of openness and a view that all people have equal worth.” (HN 25/9)
The news about the forthcoming donation of the statue was diligently commented on in letters to the editor and on the Facebook page of Hallands Nyheter, while the newspaper’s editorial writer, Maria Haldesten, commenced on her own little crusade against the statue and its donor. The Didingian donation, however, was delayed because Lasse wanted to ensure that as many of the residents of Varberg as possible were first given the opportunity to see the artwork and to form their own view.
21 November 2015, the statue was in place in Varberg and was unveiled at Varberg Fortress in connection with the manifestation War and Culture within the Varberg Calling for Peace project. The exhibition also included Susanna Arwin’s creation Auntfullness, an army of aunties with handbags, and Jan Myrdal’s poster exhibition Selling war as margarine, with French war propaganda from World War I. The ceremony at the fortress was at the same time the grand opening of the Jan Myrdal library in Varberg and, in addition to Lasse Diding and Jan Myrdal, among others, Amelia Adamo gave a speech.
“With the handbag as a weapon” was unveiled for the first time at Varberg Fortress 21 November 2015. Photo: L-G Johansson
When the donation was officially made to Varberg Municipality in the beginning of spring 2016, it contained the condition that the lady with the handbag would be placed in Brunnsparken in the centre of Varberg. A divided Board of Culture and Recreation had the delicate task to make a decision on the issue, which continued to engage the Varbergers. The municipality’s artistic council, including specialists from the Culture and Recreation Administration, conducted a thorough investigation which, following the weighing of a number of factors, concluded that the donation should absolutely be accepted by the municipality and that the best location was indeed Brunnsparken. At the end of April, the board decided to reject the donation with the lowest possible margin. Those who voted yes were Social Democrats (4) and Swedish Green Party (1), while Moderate Party (2), Center Party (2), Liberals (1) and Sweden Democrats (1) voted no.
The story took yet another turn less than two months later when Halland Museum of Cultural History at Varberg Fortress decided to accept the statue as a gift from Lasse Diding. Head of the museum Curry Heimann said to Hallands Nyheter: “To me there was no hesitation in accepting it. I think it is important as a sculpture and it has been very popular. Everyone has an opinion about it. It’s fun with sculptures that people care about and have views on. It is a good starting point for discussions about art.” (HN 20/6 2016) The usual combatants again had to sharpen their pens. For example, the chairman of the Board of Culture and Recreation, Center Partyist Christoffer Bergenblock, attacked the head of the museum in a debate article and described him as indiscriminate. In September 2016, the Halland County Museums Foundation adopted a unanimous decision to accept the donation of the statue.
The following year it was time for yet another unveiling of With the handbag as a weapon, which then was placed at its current location outside Lasse Diding’s beautiful Villa Wäring in Varberg. The Handbag’s Day 21 May 2017 became a real party with about 700 spectators, music entertainment and picnic baskets, but above all a lot of handbags. Among others, Lasse Diding and municipal commissioner Jana Nilsson (S) gave speeches. Head of the museum Curry Heimann explained to Hallands Nyheter that the statue, now owned by Halland Museum of Cultural History, is eventually intended to be included in some form of travelling exhibition and that the artwork, together with the debate around it, is of national interest.
In autumn 2017, another chapter was written in the story of the lady with the handbag when Alingsås Municipality decided to accept a copy of the statue donated by the founders of the clothing brand Nudie Jeans. It remains to be seen if this chapter is the last one.
See photos of the statue and from the events linked to it below. For those who want to immerse themselves in the debate around With the handbag as a weapon, we highly recommend a visit to the site were we have collected press clips about the statue.