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Assassination as art? Killer sketches stir row in Brazil

An artist's fantasies of assassinating Queen Elizabeth II, former US president George W. Bush and Pope Benedict XVI have triggered controversy in Brazil ahead of a major art show opening.

Nine charcoal sketch self-portraits of the Brazilian artist, Gil Vicente, in imaginary scenes murdering world leaders have become the focus of fierce debate, with the national lawyers' association demanding they be taken down from the walls of the Sao Paulo Art Biennial, which starts Saturday.

"They claim it justifies crime. Stealing public money is not a crime? The reports on TV aren't trying to justify crimes? Only my work is justification of crime?" an indignant Vicente said in an interview with AFP.

He and organizers insisted the works would be shown as planned in as one of the main exhibits in the Biennial despite the outrcry.

It was a question of artistic freedom, he said.

"They want to remove them. No, no way. Why remove them? People need to see this," he said.

For the lawyer's association, though, a public showing of the works was crossing a line.

"Even though a work of art freely expresses the creativity of its maker, without limits, there have to be limits to exhibiting it publicly," it said, demanding the Biennial's organizers remove the series.

But the organizers rejected that, saying in a statement: "A fundamental quality of our institution is curatorial independence and freedom of expression. The works exhibited to do not reflect the opinion of the curators nor of the Biennial Foundation."

The series, called "Enemies," was started in 2005 with a sketch of Bush, portrayed kneeling with his hands fastened behind his back and the figure of Vicente looming over him, thrusting a pistol towards his head.

Over a year, the artist completed the collection with images showing him preparing to shoot other leaders, including the pope, Britain's queen, former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is also depicted being executed as he sits tied to a chair - but by the artist running a big knife across his throat.

Vicente said the grisly method of assassinating Lula was nothing personal. Originally, he was going to sketch different weapons being used in the murders, but after Bush and Lula he settled on pistols for the rest of the series.

The artist said he came up with the provocative idea because of his "disappointment" with leaders whom he saw as inflicting wrongs on the world with impunity.

"Because they kill so many other people, it would be a favor to kill them, understand? Why don't people in power and in the elite die?" he asked.

The works, hanging in a prominent position in the Biennial exhibition in a hall in Sao Paulo's main Ibirapuera Park, are valued collectively at 260,000 dollars.

Vicente said if someone wanted to buy them, they would have to buy all nine in the series together. The works were not available individually.