On Saturday 11th April 2015, I had the pleasure of talking to members of the British Art Medal Society while I was at their annual conference in St Andrews, Fife. It’s a diverse group of people, made up of sculptors, academics, museum specialists, collectors and so on, and about 50 members had come up for the weekend. Time was set aside for individuals to show their latest work or to talk to the group about their own area of interest. What follows is the short talk I gave.
I want to talk about a bronze medal that I made a few months ago, as it is partly the reason that brings me to Scotland on this occasion. I’ve been a member of the Scottish Secular Society, a group I came across on Facebook, for a while and a few months ago they decided to create their own award for services to secularism. The consensus was that it should be named after Thomas Aikenhead, the last person to be hanged for blasphemy in the UK, just over 300 years ago.
I’d just started sculpting again after a ten-year break and I put forward a design based on the symbolism of Aikenhead’s case, the separation of church and state.
But I then realised that an award medal for contemporary issues should be different from a purely commemorative piece. In the second design I have put the logo of the Scottish Secular Society, and an impression of finger tips pressing through cracked granite on the reverse. Two copies have been cast by Niagara Falls Castings.
This year, the inaugural award of the Aikenhead medal has gone to Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian national who was convicted of insulting Islam and sentenced to a prison term of ten years, a fine, and a punishment of 1000 lashes. He is in prison because he started an Internet blog that the courts in Saudi Arabia considered ‘liberal’, and which, through the questions he raised, was seen to be insulting Islam.
Aikenhead was hanged on the 8th January, 1697. On the 9th January, 2015, Raif received the first fifty lashes in a public square in Jeddah. He was due to receive fifty lashes each week until the sentence was complete. There has been an international outcry over the brutality of the punishment and fortunately the beatings have been suspended for the time being. No definitive reason has been given for this, but there have since been suggestions that he may be sent back to the courts. There is very little that can be done from the outside, but it is important that Raif’s case should not be forgotten. The Aikenhead Award medal is being presented to Raif’s wife, Ensaf Haider, who is continuing to campaign on his behalf.