Anna Holland’s Truth: the Just Stop Oil activist who supposedly ruined Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’

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Given recent events in activism around the world targeting iconic artworks, such as the soup-splashed Mona Lisa and the pro-Palestinian protestor slashing at the 1914 painting of Lord Balfour at the University of Cambridge, our focus turns to Anna Holland, the Newcastle University graduate who inspired this all by throwing tomato soup at the Van Gogh Sunflowers for Just Stop Oil in 2022. Becoming a viral media figure and yet interviewed very little in UK mainstream media, this article spotlights Anna’s experience after their radical action and shines light on their motivations.

What was it about the Van Gogh Sunflowers that made it the focal point of your protest? Was it primarily its potential for widespread publicity, or did it carry a deeper symbolic significance for your cause?
We chose the Sunflowers by Van Gogh painting for two reasons. First was that it was the most famous painting in the gallery at the time so it would get the biggest amount of attention and outcry. But we also chose it because of the symbolism of the painting. So if you were to visit the painting at the National Gallery there’s a plaque next to it describing that Van Gogh used colours such as yellow and orange in his painting to symbolise hope for a brighter future. It just seemed too perfect because that is exactly why we take action in Just Stop Oil, because we have hope that we can have a future that Van Gogh would have been proud of and we can honour his memory fighting for a future where a government would care for people with lower incomes, people with mental illnesses which is exactly how Van Gogh was suffering most during his time.

Fighting for a future where a government would care for people with mental illnesses which is exactly how Van Gogh was suffering most during his time

What are your views of how the media represented your act of throwing tomato soup at the Van Gogh Sunflowers?
It was interesting the way they reacted, predominantly the British media reacted in a very interesting way. Initially, it was all over the headlines, every single newspaper, everyone had picked up that we had destroyed Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Then it only slowly started trickling through that the painting was protected by glass, that we hadn’t actually done any damage to the painting and so on.

But what’s most interesting is that the main British media outlets – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 – did not want to speak to us at all about the action. Typically when we do an action that gets this much attention it leads to interviews with all sorts of outlets, newspapers, student journalists, radio programmes, but the British mainstream media didn’t want anything to do with us. Phoebe and I were being interviewed so much, we had so many interviews from all across the country apart from the main British broadcasters.

It became part of a trend in our actions, BBC, Sky News, all those mainstream companies only interviewed us on actions that they felt they could easily villainise. It was so clear that Phoebe and I hadn’t actually damaged Van Gogh’s painting and that we were just two young students terrified for our future and doing whatever we could, they couldn’t villainise that. So they simply just brushed over it, they didn’t speak to us.

All those mainstream companies only interviewed us on actions that they felt they could easily villainise

Some people viewed it as destructive vandalism, as the media made it seem as though you destroyed art. What do you think about this?
To all those people who got absolutely outraged at the possibility of one destroyed painting, I would ask them to really lean into that emotion, because isn’t it outrageous that so much art is getting destroyed every single day in the Gaza Strip, in floods, in Libya, in Pakistan, in wildfires that range across the country? How many artists’ lives and paintings are being destroyed every single day that there’s no outcry about? Why is it they only care about a painting once it’s deemed valuable by some unknown expert and placed in a gallery? We need to share that outrage with not just artists of the current world but with everyone. Why are people more outraged at potential damage to a painting than they are at the fact that parents have been starving themselves just so they can feed their children?

How many artists’ lives and paintings are being destroyed every single day that there’s no outcry about?

Looking back, is there anything valuable that you have learnt from protesting that you can share with the student community or anything that you would’ve done differently in your protest?
Before I joined Just Stop Oil and started actively taking actions that were a bit more disruptive, I felt like I was in a massive rut, like I was in this unmoveable place, where I was completely overwhelmed by my climate anxiety, by my climate grief, I felt completely hopeless and it was one of the worst feelings in the world.

Then when I took action, especially when I took the action of throwing the soup at the Sunflowers, the overwhelming emotion I had was one of empowerment. It’s so freeing being able to stand up and fight for your right to a future. It is so empowering and it has completely changed my life for the better. I used to feel absolutely hopeless about my future but every time I take action, every single time I do something disruptive, I get arrested, I feel like I’m one step closer to a liveable future where I and everyone in my generation can thrive.

What would you say to people who feel there is no hope of saving the environment?

I’d say that in a way they’re right, no matter how much action, no matter how much we change, we’ll never have the future that was promised to us. So we just have to fight as hard as we can for a future now, we have to fight as hard as we can for a future that we can make work for ourselves.

Our generation has gone through uni in a pandemic developing socially through lockdown, living through multiple recessions, multiple wars across the world. We’re really good at adapting to shit situations. We’re a really tough bunch of people, we’ve been through so much already as a generation that I think to the people who are feeling hopeless, just remember we are a lot more powerful than we give ourselves credit for. The best thing you can do is find your community because I promise there are so many people who feel the same way as you and once you find your community, once you join together, that feeling of hopelessness, of helplessness will vanish.

We’ve been through so much already as a generation, we are a lot more powerful than we give ourselves credit for

In what do you believe your protest do you believe your protest will contribute to meaningful change or dialogue regarding the issues you’re advocating for?

We can see how that’s happened already, especially with the soup action. We decided to throw the soup on the Van Gogh Sunflowers because we’d been in active civil resistance against the UK government for the first two weeks of October demanding an end to all new oil and gas licences. We were in civil resistance by blocking roads but we realised that after two weeks, even though we were taking really active action, we weren’t getting any media attention, people just weren’t talking about us which is why we took the action of the National Gallery and that completely shifted the conversation. Suddenly, almost overnight, the conversation shifted from ‘is the climate crisis even real?’ to ‘how can we best prepare for the climate crisis? What can we do?’ and this is the BBC that were having these conversations all of a sudden. So it was amazing to see how much we shifted conversation about the climate crisis. Through radical action we’ve made the opinion that the climate crisis isn’t real an incredibly unpopular and potentially career-ending one which is so powerful. Since the soup action, Just Stop Oil has name recognition of I believe 94% which is higher than Greenpeace; we’re a more recognised group than Greenpeace in the UK. After the action in the few months that followed, every single UK political party, apart from the Conservatives, adopted our demands of no new oil and gas which goes to show how popular our demands were with the general public – these politicians go where the public goes. It really showed how we shifted that conversation, and how we put the blame on the fossil fuel industries and we put that into national conversations.

Suddenly, almost overnight, the conversation shifted from ‘is the climate crisis even real?’ to ‘how can we best prepare for the climate crisis? What can we do?’

What is the radical flank theory and how does this inspire you?

People will have seen articles about Just Stop Oil describing us as eco-zealots, eco-wankers, twats, all the negative names you could imagine and I’m sure everyone knows how controversial we are as a movement. But in spite of our controversy, in spite of how we’ve divided public opinion, the support for the overall environmental movement has increased since we’ve taken over headlines and that’s what the radical flank theory is. Because we are the most radical movement of the UK right now, we make other movements such as the Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth seem a lot more palatable to the members of the public who haven’t taken any form of climate action before. For those people who want to do something for the environment but don’t want to go to the extremes that we do in Just Stop Oil, suddenly they have all these other groups that look a lot more accessible to them so that’s what the radical flank theory is.

It’s changing the conversation and changing the way the climate is perceived so it’s a win and a lose because it means that we, in Just Stop Oil, have to accept that we are the radical outliers within the climate movement. That continues to inspire me because it could be so easy to fall for the lies the mainstream media is telling us, it could be so easy to believe that we really are as unpopular as they say, we are as hated as they say. But then when you look at how groups like Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth are growing in numbers every single day it’s so encouraging and so empowering to see.

In spite of our controversy […] the support for the overall environmental movement has increased since we’ve taken over headlines and that’s what the radical flank theory is

What would you say is ‘the solution’, if there is one, to the environmental crisis?

I think there’s a few facets to one solution; the main solution is that we have to change our energy usage, we have to change our consumption. The fossil fuel industry is currently the biggest contributor to the climate crisis and there are no words to describe how infuriating it is that there’s such undeniable proof that the fossil fuel industry is causing the climate crisis and is causing the deaths of millions of people yearly around the world and our government is still investing in it. Our government invests roughly £12b a year in the fossil fuel industry in subsidies and tax breaks and that works out at £236m a week which is an insane amount of money. But if they invested that much money which they clearly already have into renewable energy, into wind farms, solar panels, into insulating people’s homes we would see not just our carbon emissions but our energy bills just plummet. A home insulation can cut a household’s energy bills in half so ending this toxic abusive relationship with the fossil fuels industry would not only help mitigate the climate crisis (it may not end it but it will certainly slow it down) but it could end the cost of living crisis which is such a key thing which every single one of us is suffering through right now. So really it’s madness that the government is not investing in renewable energies.

What do you think is the best thing students can do to save the environment?

I think first of all students need to understand that they individually will not be able to save the environment. If you think about it in those terms it can get really overwhelming and you can think ‘oh god I’ve got a whole planet to save and it’s just me!’ The best thing they can do is find their communities, that’s the first step.

There’s so many individual steps you can take – you can move to a plant-based diet, you can stop flying, you can use public transport instead of driving everywhere – but those lifestyle changes can be quite difficult to maintain if it’s just you by yourself because they can be quite large changes to your daily habits. But if you’re in a community, if you’re surrounded by people who are making the same changes as you, who believe in the same things as you, who are able to support you in your ups and your downs in your journey through the climate movement, it can make the world of a difference and it can just make those small individual actions feel so much easier and so much lighter to bare.

The best way to make any sort of systemic change is through direct civil resistance. In Just Stop Oil we use non-violent, direct action and that is a method that has been historically proven to work time and time again: the civil rights movement used it, the queer rights movement used it, disabled activists in the 90s used non-violent, direct action. They all got the systemic changes they were fighting for. So I think the best way to fight for your future is to do it on the streets where the politicians can’t ignore you.

What would you say to students wanting to get involved with Just Stop Oil, or more generally in environmental protesting?
The sooner you do it the better. Just Stop Oil holds almost weekly, if not monthly, welcome talks all across the country. If there’s none in your area, they are happening online all the time so those are the best places to start. You can just go onto our website and sign up for a talk. That’ll give you all the information you need to know about the climate crisis as it is today and what we’re doing to fight it.

Don’t be afraid to take this stand because it can be really scary thinking about actions that can lead to arrest, but we have such a strong community in Just Stop Oil, we have so much support available to everyone in the movement, whether they are in arrestable roles or if they work behind the scenes in non-arrestable roles. The sooner you learn about that wealth of support we have, the sooner you can access it, the more supported you’ll feel in your journey into climate activism.

Images: Just Stop Oil public domain

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