The Saudi artist Ahmed Mater is suing watchmaker Swatch for using one of his works to sell a luxury timepiece. The ad, hawking the Seamaster Aqua Terra by Omega — which Swatch owns — is a perfect copy of an image from Mater’s Magnetism series, with a watch in the place of the black cube that occupied the center of the original photo. The artist is suing the Swiss watch company in Paris’s high court, Le Figaro reported, based on an original article by Le Quotidien de l’Art.
Mater’s image of thousands of iron particles swirling around a central cube, from a series created in 2012, was intended to symbolize the annual pilgrimage of Muslims to the Kaaba shrine in Mecca. “Magnetism, however, gives us more than simple simulacra of that Ancient House of God,” wrote author Tim Mackintosh-Smith. “His counterpoint of square and circle, whorl and cube, of black and white, light and dark, places the primal elements of form and tone in dynamic equipoise.” That combination of formal elements apparently proved irresistible to Omega.
The company originally approached Mater to ask his permission to use the image for its advertisements. No formal contract or agreement was signed permitting use or modification of works from the Magnetism series, but, according to court papers, Mater gave permission for the use of the images on the condition that Omega buy two pieces from the series and donate them to a museum. Omega never did this.
But, as Swatch spokesperson Bastien Buss told Le Figaro, Omega’s version of the image has no bearing on the meaning of Mater’s work. It serves only “to tout the merits of the anti-magnetism of an Omega model. For the first time in the history of watchmaking, a watch resists magnetic fields stronger than 15,000 gauss.” A gauss is a unit of measurement used to quantify the strength of a magnetic field. With its Seamaster Aqua Terra, Omega achieved a major innovation in watch design, a level of resistance to magnetic fields that has eluded watchmakers for decades. “That’s exactly what we show with the metal particles that cannot get any closer to the watch, demonstrating its magnetic resistance,” Buss added. “In every reference manual, anti-magnetism is illustrated in a similar manner.”
According to Le Figaro, the artist, however, is not only upset that his work was put to commercial purposes without his permission, but fears that the unauthorized use of his work may have more far-reaching consequences than artfully visualizing the principle of anti-magnetism. Namely, Mater is concerned that the transformation of a work charged with religious symbolism into a celebration of consumerism — with iron particles that formerly represented devout Muslims now symbolizing worshipers of luxury goods — could spell trouble in his home country of Saudi Arabia, where the image could be taken as a satire of religion and blasphemy is a punishable offense.
Hyperallergic reached out to the artist for comment but has not received a response.