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Serie A anti-racism artist defends ape artwork

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Artist Simone Fugazzotto has defended a widely criticised anti-racism campaign launched by Italy's Serie A soccer league which features his paintings of apes.

The artwork, composed of three side-by-side paintings of apes under the slogan "No to Racism", was called a "sick joke" by anti-racism organisation Fare Network when it was launched on Monday, and has been criticised by Italian clubs Roma and A.C. Milan.

The artist who painted the images, Fugazzotto, has said he was surprised by the level of negative reaction and described the response as a "complete madhouse."

"I am proud of what I have done because maybe for the first time ... we can really confront this problem," Fugazzotto told Reuters.

"I sought to turn around the words of racists. At the stadium they shout 'monkey', they throw bananas on the pitch and make monkey noises so I said ... I will turn around this monkey theme and I will say we are all monkeys.

"I expected some controversy, but not like this."

The artwork first appeared on Italian TV and newspapers in the summer and drew no reaction, but there was a fierce kickback on Monday when it was presented at an event in Milan, with negative comments rapidly tearing through social media.

Milan-born Fugazzotto, described as being "known for his disruptive works," is famous in Italy and almost all his art involves drawings of chimpanzees.

Italian football has been plagued by racism with Inter Milan and Belgium forward Romelu Lukaku and Brescia's Italian striker Mario Balotelli having been subjected to racist insults from rival fans during matches this season.

Earlier this month, Italian sports daily Corriere dello Sport used the headline "Black Friday" along with a picture of Lukaku and AS Roma's England defender Chris Smalling to preview last Friday's match between their clubs in Milan.

Despite a wave of criticism, the newspaper stood by the headline.

Information from Reuters contributed to this report.