On December 1 (World AIDS day of all days), this 1987 film piece, A Fire in My Belly by the artist David Wojnarowicz (who died of AIDS) was removed from the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery exhibition entitled Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. The publicly funded Smithsonian Institution was politically bullied by Catholic League president William Donahue, who called the film “hate speech” when he misinterpreted a shot of ants crawling on a crucified Christ as anti-Catholic. On December 3rd, on behalf of the estate of David Wojnarowicz, P.P.O.W. Gallery released an official statement addressing this controversy in order to illuminate the artists original intentions. The statement reads:
In a 1989 interview Wojnarowicz spoke about the role of animals as symbolic imagery in his work, stating “Animals allow us to view certain things that we wouldn't allow ourselves to see in regard to human activity. In the Mexican photographs with the coins and the clock and the gun and the Christ figure and all that, I used the ants as a metaphor for society because the social structure of the ant world is parallel to ours.”
Further, adding more hate than Serg's war against burritos are top GOP House members John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Eric Cantor (R-VA), who threatened the Smithsonian Institution's finances by cowardly flexing their political muscles if the Institution did not remove the film from the exhibition. Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said, “Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January when the new majority in the House moves [in].”. Cantor, the #2 Republican in the House and the #1 little bitch labeled the exhibit “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.” Unbeknownst to Cantor, he is actually offending every single gay and straight allied person in America by furthering the hatred and misinterpretation of Wojnarowicz's work.
Seems like a lot of bah humbugs going on from the right-wing these days, and the political censorship of the freedom of speech/expression must be stopped. Starting this Friday night, two arts organizations in San Francisco will join the alliance of museums and arts centers around the country for a national protest over the removal of Wojnarowicz's A Fire in My Belly. SF Camerawork and the Queer Cultural Center will present a 7 p.m. screening of the film, followed by a presentation by art historian, writer, and activist Robert Atkins. Atkins will then provide historical background concerning political censorship and lead a panel discussion that will include queer activists, scholars, and artists. The discussion will culminate with Jonathan D. Katz, curator of Hide/Seek, joining the discussion from New York via Skype. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts will also screen this film Friday night continuously from 11pm until 2am in YBCA's Screening Room.
But what is the SFMOMA doing to acknowledge their support of Wojnarowic's work as the only museum in San Francisco to own a work by the artist in their permanent collection? On Tuesday I was at the SFMOMA when I came across an exhibition entitled, The More Things Change, which opened just 10 days before Hide/Seek. The exhibition's mission statement reads, “revealing the museum's collection as a seismograph of shifts in contemporary culture, this continually evolving exhibition considers how the past persists in the present and how art engages with the world at large.” The work seen above is the Wojnarowicz from SFMOMA'S collection. Untitled is a piece that depicts a film still of a Mexican man missing the bottom half of his legs and the image on the right of the piece is a small drawing that Wojnarowicz did of legs to give to the man. Most of the footage in A Fire in My Belly was shot in Mexico on a trip Wojnarowicz took there, and it has been confirmed by the people of P.P.O.W. Gallery who represent the estate of Wojnarowicz that the still in Untitled was most likely from that time in Mexico. I realize that the goal of The More Things Change is to use works made in the last decade, however, what better way to acknowledge the fact that their collection really does persist in the present and engages with the world at large than by adding Untitled to that continually evovling exhibiton? What about placing that piece in the show accompanied by A Fire in My Belly to contextualize the works importance with a statement by the curators explaining why Wojnarowicz is relevant to the present as his work is once again in the spotlight of a major national debate?
I'm extremely happy to see so much support from the San Francisco community against the censorship of artistic expression in the United States, but SFMOMA can do better. If you cannot make either of the screenings this weekend, you can watch the vimeo of A Fire in My Belly at the top of this post.
- UPDATE: SFMOMA is set to provide the public with a free screening of A Fire in My Belly on Tuesday, January 4th at 5:30pm with a discussion to be held directly after.
To learn more about this work, the artist, and the controversy surrounding the film and exhibition please check out the links provided below: