The unusual medium used to create a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI — 17,000 stretched-out condoms in a variety of colors — has upset Roman Catholic leaders in Milwaukee, where the piece is housed.
The Milwaukee Art Museum recently accepted the portrait of the grinning pontiff, titled “Eggs Benedict,” from a donor, but it is not currently on display because the museum’s main galleries are being renovated. Benedict, who resigned in 2013, is now pope emeritus.
Niki Johnson of Milwaukee, the artist who created the work, said in an interview that she disagreed with Benedict’s conservative social positions, including a statement that condoms could contribute to the spread of AIDS in Africa. The portrait, she said, is “not hate-based,” but rather a way to critique Benedict’s views while raising awareness about public health.
“What I want to do is really destigmatize the condom, normalize it,” Ms. Johnson said. “I’ve watched kids and parents talk about condoms. It opens a door to talking about what those things are and what they do.”
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee, in a blog post, criticized the museum’s decision to accept the piece, and suggested that artwork about other groups — with Gandhi and an Uzi, Lincoln in Ku Klux Klan garb or Hitler with a scullcap reading the Torah — might not be considered acceptable.
“Some may want me to be more upset at the museum for their callousness – calling for boycotts, suppression of donations or picketing,” Archbishop Listecki wrote. “God, religion and faith have been insulted by others throughout the ages and by autocrats and movements far superior to our little local museum.”
News of the backlash to the work was reported earlier by The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Museum officials said they were not aware of any donors withdrawing gifts because of the piece, and knew of only one benefactor who vowed to not give in the future.
“Our hope is that the piece will bring not only controversy, but room for conversation about the underlying discussion the artist intended as well as regarding the role of art in public discussion,” Dan Keegan, the museum’s director, said in a statement.