Temple shows controversial film rejected by National Portrait Gallery

The Temple University art gallery is showing a controversial film that was removed from the National Portrait Gallery — a Smithsonian museum — three months ago.

The Catholic League had objected to the film, called “Fire in My Belly” by gay activist and artist David Wojnarowicz.

Since then, the video has gone viral.

“After the work was removed, an individual went in with a laptop with a version of the film on it, and stood in the exact spot in the museum where it had been displayed,” said Temple University art historian Gerald Silk.

Silk arranged with the gallery representing Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992, to show the work on the wall of the gallery at Temple’s Tyler School of Art.

Wojnarowicz never finished “Fire in My Belly.” He left behind a 13-minute silent film of images he shot while living in Mexico. It features a sequence of brutal imagery — including cockfighting and bullfighting — intercut with images of Mexican cultural and religious iconography, like Dia de los Muertos dolls and bloody hearts.

Part of that sequence is an image of ants crawling on a crucifix, which is what the Catholic League took offense to, calling it “hate speech.”

“It’s not one of the more potentially problematic images,” said Silk. “There’s lots of images of violence — there’s an image of a wrestling match, showing man against man; there’s an image of cockfighting, representing animal against animal; there’s an image of bullfighting, man against animal.”

Members of Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner, joined the Catholic League in calling for the film’s removal from an exhibit of gay art at the NPG, called “Hide/Seek.” The director of the museum immediately complied.

The film is now on an ersatz tour. The Wojnarowicz estate has allowed the film to be seen by almost anyone who asks. It’s been exhibited in hundreds of institutions in the last three months.

The curator of “Hide/Seek,” Jonathan Katz of SUNY Buffalo, is both “furious” at the museum administration for removing the work, and proud of the NPG for showing gay art in the first place.

“I’m troubled by the way the conflict overshadowed an attempt to take the acknowledged canon of artists and show how profoundly questions of sexuality cross-cut it,” said Katz.

Katz will speak about the work, and the goals of “Hide/Seek,” at Tyler School of Art Feb. 16 at 4 p.m.

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