Thought-provoking or offensive? Condom portrait of the pope stirs controversy in Milwaukee


It's called "Eggs Benedict," and it's scrambling opinions in Wisconsin about community standards and the nature of provocative art.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the Milwaukee Art Museum acquired a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI earlier this month; the piece was created out of 17,000 colored condoms.

The story is getting wide exposure, with stories published as far away as Germany and Ghana. The New York Daily News, the Chicago Sun Times and Minnesota Public Radio, as well as publications that cover art, have all carried accounts of the controversy.

The museum told the Milwaukee newspaper that it has fielded about 200 complaints. Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki has blasted the museum's decision to purchase the work. A few patrons have dropped memberships; one longtime docent resigned and at least one financial supporter vowed to never donate to the museum again.

"Museum officials said an equal number of people have voiced support for the piece and that memberships and pledges in general are growing," the newspaper added.

On her blog, artist Niki Johnson, 25, who teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, explained that she began the portrait in 2012 after hearing a story about Pope Benedict's comments about condom use that he made while visiting Africa.

"As an artist my purpose is to create a conversation and foster debate,” Johnson said. “The bottom line is that condoms promote sexual health and prevent disease.”

"This was never intended to be derisive, mocking or disrespectful of the pope," museum board of trustees president Don Layden told the Journal Sentinel. "It was to have a conversation about AIDS and AIDS education."

Johnson's website detailed her process for producing the piece. She wrote that preparing the condoms was time consuming; she spent hundreds of hours "slicing open hundreds of foil wrappers, pulling out their contents, unrolling them and then bagging each color group."

She went on to stitch them to a mesh background, estimating that she spent close to 300 hours preparing the portrait.

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