Draper student Emily Colucci has shared the following email with us in response to the recent censorship of David Wojnarowicz’s piece “A Fire in My Belly” at the National Portrait Gallery. Emily would like to see this situation addressed directly within the NYU community (the artist’s papers are housed in the Fales Collection in Bobst) and is seeking suggestions and feedback from the Draper community. Any suggestions and/or comments should be sent to Emily directly at esc255[at]nyu[dot]edu. Her message is below.
“To place an object or writing that contains what it invisible because of legislation or social taboo into an environment outside myself makes me feel not so alone; it keeps me company by virtue of its existence. It is kind of like a ventriloquist’s dummy—the only difference is that the work can speak for itself or act like that ‘magnet’ to attract others who carried this enforced silence. It also could act as a magnet for those with opposing frames of reference…”—David Wojnarowicz
On the night before World AIDS Day, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. removed a video entitled “A Fire in My Belly” by New York artist David Wojnarowicz from their exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” an exhibition on sexual difference in modern America, after pressure from the Catholic League and House Republicans John Boehner and Eric Cantor. The Catholic League and the House members took offense to an 11 second clip in the video, which depicts a small crucifix being crawled on by ants. Catholic League president William Donohue called the video “hate speech” and Rep. John Boehner decried it as a misuse of taxpayer money. Bowing to these criticisms and the threatening of their taxpayer funds, the National Portrait Gallery removed the film from their exhibition, closely mirroring the Robert Mapplethorpe controversy in 1989.
David Wojnarowicz created “A Fire in My Belly” in 1987 in response to his lover and artistic mentor Peter Hujar’s death from AIDS-related illnesses and his own rage at the silence surrounding the AIDS crisis. Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS-related illnesses five years later in 1992, often worked with difficult or challenging images as a means to articulate his invisibility and the invisibility of other people with AIDS during the late 1980s and 1990s.
David Wojnarowicz’s archives are housed at Fales Library and Special Collections on the Third floor of Bobst Library at NYU and the full-length video, which the National Portrait Gallery cut for exhibition was on loan from Fales. With this connection to NYU and the issues it raises for queer politics, art history and other fields, I feel that something should be done at NYU to address these issues whether it be a reading of Wojnarowicz’s work, a lecture or a discussion about the issues such as freedom of expression, hate speech, and the memory and history of the AIDS crisis, raised by the censoring of this video.
Please let me know any suggestions you may have. I know it is a bad time coming at the end of the Fall semester but with the issues raised by this controversy, a discussion of David Wojnarowicz’s artistic and literary output seems necessary.
Some important links on the Wojnarowicz/National Portrait Gallery controversy:
-PPOW Gallery holds Wojnarowicz’s Estate and has provided the uncut “A Fire in My Belly” film:
-Articles on the National Portrait Gallery’s removal of “A Fire in My Belly”:
-Support Hide/Seek, a Facebook group with frequent updates and news about responses to this controversy:
-David Wojnarowicz himself discussing art funding:
Thanks and I look forward to hearing your suggestions.