Smithsonian Pulls Video of Ant-Covered Jesus But Leaves Images of Naked Brothers Kissing, Genitalia, Men in Chains, and Ellen DeGeneres Grabbing Her Breasts

By Penny Starr | November 30, 2010 | 5:02pm EST

A crucifix in the video “A Fire in My Belly,” part of the ‘Hide/Seek’ exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The image shows Christ on the cross with ants crawling over his body and face. ( Starr)

( -- The federally funded National Portrait Gallery, a museum of the Smithsonian Institution, announced today that it will remove from one of its exhibitions a video that includes images of ants swarming over Jesus Christ on a crucifix, but will keep in place images of naked brothers kissing, men in chains, Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, a painting of a male nude that the Smithsonian itelf describes as "homoerotic," and a painting made with nail polish and the cremated ashes of a man with AIDS who committed suicide.

ype="node" title="e-brief signup

The video that showed the crucifix crawling with ants also showed a man's nude frontal image, a mouth being sewn shut, bowls of blood, and mummified humans.

The action by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery came after reported details of the exhibit on Monday and reaction to the report sparked criticism from religious leaders and members of Congress. House Speaker-to-be John Boehner (R.-Ohio) and House Majority Leader-to-be Eric Cantor (R-Va.) both told earlier today they want the exhibit cancelled.

On Tuesday, Martin Sullivan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, issued the following statement:

“’Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture’ is an exhibition of 105 works of art that span more than a century of American art and culture. One work, a four-minute video portrait by artist David Wojnarowicz (1987), shows images that may be offensive to some.  The exhibition also includes works by highly regarded artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Thomas Eakins and Annie Leibowitz.

“I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious. In fact, the artist’s intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim.

“It was not the museum’s intention to offend. We are removing the video today.”

A spokesperson for the National Portrait Gallery said the video is the only item in the exhibit that is being removed.

Martin’s statement also said wording at the exhibit’s entrance that states it “contains mature themes” will stay in place.

Brothers kissing, one holding gun in other's chest, photograph at the National Portrait Gallery. ( Starr)

Some of the remaining images in the exhibit include a 1994 photograph (from a triptych) by Lyle Ashton Harris. The “Hide/Seek” catalog says that Harris created the piece in collaboration with his brother, Thomas Allen Harris.

“In this provocative center image, the brothers exchange a passionate kiss as Thomas presses a gun into Lyle’s chest--conjuring the original biblical story of Cain’s treachery toward his brother, Abel,” states the catalog description (p. 265) of the piece.

“The image transgresses many dualisms we use to structure society: male versus female, black versus white, ‘brotherly love’ versus homosexual desire,” reads the description. “And it raises provocative questions surrounding themes of domestic abuse between lovers, perceived violence among black men, and the dangers that come from engaging in an ‘illicit’ love--whether it be from disease, homophobia, or a lethal combination of the two.”

Photograph of Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, part of the "Hide/Seek" exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. ( Starr)

Another piece, “Charles Devouring Himself,” is a plate, used as a canvas/background, upon which an image of “Charles” eating himself is depicted with a paint made from nail polish and the cremated ashes of a man who had AIDS and committed suicide.

The catalog description (p. 256) for “Charles Devouring Himself” says the artist Jerome Caja “mixed his friend Charles’s ashes with nail polish to create this image of Charles ingesting his own body. (Charles committed suicide once his life with AIDS became unbearable and recovery was beyond hope.) One can hardly imagine a more gruesome inversion of Goya’s famous painting of Saturn devouring his son. This searing condemnation of America’s willingness to devour its sons during the AIDS crisis is immediately undercut by Jerome’s campy frivolity and cartoonish vulgarity.”

Robert Mapplethorpe's "Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter," a sadomasochistoc homosexual photo on display at the National Portrait Gallery.

There is a photograph of Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, as well as a photograph --  “Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter” -- expressing homosexual sadomasochism by Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989).

"In this playful inversion of the classic family photograph, leather-clad Brian Ridley sits in an ornate wingback chair, chained and shackled to his dominant, horsewhip-wielding partner, Lyle Heeter," says the National Portrait Gallery's description of this Mapplethorpe photo.

"Far from submissive, Ridley’s wide-legged stance, upright posture, and direct address to the camera indicate that he willingly acts out his chosen sadomasochistic role," says the description. "The machismo of the couple’s leather gear is undercut by the flamboyance of their living room--replete with an Oriental rug, pewter vases, sculpted lamp and clock, and grasscloth wall covering. That this homosexual S&M ritual takes place in the context of the couple’s 'normal' life (which also includes antique collecting) powerfully challenges what it meansto be a 'normal' or 'domestic' couple."

Image of naked gay man in “The Pink Narcissus” video at the National Portrait Gallery. ( Starr)

Also in place at the “Hide/Seek” exhibit is “The Pink Narcissus,” a video released in 1971 by James Bidgood (b. 1933). The National Portrait Gallery’s description for the video says, “The film is a surreal portrait of the youth’s emergence into gay life, his coming out symbolized by the metaphor of a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly.”


The video was originally 71 minutes long, and has been edited down to 7 minutes for display in the museum, according to the description.

MRC Store