Smithsonian Fails To Stand Up Against Homophobia

david Wojnarowicz "a fire in my belly"

In November, Revel & Riot reported on an exhibit happening at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. (article about the hide/seek exhibit). The show was a dedication to LGBTQ portraiture and featured the works of such artists as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Georgia O’Keefe, and Annie Leibovitz.

Recently, caving to the homophobic pressure of some fundamentalist religious organizations (Catholic League) and key political figures, such as Eric Cantor and John Boehner, the Smithsonian removed a key piece from the exhibit, a four minute excerpt from David Wojnarowicz‘s video ” A Fire In My Belly,” (1987) which he made after his partner and mentor, photographer Peter Hujar fell ill with AIDS. The excerpt depicts “A crucifix is besieged by ants that evoke frantic souls scurrying in panic as a seemingly impassive God looked on,” (NY Times) and it’s removal was ignorantly called for by conservatives calling it “anti-Christian hate speech.” This has given way for more hateful, homophobic demands for the entire exhibit to be shut down.

To read more about this act of homophobic censorship read this op-ed piece from the NY Times, by Frank Rich.

Today, Jacqueline Trescott for the Washington Post reported that The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, one of the principal sponsors of “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” demanded that the Smithsonian restore the David Wojnarowicz video or the foundation would not fund future projects. The board of the Foundation has issued a letter stating “We cannot stand by and watch the Smithsonian bow to the demands of bigots who have attacked the exhibition out of ignorance, hatred and fear.”

The Association of Art Museum Directors also issued a statement: “It is extremely regrettable that the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, a major American art museum with a long history of public service in the arts, has been pressured into removing a work of art from its exhibition “Hide/Seek…More disturbing than the Smithsonian’s decision to remove this work of art is the cause: unwarranted and uninformed censorship from politicians and other public figures, many of whom, by their own admission, have seen neither the exhibition as a whole or this specific work.”

the P.P.O.W. gallery has made the video, “A Fire In My Belly” available here.


“Bottom line, if people don’t say what they believe, those ideas and feelings get lost. If they are lost often enough, those ideas and feelings never return.” – David Wojnarowicz

“All my life I’ve made things that are like fragmented mirrors of what I perceive to be the world. As far as I’m concerned the fact that in 1990 the human body is still a taboo subject is unbelievably ridiculous. What exactly is so frightening about the human body?” – David Wojnarowicz

Sadly, it’s 2010, and gay voices, perspectives, struggles and history not only remain taboo, they continue to be systematically shut down, disrespected and ignored by the very institutions that allowed the AIDS epidemic to ravage the gay community in the 80s and 90s. It is unbelievable that David Wojnarowicz’s profound work has been censored – 23 years later.