MILWAUKEE — A Wisconsin artist is drawing international attention, some of it negative, for one of her creations: a portrait of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI constructed out of 17,000 colorful condoms.
The piece by Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design instructor Niki Johnson, a kind of latex embroidery, is a commentary on the artist’s views on sex and Benedict’s statements on condoms, including the now famous 2009 quote while on a trip in Africa stating that condoms increase the spread of AIDS.
Johnson, who described herself as a “curious agnostic” and described the piece as “cheeky and irreverent, but not hateful,” said she means no disrespect to the past pontiff, but instead hopes to spark conversation about social issues, including sex and inclusion.
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee took a measured tone toward the portrait. Spokesman Jerry Topczewski said: “The Catholic Church has always been open to frank conversations about human sexuality, especially regarding the morality that comes with the choices people make in their individual lives and understanding that, along with those choices comes an inherent responsibility to live as God has created us, respecting the dignity of all human persons.”
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Johnson’s commentary on her blog is in one way in sync with Roman Catholic teaching.
She says, in part: “Healthy sexual choices are at the root of creating a healthy nation.”
However, the church and the artist differ on what constitutes “healthy.”
The church holds that sex is a gift to be expressed only between a man and a woman in the confines of marriage. Johnson, who lives in Shorewood, Wis., says: “Love in all of its colors, partners and kinky curiosities is to be enjoyed by those who are in it.”
The piece, which Johnson began in 2009, will be displayed in June at the Portrait Society Gallery in Milwaukee as part of a larger show on feminist art involving the groundbreaking Martha Wilson.
Gallery owner Debra Brehmer, who called the piece “really commanding and actually quite respectful,” sees it as a commentary on the way social issues are intertwined with and shaped by religion. “It’s been part of these discussions forever, and it’s worth talking about,” she said.