A current exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., titled Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, examines representations of sexual identity throughout more than a century of portraiture. Hide/Seek, the first major museum exhibition to explore this topic, has been widely praised for its innovative contribution to scholarship.
Despite its significance, the exhibition recently has been under fire by a small, vocal group of politicians and the Catholic League, who have denounced it, criticizing the film A Fire in My Belly (1987) by David Wojnarowicz. Wojnarowicz made A Fire in My Belly shortly after his companion and muse, the artist Peter Hujar, died from complications related to AIDS. Aggressive, macabre, and distressing, the film contains metaphoric footage meant to express loss and anger about the fact that the AIDS epidemic devastated the gay community while mainstream society largely ignored the problem.
The original A Fire in My Belly contains 13 minutes of footage, with an additional seven minute chapter. Both versions are without sound and composed of short shots of 8mm film captured by the artist in Mexico. For Hide/Seek, exhibition curator Jonathan Katz worked with editor Bart Everly to shorten each segment of the film so that it would total four minutes in length. Katz also chose a recording of an ACT UP rally found on an audio cassette in Wojnarowicz’s archives to serve as a soundtrack to the film. The video editor has posted this version of A Fire in My Belly on Facebook.
Opponents of the exhibition have targeted three brief segments of A Fire in My Belly, which depict ants crawling on a crucifix. Ants, which were seen by Wojnarowicz as having a social structure parallel to humans, were used to reference the artist’s perception of society’s indifference at the suffering of others.
Due to political pressures, mainly from House of Representatives members John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Eric Cantor (R-VA.), Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough removed the video from Hide/Seek on November 30, 2010.
Censorship of artists is an ongoing issue, major instances of which resurface every decade or so. While not limited to these instances, the key players in this current act of censorship have been linked to similar debates in the past.