The Pope’s smile is benevolent. He looks up to God, clasping his hands in prayer. If you don’t look at it too closely, you’d think the portrait of former Pope Benedict could belong in the Vatican.
What’s different about this piece of art is the material—it’s made out of 17,000 colored condoms, quilted together to portray the pope’s face.
Unsurprisingly, the latex likeness, which was recently acquired by the Milwaukee Art Museum and slated for permanent display, has generated ire from Catholic leaders and faithful in the city—but the work’s artist says she’s just trying to make art and promote safe sex.
“Some people see hate, and that’s unfair because the piece is not made that way,” Wisconsin artist Niki Lee Johnson told Fusion. “I see it as a sacred object… I knew there was going to be controversy, but I really wanted to engage and generate conversation about condom use.”
The idea for the piece came to Johnson in 2009, after she heard an interview with Pope Benedict in which he said condoms could make the African AIDS crisis worse. The pope then refused to retract his statement, even when medical officials asked him to.
The artwork is made of condoms woven together in the method of a quilt, tied in the back. Each “pixel” of the artwork is made of one to five condoms folded on top of each other, combining different colors of condom for the perfect palette.
“All the bright white ones are mint flavored,” Johnson explained. “What I would do is inter-stuff them—they slide right into each other, and there’s none of that sticky lube stuff.”
The prophylactic portrait, titled “Eggs Benedict,” was first displayed in 2013, but controversy erupted when the art museum acquired the piece and announced it would display it prominently in a new gallery space opening this fall.
“An artist who claims his or her work is some great social commentary and a museum that accepts it, insults a religious leader of a church… must understand the rejection of this local action by the believers who themselves have been insulted,” Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki wrote in a blog post last week.
But while the museum has had some members quit and donors pull out, officials say that they’re supporting Johnson’s art. “If museums made their decisions on donor threats or negative responses to programming, we as a nation and free society would be far poorer than the loss of a future donation,” Dan Keegan, the museum’s director, said in a statement to Fusion.
The controversy, which was first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, recalls a 1999 spat over a portrait of the Virgin Mary made with elephant dung that was displayed in the Brooklyn Museum. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani threatened to evict the museum because of the work, but a court ordered him not to. (The Milwaukee museum is funded mostly through memberships, although it does receive some public funding.)
Not everyone is angry—the museum sold a record number of memberships since the archdiocese spoke out about the portrait, spokesperson Vicki Scharfberg told Fusion. And people who have seen it have had a variety of reactions, according to Johnson: “I had mothers of teenage children come up to me and say, ‘We were able to have the discussion about condoms right here,’” she said.
The pope portrait isn’t Johnson’s only condom artwork. In August 2013, she got an email from a warehouse distribution company in South Dakota: a French condom company had stopped paying their bills, and inside their climate-controlled warehouse were 10.5 tons of unused condoms, 1.2 million in all. The company went bankrupt and the colorful condoms were abandoned. They were about to expire, so the company gave them to Johnson.
What do you do with 1.2 million expired condoms? If you’re Johnson, you launch a nationwide tour to promote condom art. She’s partnered with more than 20 different artists around the country to create new latex masterpieces and show them in different cities. They just finished an exhibit in Memphis which launched on National HIV Testing Day on Saturday, and are planning to continue displaying work over the next few years.
“I want to destigmatize it and help people live happy, safe lives,” she said.