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PEN American Center calls on Smithsonian institution to reinstate controversial video

(PEN American Center/IFEX) - New York City, January 10, 2011 - PEN American Center has sent a letter to the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution and the Director of the National Portrait Gallery urging them to review the gallery's decision to remove David Wojnarowicz's 1987 video "Fire in My Belly" from the museum's "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" exhibition late last year. The literary and human rights organization said it was "dismayed and profoundly disappointed" by the move, which it called "completely antithetical both to the core American values the Smithsonian represents and to a key freedom of expression position that the United States has been advancing internationally."

The National Portrait Gallery pulled the video, which Wojnarowicz created in 1987 to commemorate a partner who died that year of complications of AIDS, one month after the "Hide/Seek" exhibition opened, after receiving complaints from the Catholic League and conservative members of Congress.

The Catholic League labeled an 11-second sequence in the piece depicting ants walking on a crucifix "hate speech" that is "designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians."

The Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents includes members of the Supreme Court and both Houses of Congress as well as citizen representatives. It is charged with overseeing all of the Smithsonian museums. PEN's letter urges the Regents to review what PEN calls the National Portrait Gallery's "precipitous" decision at its upcoming Board meeting, insisting that the review "should include the possibility of reinstating the video in its original form in the exhibition."

PEN is pressing the Regents to address several "unanswered questions" about the process by which the National Portrait Gallery reached its decision, including disclosing the sources of the pressure to which it was responding. But it also asks the body to look beyond process to consider whether the action, by "one of the United States' flagship cultural institutions" fully reflects American values and "supports efforts to project those values here and around the world."

The writers' organization points in particular to ongoing efforts by the United States and a number of other democratic countries to counter a push within the United Nations, led by a number of majority-Islamic countries, for international prohibitions on speech considered blasphemous or offensive to religions.

"The United States has clearly and forcefully opposed such measures," PEN writes. "In doing so, the United States and allies around the world have worked especially hard to demonstrate that we oppose these measures not because we support attacks on Islam or any other religion, but because a core commitment to freedom of expression requires a willingness to tolerate and protect expression deemed offensive to any and all religions."

For the National Portrait Gallery, a taxpayer-funded institution closely associated with the United States government, to appear to censor work based on religious sensitivities could serve to undermine that position, PEN argues, "or at the very least leave the United States open to assertions that it holds a double standard when it comes to speech and images considered offensive to Christians."

"The National Portrait Gallery is a national institution, and its actions have national and international implications," PEN Freedom to Write and International Programs Director Larry Siems reiterated today in New York.

"We believe that the National Portrait Gallery's decision to remove "Fire in My Belly" was wrong from both the domestic and international point of view, and we sincerely hope the Smithsonian's Board of Regents will review the decision so that the public can see the extraordinary 'Hide/Seek' exhibition in its entirety."

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