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Debated Smithsonian film comes to Chicago
by Joseph Erbentraut
2011-01-05

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A Fire in My Belly, the film that has been at the center of controversy since it was pulled from the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery's LGBT-geared Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture exhibit, is coming to Chicago in a special exhibition at the University of Chicago's Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood, through Sunday, Feb. 6.

The unfinished 13-minute film was edited by artist and activist David Wojnarowicz during 1986-1987 as a tribute to his lover, lauded photographer Peter Hujar, who had died of AIDS-related complications. Wojnarowicz never completed the work and, in 1992, also succumbed to AIDS.

The raw and provocative subject matter of A Fire in My Belly, shot mainly in Juarez, Mexico, and carries a deeply spiritual undertone—particularly in one shot that particularly incensed Catholic League president Bill Donohue, incoming U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., who launched their campaign against the film's inclusion in Hide/Seek: An image of ants crawling over a crucifix. Cantor described the film as "an outrageous use of taxpayer money," and called for the closing of the entire exhibit.

The Smithsonian Foundation responded to the criticism by removing the film Dec. 1, claiming "the way in which it was being interpreted by many overshadowed the importance and understanding of the entire exhibition." The film's removal has ignited widespread protests from the art community and resulting in many art institutions screening the film out of protest.

University of Chicago graduate student Jenn Sichel, who worked as a research assistant to the Hide/Seek exhibit, has become a leading voice speaking out against the apparent censorship.

"The show is under serious attack from the right ... I am outraged — almost 20 years after his death, Wojnarowicz is still being silenced!" wrote Sichel in a message that's been widely distributed across the Internet in recent weeks. "Please help me in rallying behind the show. We need an army of support."

In addition to screening Wojnarowicz's original, 13-minute film and a seven-minute follow-up on a continuous loop, the Smart Museum also plans to hold a faculty panel discussion on the debate surrounding the work at a yet-to-be-determined date in January. See smartmuseum.uchicago.edu .


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