Demonstrators gather to protest removal of Wojnarowicz art from NPG

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By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 3, 2010

Despite Thursday evening's chill, about 100 demonstrators - many of them artists - gathered outside Transformer Gallery to protest Tuesday's removal of David Wojnarowicz's "A Fire in My Belly" artwork from the National Portrait Gallery's "Hide/Seek" show.

"This is a sign of solidarity and a call to our lawmakers that silence equals death," said Transformer Executive Director Victoria Reis, invoking the name of the late-'80s "Silence=Death" campaign by the New York City activist group ACT UP.

Protesters watched Wojnarowicz's four-minute banned video - which the gallery began screening in its front window Wednesday afternoon - and volunteers distributed paper masks emblazoned with the faces of Wojnarowicz and poet Arthur Rimbaud (the pink-hued masks referred to the artist's Rimbaud-themed photo series from the late '70s).

Demonstrators had sharp words for the Smithsonian Institution's portrait gallery and members of Congress.

"It's an attack on the American people," said Chicago-based photographer Dawoud Bey, 57, a nationally recognized artist who has had solo shows at the Walker Art Center, the Queens Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts. "Lawmakers are saying that we're not smart enough to make our own decisions on what to see."

"This could have been a teaching moment, but the Smithsonian didn't have enough backbone to allow that," said Bey, who was visiting Washington this week for meetings with the National Endowment for the Arts. "It sets a very bad precedent."

"I came out because I feel outrage against the intimidation of our lawmakers, many of whom haven't seen the entire exhibition," said Andrew Korfhage, 36, a Washington area writer and performer who had heard about the protest online.

At 6 p.m., the group made its way east on P Street, turned right at Ninth Street and stopped at the top of the National Portrait Gallery's G Street steps. The masked demonstrators stood in silent vigil as passers-by gawked.

"I hope there will be a reasonable outcome," said protester Don Russell, 56, who was executive director of Washington Project for the Arts in the mid-'90s. "Though I don't think there will be."

Weekend picks

Breaking from your National Portrait Gallery protest? Didn't make it to Art Basel Miami Beach? Here's what to see (and avoid) in the galleries (and on the street) this weekend.

Irvine Contemporary's second installment of its "Street/Studio" shows - the first hung this summer and bubbled over into the gallery's rear alley and onto Logan Circle street furniture - again runs both indoors and out, this time at two locations.

At Irvine's 14th Street NW gallery, you'll find a group show of artists who write graffiti (or wheat-paste it) but also produce wall-ready work. Among them hang a series of so-so Shepard Fairey editions, in which the artist mines iterations of his counterculture bromides to mediocre effect. If your Christmas list includes editioned screenprints of concept albums from the likes of Obey Records, this is the place for you.


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