Ackland screening controversial film

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CHAPEL HILL -- The Ackland Art Museum at UNC Chapel Hill has begun screening "A Fire in My Belly," artist David Wojnarowicz's film that was removed from a Smithsonian portrait exhibit in November because a portion of the film, which depicts ants crawling over a crucifix, prompted objections from a religious organization and members of Congress.

The film will be on public view through Feb. 13 in the museum's second-floor study gallery. The Ackland is trying to present the film as a jumping off point for discussing "public response to issues of censorship, artists' rights and the power of images to provoke and inspire," according to a press release. The museum plans a panel discussion Wednesday at a site still to be determined with UNC professors from different disciplines.

Classes from UNC's department of art, communications studies, journalism and law will use the exhibit as a teaching tool.

Wojnarowicz's film was part of an exhibit titled "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" at the National Portrait Gallery.

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, issued a statement objecting to the work's inclusion in the exhibit.

"We call it hate speech," Donohue wrote on the organization's website. Donohue also pledged to write to members of Congressional appropriations committees voicing his concerns.

After the Smithsonian removed the film, museums and other venues throughout the country -- among them the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego -- began showing the clip. The Ackland's decision to show Wojnarowicz's film "was based on an expression of interest from faculty," said Emily Bowles, Ackland's director of communications. "We wanted to put some thought into it. … I don't know of any other place that's done it the way we have," Bowles said.

The Ackland exhibit will include newspaper articles about the controversy, as well as the statement from the Catholic League. Visitors also may record their views in a comment book.

When contacted Thursday, Jeff Field, director of communications for the Catholic League, said that while the organization still sees the piece as anti-Christian, he appreciated the Ackland's approach to the exhibit.

"It seems fair that they would do that and show the other side," Field said.

A lot of the initial displays of the disputed work happened quickly after the removal, and the university did not want to appear reactionary toward that decision, Bowles said. "We're not taking a position. We're neutral."

Wojnarowicz -- a painter, photographer, filmmaker and writer -- died in 1992. He described his 1986-1987 film "A Fire in My Belly" as a work in progress. He later disassembled the work and never completed it. At the Ackland, viewers will see the version removed from the Smithsonian, which includes music and sound, and a longer silent version that does not include the scene with the ants.

Nasher Museum of Art Director Kimerly Rorschach praised the Ackland's decision. The Nasher will show a concurrent exhibit, "Body of Christ," Thursday through June 16. The exhibit includes sculpture and painting from the museum's permanent collection depicting the crucifixion and spiritual themes.

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