“Eggs Benedict” heats up international debate
Kat Murrell speaks to Niki Johnson, the artist behind the controversial depiction of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in condoms, about her work's purpose: to foster discussion of religion and human sexuality.
It has taken less than one week for Milwaukee-based artist Niki Johnson‘s nearly-finished Eggs Benedict to go from relative obscurity in her local studio to worldwide debate. The reason? The portrait, of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, is made of 17,000 brightly colored, meticulously folded, woven and stitched latex condoms.
Since the portrait’s rise to viral fame, Johnson, also an instructor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, has been fielding questions daily from news organizations around the world. She has been quoted by The Huffington Post and New York Daily News, The Sun in the UK, and publications in Asia and Africa on Eggs Benedict.
I recently visited Johnson to hear her thoughts and see this piece. Under the glow of incandescent lights, the play of colors and tightly woven surface of Eggs Benedict is quite striking. A cursory glance or online photo without further note might leave the viewer with the impression it is a textile piece. The subtle gradations of color bring to mind the traditions of Byzantine mosaics, the making of luminously grand figures out of glittering tesserae of stone and gold.
It’s only because of the multicolored rainbow of rubber that there is any controversy at all; this is the detail on which reactionary comments and outrage will center. It is also the point where serious debate must begin. Four years ago, in March 2009, Pope Benedict gave a speech in Africa implying that the use of condoms would only speed the spread of AIDS and other diseases. This was the the real spark that set Johnson on the long, arduous course of making this work.
Johnson says she is not against religion or Catholicism. Rather, this piece is rooted in a concern for issues of public health, poverty, and sexual choice. It is against this conceptual backdrop that the image of the former pope is presented. He is ceremonial, celebratory, and regal in the trappings of his position. Yet, the woven reality is layered, textured, and when extrapolated into real life, suggests the complicated, messy, difficult relationships of humanity and human sexuality.
This is where the message and meaning are centered. They are waypoints in the discussion about pressing issues concerning life, death, disease, procreation, gender, and the bodily realities of life. Is there a disconnect between this image of a glorious figure and the physical utilitarianism of the material, with all of its implications? How do infallible directives relate to the risks concerning health and safety? What role do ecclesiastical rules have in stigmatizing the desire for personal protection and its associated responsibilities? How does the health of the ordinary mortal square against pomp and tradition, especially in the hard light of the 21st century?
Eggs Benedict makes great copy for news headlines, of course, as the insatiable 24/7 news cycle will attest. Interestingly, Johnson has been witness to various misunderstandings and misquotes which have now been promulgated across the globe. She would like to emphasize that she receives no funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. And she is not 25 years old, as stated in many articles. She is 35 and – as she puts it – she has earned every year.
Once the inflammatory rhetoric is spent, a concentrated assessment of the work will remain. As an artwork, there is no denying Johnson’s skill and commitment to this project. She estimates that about 270 hours were spend on this piece during the various stages of its making.
The allusions to textiles and weaving are not unforeseen. Johnson learned needlepoint in her childhood and was interested in the process as a labor of love. There is a strong association with needlework as a woman’s practice, which is claimed and invoked on a monumental scale.
The combinations of colors are created by a process of layering one condom within another in order to achieve a more subtle variation. As Johnson notes, this is like creating a rainbow within the surface of the piece. Out of the range of available colors, from black to white, shades of fluorescent green and everything else in between, combinations make for richness of surface hue. On a metaphorical level this effect is not unlike the endless diversity of humanity.
As national and international interest in this piece continues, Johnson hopes it opens a broader dialogue of reasoned consideration. In response to negative reactions, Johnson respectfully acknowledges their discontent, saying, “I consider art as a way of creating thought and discussion.”
Milwaukee is a new home, as Johnson just arrived in July, but has found it to be a very welcoming city. She was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, but grew up in New Mexico. She counts her experience of living in Memphis, Tennessee, while completing her undergraduate degree as an especially extraordinary and formative time. She earned an MA and MFA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and has made quick inroads in Milwaukee with a number of prominent exhibitions on the horizon.
Eggs Benedict will be shown this April at Portrait Society Gallery, and Johnson will also be part of a group show featuring the work of Martha Wilson beginning in June. In September, the Madison Public Library will exhibit two of her works which are part of their permanent collection. Johnson is currently organizing an exhibition in conjunction with Planned Parenthood. Opening in October, Engendered will explore themes of feminism, gender, and identity, continuing some of the significant questions inherent in her socially aware, probing work.