Papal portrait made of condoms unveiled in Third Ward

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- Call it a controversial portrait of the former pope, that's sparking worldwide discussion on sex and the catholic faith.  What's causing the stir is what it's made of.

“This piece is called ‘Eggs Benedict,’” said artist Niki Johnson.

From far away, it looks like a contemporary portrait of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

“From the front, it looks like a well-made textile,” said Johnson.

But it's the medium that sends the message.

“This piece is made out of 17,000 non-lubricated condoms.  What I did was interstuff them and fold them to create this tonal range,” she said.

Standing at almost 7 feet tall and 5 feet wide, the colorful latex-lined piece is the latest installment by the Shorewood artist and Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) instructor.

It's been a work in progress for the last three years.  The idea came when she heard a remark made by the former pope made on a trip in Africa.

“He said promoting condoms would help increase the spread of AIDS, and I was just dumbfounded.  I couldn't make any sense of that statement, so I figured I needed to do something,” said Johnson.

So 270 hours later, "Eggs Benedict" became the intervention.

Unlike your average portrait, the piece is meant to be viewed from both the front and the back.  Both sides have completely different visions.

“When you come to the back, you see the open-ended condoms themselves.  What this does is it opens up a conversation about the potential of what these objects are,” said Johnson.

Johnson says she hopes it gets people talking about safe sex, sexuality, and world leaders, and the feedback is almost as controversial as the piece itself.

“I think it's totally fine.  It's freedom of expression,” said Sasha Molin.

“It's offensive and it's gross.  It's not polite as a human being,” said Dennis Kunde.

“It’s certainly a powerful, social statement and couldn't get more timely now with the initiation of a new Pope,” said Emilio DeTorre.

Whether it's good or bad, Johnson says she welcomes the conversation.  After all, art inspires dialogue, which is the purpose behind the portrait.

“That's what the piece is intended to do,” said Johnson.

“Embedded in that object are thousands of conversations.  You can talk about 100 different things based on that one image.   If art can open up conversations in way tha’s a little less threatening to people because it is in a neutral arena, that’s a great thing,” said Debrah Brehmer, the owner of Portrait Society Gallery, where the piece is displayed.

"Eggs Benedict" will be on display for public viewing starting Thursday at the Portrait Society Gallery on 201 E. Buffalo, in Milwaukee's 3rd Ward.

Johnson will talk about the portrait in a free reception from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday April 11th and at the same time April 19th.  It will likely stay up through may 28th.

To learn more about the piece, visit Johnson’s blog here.