- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2001

NEW YORK Just when the mayor thought it was safe to go back to the Brooklyn Museum, they did it again.

A color photo of a nude woman with outstretched arms in the traditional place of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper is set to go on display today at the popular institution the very one that last year set off a furor with a dung-dappled painting of the Virgin Mary.

The controversial series of photos, "Yo Mama's Last Supper," is one of 188 works by black artists in the show, "Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers."

So far, the offending entry has not triggered the intense drama created last year by "Sensation," a collection of provocative contemporary British art.

But Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and the city's most vocal Catholic activist already have jumped into the fray, and artist Renee Cox, a black feminist with a history of using Catholic images in her work, spent most of yesterday holding news conferences.

Miss Cox, who literally puts her herself into her work, is portrayed as the slim, long-haired woman with outstretched arms in the photograph.

Both sides invoked Third Reich oppression to make their arguments.

"If something is called art, is that sufficient to gain entry into an exhibition? If that's the case, then we suspend all moral judgment. And if that's true, then what about a portrayal of Hitler as a hero and his concentration camp victims as demons?" asked William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

Miss Cox responded: "I don't think you can start repressing art. That's absolutely heinous. You might as well be Hitler and say let's have Kristallnacht," referring to a 1938 nationwide attack on Jewish businesses in Germany.

"Let's burn all the books. Let's take down all the paintings that offend me because of one person's opinion," she continued.

As for the mayor, who thinks the Last Supper photo is "disgusting and outrageous," he said he is appointing a task force to establish decency standards for institutions that are funded by taxpayers.

Mr. Giuliani admitted, however, that he is "mindful" that after the city cut off funds to the museum during the "Sensation" outcry, a court ruled that his administration's actions had violated the First Amendment.

"I think the lack of reaction to this which I predict will happen is because anti-Catholicism is allowed to flourish without people getting outraged by it the way they would a racial attack or possibly attacks against other people's religions," said the mayor.

Barbara Millstein, photography curator for the Brooklyn Museum, said museum officials had considered the public reaction to the Cox exhibit but denied they sought to create controversy.

She defended Miss Cox, saying that the image of the Last Supper is not sacred and has even been appropriated in works that have dogs around the table.

A furious Mr. Donohue reacted with sarcasm.

"So therefore, because people have trivialized the Last Supper, this therefore gives her cover to justify blasphemy," he said.

Miss Cox, whose telephone tape greets callers with "Peace and love every time," describes herself as a late baby boomer who is not anti-Catholic, but wants to have "an open discourse" about the Catholic Church's treatment of women and blacks.

This is underscored by one of her works that went on display at the Whitney Museum's "Black Men" exhibit last year: a castrated black Christ figure hanging from a giant crucifix.

"Sundays were always lynching days and the fingers, toes and genitalia were removed after lynchings and sold as souvenirs," Miss Cox said in an interview.

The Twelve Apostles in the pictures are black men, all reported to be friends of the Jamaican-born artist. As part of her "flipping the script," Miss Cox also has created a piece in which she is dressed as a nun with a white woman kneeling before her.

In Boston, the photo artist displayed a black "superheroine" dressed as Wonder Woman. She also has created her version of Michelangelo's "La Pieta," depicting herself partially clad, with a black Christ figure. The work expresses "the death of black men," she said.

Although only her first four years of schooling were Catholic, Miss Cox sees those years at a Queens parochial school as "pivotal." She is passionate about what she sees as the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church with regard to women and their "role in the slave trade." She was not clear or specific in describing that role.

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