Courtesy Eric Baillies

The Popeā€™s smile is benevolent. He looks up to God, clasping his hands in prayer. If you don't look at it too closely, you'd think theĀ portraitĀ of former Pope Benedict couldĀ belongĀ in the Vatican.

Whatā€™s different about this piece of artĀ is the materialā€”itā€™s made out of 17,000 colored condoms, quilted together to portrayĀ the popeā€™s face.

Unsurprisingly, the latex likeness, which was recently acquired by the Milwaukee Art Museum and slated for permanent display, has generated ire from Catholic leaders and faithful in the cityā€”but the work's artist says sheā€™s just trying to make art andĀ promote safe sex.

ā€œSome people see hate, and thatā€™s unfair because the piece is not made that way,ā€ Wisconsin artist Niki Lee Johnson told Fusion. ā€œI see it as a sacred objectā€¦ I knew there was going to be controversy, but I really wanted to engage and generate conversation about condom use.ā€

The idea for the piece came to Johnson in 2009, after she heard an interview with Pope Benedict in which he said condoms could make the African AIDS crisis worse. The pope then refused to retract his statement, even when medical officials asked him to.


The back of the portrait.
Courtesy Eric Baillies

The artwork is made of condoms wovenĀ together in the method of a quilt, tied in the back. Each ā€œpixelā€ of the artwork is made of one to five condoms folded on top of each other, combining different colors of condom for the perfect palette.

ā€œAll the bright white ones are mint flavored,ā€ Johnson explained. ā€œWhat I would do is inter-stuff themā€”they slide right into each other, and thereā€™s none of that sticky lube stuff.ā€


The prophylactic portrait, titled "Eggs Benedict," was first displayed in 2013, but controversy erupted when the art museum acquired the piece and announced it would display it prominently in a new gallery space opening this fall.

"An artist who claims his or her work is some great social commentary and a museum that accepts it, insults a religious leader of a churchā€¦Ā must understand the rejection of this local action by the believers who themselves have been insulted," Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki wrote in a blog postĀ last week.

The front of the portrait.
Courtesy Eric Baillies


But while the museumĀ has had some members quit and donors pull out, officials say that theyā€™re supporting Johnsonā€™s art.Ā "If museums made their decisions on donor threats or negative responses to programming, we as a nation and free society would be far poorer than the loss of a future donation,"Ā Dan Keegan, the museum's director, saidĀ in a statement to Fusion.

The controversy, which was first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, recallsĀ a 1999 spat over a portrait of the Virgin Mary made with elephant dung that was displayed in the Brooklyn Museum. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani threatened to evict the museum because ofĀ the work, but a court ordered him not to. (The Milwaukee museum is funded mostly through memberships, although it does receive some publicĀ funding.)

Not everyone is angryā€”the museum sold a record number of memberships since the archdiocese spoke out about the portrait, spokespersonĀ Vicki Scharfberg told Fusion. And people who have seen it have had a variety of reactions, according to Johnson:Ā ā€œI had mothers of teenage children come up to me and say, ā€˜We were able to have the discussion about condoms right here,ā€™ā€ sheĀ said.


The popeĀ portrait isn'tĀ Johnson's only condom artwork. In August 2013, she got an email from a warehouse distribution company in South Dakota: a French condom company had stopped paying their bills, and inside their climate-controlled warehouse were 10.5 tons of unused condoms, 1.2 million in all. The company went bankrupt and the colorful condoms were abandoned. They were about to expire, so the company gave them to Johnson.

What do you do with 1.2 million expired condoms? If youā€™re Johnson, you launch a nationwide tour to promote condom art. Sheā€™s partnered with more than 20 different artists around the country to create new latexĀ masterpieces and show them in different cities. They just finished an exhibit in Memphis which launched on National HIV Testing Day on Saturday, and are planning to continue displaying work over the next few years.

ā€œI want to destigmatize it and help people live happy, safe lives,ā€ she said.

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.