A painting by artist Magnus Juliano on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) shows a bloodied Winnie the Pooh face down in handcuffs, a piglet dressed as a cop with a gun and Tigger holding a sign that reads a sentence once chanted by the Black Panthers: “Out of the pig”. The work and the exhibition in which it is included, Black and Brown Faces: Paying Homage tohave been in place since March 25 without much ado – until late May, when the Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and its supporters called for the painting to be removed.
According to Juliano, his email, social media and business page were suddenly inundated with “comments ranging from ‘This is disgusting’ to ‘I really want something to happen to him’.”
Winnie the Pooh, as well as several other Disney characters, Between the public domain on January 1. Juliano wanted to use the ubiquitous cartoon to portray the very real issues of racism and police brutality in America in a universal way.
“The idea was to shoot from an iconic figure that resonates with a lot of people from different backgrounds and backgrounds,” the artist told Hyperallergic. “[I thought], let me use something that is not personal and has no color attached… I could use it to tell a story. I thought it would be more digestible.
On May 25, Cincinnati news outlet Fox19 published a story on the board with quotes from FOP President Dan Hils, who said he felt the artwork was driving a wedge between citizens and the police and stated his intention to ask CAM to remove the artwork of art. Shortly after the article was published, Juliano received an influx of criticism. Critics, many of whom appeared to be Cincinnati residents, called the painting “divisive”, “disgusting” and “inflammatory”.
A spokesperson for the Cincinnati Art Museum told Hyperallergic that the institution has no plans to remove the artwork. In a May 25 statementthe museum said it “fundamentally opposes[s] any violence against the police or members of the community.
“We believe that free expression is fundamental to community dialogues and partnerships,” the museum added.
But Juliano is frustrated by recent coverage that mistitled the painting and half-hearted attempts by reporters to contact him. Many news reports have centered police comments without reflecting the artist’s perspective on the artwork. “That was probably one of the most upsetting things about it, other than the silence of the black voices, because I put a lot of work into it,” Juliano told Hyperallergic.
A television report by NBC affiliate WLWT declined to show Juliano’s face because the artist showed up to the Zoom interview wearing a pig costume. “Humanity is a joke right now if we’re more upset about a painting than police brutality, hurting black people,” he told the local outlet.
Hosted by the Cincinnati-based organization Paloozanoire, the exhibit at CAM pairs 15 artists of color with 15 “living laureates” from the community. Juliano was paired with Dr. Lynn Watts, a thought leader and public speaker who focuses on culture, equity, inclusion and racial healing. Although she has long been involved in community activism, it was civil unrest in 2001 that followed the murder of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed 19-year-old black man, by a Cincinnati police officer who spurred Watts into action. Despite the backlash the painting has received, Juliano says he has Watts’ full support.
“Off the Pig” (2022) is part of a larger installation called “Journey to Motherland: Black Panther Gift Shop” which tackles the themes of motherhood, adventure, activism and growing up, all tied together like an amusement park gift shop. It includes imaginative media elements such as a map of a fictional “Motherland” amusement park, screen-printed t-shirts, Black Panther ear hats, handmade plushies, a curated playlist and a video installation displayed through a window. Juliano even created a sponsorship platform for a Molotov-branded vitality drink that represents “the struggle for freedom and liberation.”
The two-by-four-foot painting, rendered in acrylic on wood, was one element of a much larger room. “It’s so upsetting that they diluted it into one thing,” Juliano said.
Cincinnati is no stranger to conversations about censorship in art. In 1990, the city became the battleground of a heated national debate over perceptions of art and its funding during the infamous Robert Mapplethorpe obscenity trial. Conservative groups like the American Family Association and Citizens for Community Values have rallied against the openly gay and sometimes provocative photographs included in The perfect moment, a retrospective exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s work at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center. This event helped shape the city and the comparison is not lost on Juliano, Mapplethorpe fan and former art student in Cincinnati. “It’s Cincinnati culture,” Juliano said.
Overall, Juliano’s work aims to offer a sense of hope without detracting from the issues that American minorities face daily. This also shines through in his sculpture of cotton candy spun in gold, which recalls the ability of black Americans to spin the gold of pain. “We do it over and over again,” Juliano said. “We take what our [ancestors] left us and try to elevate it and take it to the next level.
Although he has become more vigilant for his safety, Juliano continues to work on other projects while receiving support from friends, family and members of the community. “There is a fear, but not enough to take me away from my goal,” he said.