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(image via POPA gallery)

Two Argentinian artists are facing vehement criticism for creating Barbie dolls inspired by religious figures, and the Buenos Aires gallery planning to exhibit them has cancelled the show ahead of its opening.

“Given repeated anonymous threats concerning the event, the artists decided not to exhibit his work, fearing for the physical safety of visitors,” a notice on POPA gallery’s website announced.

Emiliano Paolini and Marianela Perelli’s Barbie: The Plastic Religion would have featured 33 Barbies as sacred figures from Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Argentine folk religion. Depictions of saints and goddesses like the Virgin Mary and Kali have always indicated beauty standards of the day, and the artists wanted to update these religious icons to reflect contemporary ideals — which they believe are best embodied in the leggy, plastic bombshell doll. The show would have also included several Ken dolls — one crucified like Jesus Christ.

(all doll images via Facebook)

But the plans inspired outrage among religious leaders. “This is so out of place,” Daniel Roja, a local Catholic church official, told Argentine media, in reference to the Barbie version of Difunta Correa, a folk saint who died in the Argentine civil wars. The artists depicted her dead, with her child still feeding from her breast. “This is a figure of faith, which we care for very much and it is why we patented her image and name years ago,” he said.

An editorial on SIR, a website backed by Italian bishops, also criticized the exhibit, asking, “What is the difference between provocation and bad taste?”

“Hindus welcome the art world to immerse in Hinduism but taking it seriously and respectfully and not for refashioning Hinduism concepts and symbols for personal agenda,” Hindu cleric Rajan Zed told The Hindu. “Barbie-fication of [the goddess] Kali is simply improper, wrong and out of place.”

The artists have said they’re surprised by the criticism, insisting that they themselves are religious and meant no disrespect. “We have a sanctuary in the kitchen that has more saints than the Vatican,” Paolini told the Associated Press.

The pair did not include any figures from Islam, claiming they have “great respect” for the religion. Recent depictions of the Prophet Mohammed have forced other artists to go into hiding.

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...

9 replies on “No False I-Dolls: Religious Barbie Show Ken’t Go On”

  1. If anything I see this as bringing back religion into the lives of children. Yes it’s a bit comical but I definitely don’t see it disrespectful. Just because it’s in Barbie’s box doesn’t mean it’s disrespect to what the role of each identity is. We see doctors, nurses, etc….all different roles portrayed by Barbie, why not a saint? Are saints characters only suppose to be created by non-large corporations? The question here is who should have the right to create a worship figure?

  2. Well, I do disagree with some of the comments below. It is not kitsch because it attempts to do something quite meaningful: by conflating the images of one of popular culture’s most iconic dolls with images and well known narratives of the world’s most iconic gods, the artists Paolini and Perelli are saying something about the business notion of synergy, that to say it crudely, “two great tastes can taste great together” Clearly they do not, but the conflation reveals the degree to which religious iconography is static and unyielding to the vagaries of fashion, and this is likely part of their power. Also the work says something about the relation between the corporate production of celebrity and populist loyalty, in a similar way that organized religions have popularized a loyalty to certain enduring symbols. Religions and corporations in this respect, do similar things.

    And yes, it is disrespectful insofar as it is a provocation and most provocations lack the kind of respect that a devotee would have. One has to be unfettered from great respect for the religious symbol to make work like this., It’s also comical and off-putting. This I think is some of what art does when it is doing its best.

    I bet if this work were scaled up and was able to have the gravitas that large size versions of these dolls would have that this work would send waves through the art scene. It has the potential to be quite good and I wish that the work had a public showing, for precisely the reasons I’ve outlined.

  3. These pieces clearly reference Barbara Denyer’s earlier body of works. it is wonderful to know that homage to Denyer is being paid in this way. Wonderful!

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