A painting by artist Magnus Juliano on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) depicts a bloodied Winnie the Pooh face-down in handcuffs, Piglet dressed as a cop with a gun, and Tigger holding a sign that reads a phrase once chanted by the Black Panthers: “Off the Pig.” Both the work and the exhibition it’s included in, Black & Brown Faces: Paying Homage To, have been up since March 25 without much commotion — until late May, when Cincinnati’s Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and its supporters called for the painting’s removal.
According to Juliano, his email, social media, and business page were suddenly inundated with “comments ranging from ‘It’s disgusting’ to ‘I really want something to happen to him.’”
Winnie the Pooh, along with several other Disney characters, entered the public domain on January 1. Juliano wanted to use the ubiquitous cartoon to depict the very real issues of racism and police brutality in America in a universal way.
“The idea was to pull from an iconic figure that resonates with a lot of people from different backgrounds and walks of life,” the artist told Hyperallergic. “[I thought], let me use something that isn’t personal and doesn’t have a color attached to it … I could use that to tell a story. I figured it would be more digestible.”
On May 25, Cincinnati news outlet Fox19 published a story on the painting with quotes from FOP president Dan Hils, who said he felt the work created a rift between citizens and police and stated his intention to ask CAM to remove the artwork. Shortly after the article’s publication, Juliano received an influx of criticism. The detractors, many of whom appeared to be Cincinnati locals, called the painting “divisive,” “disgusting,” and “inflammatory.”
A Cincinnati Art Museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic that the institution has no plans to take the work down. In a May 25 statement, the museum said that it “fundamentally oppose[s] any violence against police or community members.”
“We believe that free expression is foundational in dialogues and community partnerships,” the museum added.
But Juliano is frustrated with recent coverage that mistitled the painting and journalists’ half-hearted attempts to reach out to him. Much reporting has centered the police’s comments without reflecting the artist’s perspective on the work. “That has probably been one of the most upsetting things about this, other than the silencing of Black voices, because I poured a lot of work into this,” Juliano told Hyperallergic.
For a television report, WLWT, an NBC affiliate, refused to show Juliano’s face because the artist showed up to the Zoom interview dressed in a pig costume. “Humanity is a joke right now if we’re more upset about a painting than about police brutality, Black people being hurt,” he told the local news outlet.
Organized by the Cincinnati-based organization Paloozanoire, the exhibition at CAM pairs 15 artists of color with 15 “living honorees” 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. Though she has long been involved in community activism, it was the 2001 civil unrest that followed the killing of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed Black 19-year-old, by a Cincinnati police officer that spurred Watts into action. Despite the backlash that the painting has received, Juliano says he has Watts’s full support.
“Off the Pig” (2022) is part of a larger installation titled “Journey to Motherland: Black Panther Gift Shop” that touches on themes of mothering, adventure, activism, and growth, all tied together as an amusement park gift shop. It includes imaginative mixed 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 branded Molotov cocktail vitality drink that represents “the fight for freedom and liberation.”
The two-by-four-foot painting, rendered in acrylic on wood, was one element of a much larger piece. “It’s so upsetting that they diluted it to just 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 on 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 rallied against the openly homosexual and sometimes provocative photographs included in The Perfect Moment, a retrospective exhibit of Mapplethorpe’s work at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center. This event helped shape the city and the comparison isn’t lost on Juliano, a fan of Mapplethorpe and a former art student in Cincinnati. “This is Cincinnati’s culture,” Juliano said.
Overall, Juliano’s work is intended to offer a sense of hope while not shying away from the issues that minorities in America face daily. This also comes through in his spun gold cotton candy sculpture, which is reminiscent of Black Americans’ ability to spin gold from pain. “We do that over and over again,” Juliano said. “We take what our [ancestors] have left us and try to elevate it and take it to the next level.”
While he has become more vigilant for his safety, Juliano is continuing to work on other projects while receiving support from friends, family, and community members. “There is a fear, but not enough to keep me away from my purpose,” he said.
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