Still from Rebecca Goyette, “My Snake Is Bigger Than Your Snake” (2021) (image courtesy the artist)

The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) has published an open letter to the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, Connecticut, demanding the restoration of an artwork taken down in late June. Rebecca Goyette’s video installation “My Snake Is Bigger Than Your Snake” (2021), included in The Will to Change: Gathering as Praxis, was removed just three days after the show’s opening over concerns that it was “inappropriate for children” and was “disturbing audiences.”

Dedicated to late critic bell hooks, The Will to Change is the sixth iteration of the annual exhibition series curated by Nasty Women Connecticut, and brings together 65 works from contemporary feminist and queer artists including Christen Clifford, Michelle Hartney, and Yvette Molina. NCAC Executive Director Christopher Finan commended the museum’s willingness to compromise in substituting a watercolor pencil rendering and QR code for Goyette’s full video, but lamented the “sad irony” of removing a work that uplifts sexual and gender positivity for middle-aged queer people.

“References to sexuality are present in many artworks, both classical and contemporary,” Finan wrote. “Seductive nudes and scenes of violence and rape grace the halls of most museums. Children and school groups visit and emerge unharmed. Contemporary feminist treatments of sexuality are, perhaps, more in your face, but, arguably, present a healthier, often funnier and more equitable viewpoint.”

Rebecca Goyette’s original video display shown during installation (photo courtesy the artist and Nasty Women Connecticut)

“My Snake Is Bigger Than Your Snake” is a campy, surrealist film based on Goyette’s experience selling her late father’s house to a man in a shirt bearing the title phrase. She appears as a lobster queen with a soft sculpture vagina squaring off against a “snake man” in a MAGA-style red hat. Along the way, the Virgin Mary appears and gives birth to a child that belongs to the queen’s community rather than a specific mother and father. According to the artist, the film explores mourning as a creative process.

In an interview with Hyperallergic, Goyette said she often receives “friction” for eliding heteronormative ideals in this way.

“I am exploring how to take sexuality out of the secret closet without holding onto shame,” Goyette said. “This is a consenting, generative realm for us all, whether connected to procreation or not. The more we can talk about kink and queerness, the more control we have, and the more likely we can avert sexual violence and discrimination.”

YouTube video

Lyman Allyn Director Sam Quigley contends this was not an act of censorship but “curation,” citing the museum’s receipt of a state-issued grant to waive youth admission fees. In an interview with Hyperallergic, he claimed that all 65 works arrived quickly before opening, leaving little time for review. 

“We knew this exhibition would push the envelope, but when we offered the gallery to Nasty Women, we were unaware they would be mounting an unjuried show,” Quigley said. (Nasty Women Connecticut’s website notes that the exhibition series is unjuried.) “I felt this particular work was overly attention-grabbing, which was a disservice to the other artists on view in the immediate vicinity,” Quigley added. “I am totally comfortable with this compromise, and I regret that the artist is upset.”

But in a statement posted on their social media and website, Nasty Women Connecticut disputed the characterization that Goyette’s work was overshadowing other pieces. “These works are shown side by side to challenge hierarchies built into the art world system, and prioritize sharing of ideas, communal thought and the joy of making and looking at art,” the organizers said.

The statement, which has now been placed next to the removed piece, also provides insight into how the annual show comes together.

“Each year we organize an open call exhibition to invite artists to reflect on how artist-led movement is feminist movement,” the text reads. “We interrogate the history of feminist movement with open eyes, calling out the ways that it has been with a white-led, white-serving, ableist agenda to the exclusion of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and LGBTQIA+ communities.”

Installation view of a drawing replacing the removed display alongside the National Coalition Against Censorship’s open letter (photo courtesy the artist and Nasty Women Connecticut)

In an email sent to Goyette on June 21, Lyman Allyn Registrar Jane LeGrow admitted that a “technology glitch” during installation prevented her from seeing the full 13-minute video.

Goyette claims this administrative snafu, paired with the timing, has created a difficult situation not just for her, but for Nasty Women Connecticut and artists at large as government officials strip away rights securing bodily autonomy.

“The museum really put a wrench in much of this, because now the Nasty Women [organizers] are not promoting the show or posting any images on social media,” Goyette said. “But I am not trying to hurt other artists — I am looking for justice. I do not think this was handled properly, and I believe all artists who go through this need to speak up.”

Editor’s note 7/20/22 11:54am EDT: This article has been edited to include that a statement by Nasty Women Connecticut was installed next to the removed installation.

Editor’s note 7/20/22 3:15pm EDT: This article has been edited to include a statement by Nasty Women Connecticut.

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.