Jesus painting with ‘Looney Tunes’ face removed from gallery

That's all, folks: Jesus Speaks to the Daughters of Jerusalem had been on display for two months before it was removed from the exhibition in Sydney
That's all, folks: Jesus Speaks to the Daughters of Jerusalem had been on display for two months before it was removed from an exhibition

A painting in which Jesus and other biblical figures are portrayed with faces from Looney Tunes cartoon characters was removed from an art exhibition in Sydney after protesters said it “mocked” Christianity.

The oil painting, titled Jesus Speaks to the Daughters of Jerusalem, by a 48-year-old artist called Phil James, was on display at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre in western Sydney.

It elicited such a strong reaction from local Christians that the mayor of Liverpool council, the local government authority, ordered that it be taken down, despite the fact that the exhibition it featured in had only a couple more days to run.

Mr James, who is known for 'inserting new elements on old-found paintings', said he had received threats of physical violence
Mr James, who is known for 'inserting new elements on old-found paintings', said he had received threats of physical violence

The removal of the painting has led to a debate about artistic freedom and the limits of religious tolerance, with critics saying the decision to take it down was “ludicrous”.

The decision came after a brief but vociferous campaign by a group of conservative Catholics called Christian Lives Matter.

“I’ve just gotten word that this shocking, disrespectful art mocking Jesus Christ has finally been removed,” Charlie Bakhos, the founder of Christian Lives Matter, wrote on Facebook.

He thanked the “hundreds and hundreds” of supporters who had “respectfully” called for the artwork to be banned from the exhibition. The painting was “another cheap and low attempt at mocking Christianity here in Sydney”, he said.

‘Defending our faith’

“This is another attack on Christianity that we have managed to put a stop to thanks to everyone’s support. Let’s keep defending our faith respectfully. No faith, no religion, no race, no one should be mocked.”

The artist, who goes by the name Philjames, said he had been taken aback by the reaction to the painting and that he had received threats of physical violence. He had been sent dozens of “vile” messages on social media, saying that the level of vitriol was “frightening”.

He said that while he was concerned about the safety of gallery staff, amid a threat of protests by campaigners, he was worried that the controversy may have set a precedent on limiting freedom of expression.

‘Politicking before freedom of expression’

“That for me is the most problematic thing: the mayor requested it to be taken down, putting politicking before freedom of expression. Where does it end?”

The painting had been on display for two months and the exhibition had just two more days to run, but Ned Mannoun, the mayor of Liverpool, said it should be removed from public view. “The Christian community – and many Muslims – take offence at Jesus Christ being portrayed as a Looney Tunes character,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“The right to free speech needs to be balanced with the right to practise your religion without fear, persecution or ridicule.”

While Muslims do not believe Jesus was the son of God, they do revere him as a holy prophet and he is a prominent figure in the Koran.

‘Satirical painting’

But the council’s decision to remove the artwork was criticised by John McDonald, the Sydney Morning Herald’s art critic. “It’s totally out of line,” he said. “There should not be a public safety issue about a satirical painting in an art exhibition in a public place. That’s completely ludicrous.”

The artist is represented by a Sydney gallery that says he is “known for carefully inserting new elements on old-found paintings and prints, totally hijacking the original image in the process. The amendments are often from the cartoon golden age of Walt Disney and Looney Tunes, and stretch and squeeze animation style”.

Liverpool covers a large, sprawling area of suburbs in south-western Sydney. It is an area of great cultural diversity, with migrants from Lebanon, Iraq, Vietnam, Fiji, India and many other countries. More than 40 per cent of the population was born outside Australia.

Advertisement