Woman prosecutes art centre over 'lewd' Jesus statue

By staff writers
September 3, 2008

A Christian woman is taking an art centre to court over an exhibition which included a statue of Jesus that she believes is lewd and offensive. Civil rights advocates say that this is an attempt to reinstate blasphemy laws by the back door.

The private prosecution, which has been postponed to 23 September over legal technicalities, is being backed by the Christian Legal Centre and campaigners, including Stephen Green - who unsuccessfully challenged Jerry Springer - The Opera.

Lawyers for Emily Mapfuwa, who comes from from Brentwood in London, will put their arguments to Gateshead Magistrates Court when the case resumes.

They will say that the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art committed an "act of a lewd and a disgusting nature and outraged public decency contrary to Common Law" by displaying a statue of Jesus that shows an erect penis.

They will also claim that visitors who saw it were likely to be "harassed, alarmed, or distressed".

Ms Mapfuwa says she believes in free speech, but that “this statue served no other purpose than to offend Christians and to denigrate Christ”.

However Chinese-born Canadian artist Terence Koh, whose exhibit at the centre from September 2007 to January 2008 ("Gone, Yet Still") featured 73 other plaster models, ranging from Mickey Mouse to ET, says its purpose was to explore the images of figures who have been important to him in different ways.

Also included in the exhibition were works by controversial artists Tracey Emin and Mark Titchner.

Exhibition managers received some complaints from the public over the exhibit, and others supportive when the furore first broke last year. They declined to remove it from the exhibition, pointing out that signs had been put up warning visitors of the potential offence.

Mrs Mapfuwa, aged 40, is taking a private prosecution because when she complained to the police, the authorities concluded (in May 2008) that there was no case to answer.

On web-based art discussion sites there have been a variety of reactions to Koh's work, with some calling it "a juvenile attempt to grasp 15 minutes of fame" and another saying, "While Jesus was a human being in every way [as Christianity teaches, in concert with his divinity], why can’t he get an erection?”

"This kind of complaint just makes Christians look a bit oversensitive, daft and lacking in real moral priorities," a vicar told Ekklesia this morning.

Civil rights activists say the case is an attempt to use the common law to bring blasphemy charges, which were abolished recently, back into play, and that this is unhealthy for a free society.

In theory the charge carries a maximum sentence of a year's imprisonment and a £5,000 fine. But it is believed to have little chance of succeeding.

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