A Manila art exhibit blasted as offensive to Catholic Filipinos has been shuttered, following complaints from President Benigno Aquino III and death threats to artists and cultural officials.

The Kulo group exhibit at the state-funded Cultural Center of the Philippines opened in Manila in June. However, the show began receiving complaints after recent coverage by media outlets in the predominantly Catholic nation.

Originally slated to close Aug. 21, Kulo was shut down Tuesday.

Specifically, complaints focus on work by contemporary artist Mideo Cruz that mixes Catholic icons with pop culture and sexual imagery and paraphernalia.

Several pieces in Cruz's installation Poleteismo have been singled out, including a wooden cross with a phallus attached and a statue of Jesus festooned with a clown nose and ears reminiscent of Mickey Mouse — artwork he defends as thought-provoking commentary about idolatry and worship in contemporary times. The installation has been displayed in different forms since 2002.


Mideo Cruz's controversial installation, including this statue of Jesus Christ festooned with Mickey Mouse-style ears and a clown nose, melds religious icons with pop culture and sexual symbols. (Erik de Castro/Reuters)

Still, "there are [freedom of expression] rights, but if those rights hurt the rights of others, there is something wrong and that is not covered by the law," President Aquino told reporters on Tuesday.

"I reminded [the centre] that there is no freedom that is absolute."

The centre had previously rejected calls for the show  — which highlights multiple artists — to close. Nevertheless, criticism of the exhibit has intensified in recent weeks.

On Aug. 4, a pair vandalized the exhibit and attempted to set it on fire. The centre's board of directors and artists featured in the show have received death threats and hate mail.

A Catholic legal body has also vowed to file charges against the artists and the cultural centre under legislation against "immoral doctrines, obscene publications and indecent shows," while also lobbying the government to suspend or fire those responsible for the exhibit.

On Monday, Congresswoman Imelda Marcos, the widow of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, visited the centre and was visibly outraged, calling the display "a shameful exhibit."

Wider implications

Cruz, the artist at the centre of the storm, condemned the closure in an interview, saying that the situation would become a "freedom of expression issue" that has wider implications for artists as well as officials running state-financed institutions.

Noted Filipino writer and cultural leader Bien Lumbera, distinguished in 2006 as a National Artist of the Philippines, also expressed his disappointment, calling the exhibit's cancellation "an unfortunate move" by the cultural centre.

"That leaves [it] open to pressure anytime something, an art object being displayed, raises the ire of certain sectors," Lumbera told ABS-CBN News.

With files from The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse