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The Holy Virgin Mary Prev Next


Completion Date: 1996

Style: Neo-Expressionism

Genre: figurative

Technique: collage

Material: mixed media

Gallery: Tate Gallery, London, UK

The Holy Virgin Mary is a painting created by Chris Ofili in 1996. It was one of the works included in the Sensation exhibition in London, Berlin and New York in 1997–2000. The subject of the work, and its execution, caused considerable controversy in New York, with Rudolph Giuliani – then Mayor of New York City – describing Ofili's work as "sick".

On a yellow-orange background, the large painting (8 feet high by 6 feet wide) depicts a black woman wearing a blue robe, a traditional attribute of the Virgin Mary. The work employs mixed media, including oil paint, glitter, and polyester resin, and also elephant dung and collaged pornographic images. The central Black Madonna is surrounded by many collaged images that resemble butterflies at first sight, but on closer inspection are photographs of female genitalia; an ironic reference to the putti that appear in traditional religious art. A lump of dried, varnished elephant dung forms one bared breast, and the painting is displayed leaning against the gallery wall, supported by two other lumps of elephant dung, decorated with coloured pins: the pins on the left are arranged to spell out "Virgin" and the one on the right "Mary". Many other works by Ofili in this period – including No Woman No Cry – incorporate elephant dung, particularly as supports for the canvas, inspired by a period that Ofili spent in Zimbabwe.

The potent mixture of the sacred (Virgin Mary) and the profane (excrement and pornography) became a cause of controversy when the Sensation exhibition moved to New York in 1999. The City of New York and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani brought a court case against the Brooklyn Museum, with Giuliani describing the exhibition of Ofili's work as "sick" and "disgusting". Giuliani attempted to withdraw the annual $7 million City Hall grant from the museum, and threatened it with eviction. The museum resisted Giuliani's demands, and its director, Arnold L. Lehman, filed a federal lawsuit against Giuliani for a breach of the First Amendment. The museum eventually won the court case. Giuliani was reported as claiming that Ofili had thrown elephant dung at a painting of the Virgin Mary: "The idea of having so-called works of art in which people are throwing elephant dung at a picture of the Virgin Mary is sick." The press also reported that the painting was "smeared", "splattered" or "stained" with dung. Ofili, raised as a Roman Catholic commented that "elephant dung in itself is quite a beautiful object."

The work was protected by a plexiglass screen, but was damaged when Dennis Heiner smeared white paint over the canvas on 16 December 1999. Heiner was charged with second-degree criminal mischief, and received a conditional discharge and a $250 fine. Scott LoBaido, an artist from Staten Island, was arrested on 30 September 1999 for throwing horse manure at the museum. He accused Chris Ofili's work of "Catholic bashing". Museum guards protecting the painting were quoted as saying: "It's not the Virgin Mary. It's a painting." The brouhaha in New York has been compared to the Armory Show in 1913. Ofili's work caused less of a stir in the exhibition's London in 1997 – where Marcus Harvey's painting Myra was more controversial in the UK – or in Berlin in 1998. A planned exhiibition at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra in 2000 was cancelled after the US controversy. The painting was bought by David Walsh in 2007. It was included in Ofili's mid-career retrospective at Tate Britain in 2010. As of 2011, it is exhibited at Walsh's Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania – the largest private art museum in the Southern Hemisphere.

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