The Chris Ofili Controversy
Most people may not know who Chris Ofili is, but chances are that many of them know one of his works, his painting “The Holy Virgin Mary”, displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s “Sensation” exhibition in 1999. The painting was extremely controversial because of Mary’s exposed breast being made of elephant dung and because of the porno cutouts surrounding Mary. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and others, saying that such works were not appropriate for public display, immediately attacked the painting, along with the entire showcase of art by different artists. These sharp criticisms were an extreme injustice, condemning the work “The Holy Virgin Mary” based on prejudiced views of what is and what is not acceptable in art, rather than viewing the painting for its true meaning. Chris Ofili did not mean for his work to be offensive, but rather, meant to honor the Virgin Mary using traditional African symbolism.
Without being told, it is unlikely that anyone looking at Ofili’s painting would believe that it is of the Virgin Mary. In the portrait, the woman is black skinned, has a wide mouth, a splayed nose, and mismatched eyes. These are far departures from the European conventions of Mary, though it does have a traditional symbol; her robe is Marian blue and outlined by golden lines (Pops 1). However, this Africanized version of Mary, painted by an Anglo-African, is not what sparked such controversy, but rather, it was the unique materials that Ofili employed. In the painting, one of the Virgin’s breasts is exposed, and it is made of elephant dung. Ofili also sat the painting on two piles of dung, into which were inscribed the words “Virgin” and “Mary,” allowing the viewer to realize whom the portrait was of. Cutouts of buttocks and crotch shots from porno magazines that surround Mary further increased the controversy surrounding the painting.
In order to gain a better understanding of how Ofili sees the work, it is important to look at the background of the artist. Chris Ofili was born in Manchester, England, though his parents were both born in Lagos. It is interesting to note that Ofili was raised as a Catholic, and even served as an altar boy. He also continues to attend church, though not regularly. By the time his “Holy Virgin Mary” was displayed, Ofili was already a rising young artist in England, having been included three times in the “Whitworth Young Contemporaries” shows and winning a British Council Travel fellowship to Zimbabwe, where he claims to have had an epiphany. While in Zimbabwe, he hit upon the idea of sticking elephant dung to his art, and began using it regularly. Ofili liked working with it so much that he not only used it in his paintings, but mounted his works on clumps of it, saying, “It’s a way of raising the paintings up from the ground and giving them a feeling that they’ve come from the earth rather than simply being hung on a wall” (qtd. in Cosentino 2). He...