Folding Table presents examples of “The Unseen”
“The medium is the message (and poop)”: Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary
Ofili’s 1996 painting stirred controversy in 1999 when it was on display at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City as part of the touring Sensation exhibition. The brouhaha centered over Ofili’s use of elephant dung and pornographic images, which seemed sacrilegious to some.
The dung, dried and varnished, is incorporated into Mary’s right breast, and two other lumps as floor supports with map pins arranged to write out “Virgin” on one and “Mary” on the other. The putti (secular versions of cherubs, sometimes nude and winged) are formed by the photographs of female genitalia and butts.
Ofili is clearly toying with his audience’s perceptions by blending the sacred (the Virgin Mary as the subject) and the profane (shit and porn!). His use of dung isn’t arbitrary and senseless though. Born in Britain to Nigerian parents, Ofili connects to his roots by integrating elephant dung, which has cultural and even sacred connotations, into his artwork. Dung in African art may be used as any other artistic material, but the crotch cut-outs for putti is just ironic.
Then-NYC mayor Rudolph Giuliani denounced the work, calling it “sick stuff,” and began proceeding to pull city funding from the museum to stop the exhibit. The funny thing is that the mayor had not seen the painting himself or knew that the exhibition was not funded by the city. While public reaction supported the painting and the exhibition, regardless of shock value, The Holy Virgin Mary suffered two attacks, one in which white paint was smeared over the work. No permanent damage was done; the painting was cleaned of the white paint within the hour of the attack. The second attack was outside the museum, when another artist threw horse manure at the Brooklyn Museum.
The museum guards reportedly said, “It’s not the Virgin Mary. It’s a painting.” Looking at the diverse reactions of the public, it seems the medium of the painting and not the subject is the message.