Chris Ofili’s most controversial painting, ‘The Holy Virgin Mary’ (1996) will be offered for sale at an auction at Christie’s on 30 June in London. The painting carries an estimate of £1.5 million. The work of art currently belongs to casino owner and gambler David Walsh who set up the Tasmania Museum MONA. Walsh purchased the work from Charles Saatchi who bought it directly from Mr Ofili. It was featured in the 1999 traveling “Sensation” show, where New York’s mayor Rudy Guiliani labelled the work as “sick” because of the use of elephant dung in the religious painting.
“I don’t feel as though I have to defend it,” Ofili told New York Timesreporter Carol Vogel in a 1999 interview. “The people who are attacking this painting are attacking their own interpretation, not mine. You never know what’s going to offend people, and I don’t feel it’s my place to say anymore.
The Holy Virgin Mary is a mixed medium painting by the Turner Prize winning artist Chris Ofili. It was created in 1996 and included in the Sensation exhibition in London, Berlin and New York. 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”. Painted on a yellow-orange background, the painting measures (8 feet high by 6 feet wide). The subject 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 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.” Other people doubted about the sincerity of these explanations, such as Carol Becker, who commented: “One has to question the sincerity of an artist like Chris Ofili, who in interviews presented the Holy Virgin Mary as nothing that should offend”.
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.”