In 1997, Chris Ofili’s mixed media painting ‘The Holy Virgin Mary’ arrived in New York as part of an exhibition of Charles Saatchi’s personal collection.
A British artist of Nigerian descent, raised as a Catholic, Ofili had depicted the Madonna as black, exaggerating her features to play off racial stereotypes.
She is surrounded by collaged images that, up close, reveal themselves to be pornographic photos of female genitalia, and her one exposed breast is fashioned from elephant dung.
The image was condemned as an attack on Catholicism; Mayor Rudy Giuliani termed it “sick stuff” and threatened to cut funding from the museum unless “the director comes to his senses.”
Several months after the exhibition’s opening, a 72-year-old schoolteacher vandalised the piece with white paint because he considered it blasphemous. Ofili’s focus on race, physicality, and bodily functions provides a new conception of the Madonna, one that both contradicts and updates traditional iconography. In 1999, Ofili stated that “Religion should be used in an appropriate way… the Church is not made up of one person but a whole congregation, and they should be able to interact with art without being told what to think.”
‘The Holy Virgin Mary’ may then be seen as a necessary and natural evolution of the conventions of religious art, rendered more “appropriate” for a more diverse and multicultural society which prioritises freedom of expression. While the painting’s objectors consider its unorthodox physicality a “sick” attack on religion, Ofili may be seen instead to be working within a new conception of Catholicism, one that allows for multiculturalism and permits racial diversity in the representation of its divinities.
Donald J. Cosentino classes Ofili as a ‘Hip Hop Catholic,’ along with Warhol, Mapplethorpe, and Serrano. Cosentino suggests that his religion is a progression of Catholicism, because it works from and translates religious tradition in the light of contemporary values, as well as issues of race and gender. In 2014, the painting returned to New York as part of the Chris Ofili: Night and Day exhibition at the New Museum, without the protests and vandalism that dominated its first appearance; the shock value of Ofili’s reimagined Madonna had subsided.
Massimiliano Gioni, who curated the show, observed that “in art, any transgression eventually gets absorbed and digested…what was shocking at one point becomes normal after a while.”
Ofili and his ‘Holy Virgin Mary’ worked towards a reinvention of traditional religion which combines doctrine with modern culture and politics. Despite the shock that this reinvention initially generated, its essence will eventually be assimilated into norms of art and religious depiction, which, hopefully, it has already helped to make broader.