‘As an altar boy I was confused by the idea of a holy Virgin Mary giving birth to a young boy. Now when I go to the National Gallery and see paintings of the Virgin Mary, I see how sexually charged they are. Mine is simply a hip-hop version’ (C. Ofili, quoted in Chris Ofili, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2010, p. 17).
‘One of the starting points was the way black females are talked about in contemporary gangsta rap. I wanted to juxtapose the profanity of the porn clips with something that’s considered quite sacred. It’s quite important that it’s a Black Madonna’ (C. Ofili, quoted in Chris Ofili, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2010, p. 16).
‘I really think it’s a very beautiful painting to look at, full of contradiction which is perhaps why it’s been misunderstood’ (C. Ofili, quoted in Chris Ofili, exh. cat., Southampton City Art Gallery, Southampton, 1998, p. 88).
‘I think some of the most serious and weighty subjects should be presented sometimes in a light, glittery, glistening way to lure you in and then, slowly as you become accustomed to that, other layers start to reveal, to unfold. The paintings are layered. My surfaces are always about seduction’ (C. Ofili, interview with T. Golden, ‘A Conversation’, in Chris Ofili: Within Reach, British Pavilion 50th Venice Biennale, 2003, n.p.).
The most iconic painting within Chris Ofili’s groundbreaking oeuvre and amongst the defining works of the YBA generation, The Holy Virgin Mary dates from a seminal moment in the artist’s career that saw him rise to international fame amidst a frenzy of media activity and public controversy. Executed in 1996, set against a golden background awash with a tapestry of iridescent pointillist dots and tendrils of glittering resin, it features a black Madonna shrouded in fluttering robes of cerulean blue, parted to reveal a single breast of dried and varnished elephant dung. Originally acquired by Charles Saatchi directly from Victoria Miro’s pioneering exhibition Afrodizziac in 1996, and first exhibited at the generation defining exhibition of his collection, Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 1997, The Holy Virgin Mary found itself the centre of major public debate when the exhibition travelled to New York two years later. As such, it has become the artist’s most notorious work, included in every significant exhibition of Ofili’s work, including museum shows at the Southampton City Art Gallery, Southampton, 1998; Tate Britain, London, 2010; and most recently, the acclaimed retrospective, Chris Ofili: Night and Day, at the New Museum, New York, 2014-2015.
Following the astonishing success of Sensation at the Royal Academy of Arts, in 1998 the exhibition travelled to the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, arriving finally in New York at the Brooklyn Museum in October 1999, where prior to the opening, The Holy Virgin Mary became the recipient of a savage attack by New York City Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, who argued that its sacrilegious subject desecrated the Catholic church. Igniting a lawsuit between Giuliani and the Brooklyn Museum, the work immediately found itself at the heart of a media storm. From London, Ofili gave a statement to Carol Vogel of the New York Times, expressing his surprise at the response his painting had provoked. ‘I don’t feel as though I have to defend [the work]’, he said, ‘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 any more’ (C. Ofili, quoted in Chris Ofili: Night and Day, exh. cat., New Museum, New York, 2014, p. 165).
The artist’s inclusion in Sensation in 1997 propelled Ofili into the public domain, and the following year he became the first black artist to be awarded the Turner Prize. Yet, arguably it was not until the polemic surrounding The Holy Virgin Mary that Ofili achieved global status as an artist. It is a work that encapsulates his multicultural practice, balanced on the knife’s edge between those essential yet polarized elements of human experience: the sacred and the profane.
Resplendent in petal-like robes of iridescent lapiz, the amorphous figure of Ofili’s Virgin Mary radiates hieratic splendour, suspended over a psychedelic background of orange resin. Interwoven with arabesques of phosphorescent glitter, the lush background reverberates with infinite, shimmering dots, emanating in a halo of pointillist striations from the Virgin’s head. The effect is one of divine luminescence, the dignified figure of the black Madonna surrounded by the fluttering putti of Renaissance painting, which, on closer inspection, are revealed to be collaged elements of women’s buttocks from pornographic magazines cut into delicate butterfly-like silhouettes. Meeting the viewer’s gaze, the face of the Virgin Mary is at once imperious and compassionate; with her exaggerated crimson and yellow haloed mouth, and uneven, wide-open gaze, she stares at the viewer with a wild dignity. In place of her bared breast, a globular elephant pat sits brazenly upon the canvas, decorated with a swirl of pearlescent beads in blue, black and yellow. Of monumental proportions, the painting towers over the viewer, propped upon two balls of resin-coated elephant dung, each support studded with map pins that read, on one side ‘Virgin’, and on the other, ‘Mary’. With her seductive, frontal gaze and fecund silhouette, The Holy Virgin Mary subverts sexual, religious and ethnic stereotypes, underlining the disjunction that exists between Ofili’s subject matter and medium.
As a child Ofili was an altar boy, an experience that reverberates throughout his art in recurring narratives and iconography that invoke the aesthetic and spiritual power of the Catholic church, such as his cathedral-like installation, The Upper Room, the artist’s interpretation of the Last Supper, exhibited at Tate Britain between 2005 and 2007. He has said, ‘I consider that religion and beliefs surrounding religion are very, very powerful and important. How this is expressed varies so greatly and often the paths don’t cross. But I do think it is an important part of existing’ (Interview with C. Ofili, 2003, DVD produced by Illuminations, 2004/2005). The Holy Virgin Mary confronts the contradictions that exist between what is perceived as the purity of religion and the impurity of secular life. ‘As an altar boy’, he recalled, ‘I was confused by the idea of a holy Virgin Mary giving birth to a young boy. Now when I go to the National Gallery and see paintings of the Virgin Mary, I see how sexually charged they are. Mine is simply a hip-hop version’ (C. Ofili, quoted in Chris Ofili, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2010, p. 17). Exploring the tension that exists between cultural and religious themes, with his black Madonna Ofili continued his interrogation of multiculturalism. Reinvigorating the European legacy of religious painting with a new sensibility that incorporated the artist’s own urban identity, The Holy Virgin Mary riffs on racial stereotypes and religious belief. Invoking the powerful history of the image of the black Virgin Mary in art, notably the revered Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Ofili updates this venerated icon for a version with contemporary and universal appeal. He notes, ‘One of the starting points was the way black females are talked about in contemporary gangsta rap. I wanted to juxtapose the profanity of the porn clips with something that’s considered quite sacred. It’s quite important that it’s a Black Madonna’ (C. Ofili, quoted in Chris Ofili, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2010, p. 16).
Growing up in Manchester in the 1980s and 1990s amidst the rise of cultural diversity in Britain, Ofili’s personal iconography is infused with references to ethnicity and black culture. Hip-hop had a profound effect on the burgeoning multiculturalism that Ofili’s work necessarily reflects, drawing the urban black experience into a cultural territory that had traditionally excluded it. Ofili was inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film, Pulp Fiction, in which, in one famous scene, Samuel L. Jackson’s character, the hitman Jules, kills a man while proclaiming biblical verse. For Ofili, the synthesis of biblical catechism with a contemporary language that integrated violence and humour, was a revelation. In 1996 Ofili moved his studio to Kings Cross, an area renowned for its hardcore subculture perpetrated by endemic prostitution and drug addiction. Ofili’s painting absorbed this atmosphere, evoking a potent mix of hedonism and realism that fused a pre-existing cultural lexicon with his inclusive, vernacular aesthetic. Like other paintings produced at this time – Blossom, 1997, Foxy Roxy, 1997, and Pimpin ain’t easy, 1997 – The Holy Virgin Mary is suffused with a glorious sexual potency. Thronged by soaring cherubim crafted from pornographic clippings, Ofili’s Madonna emits a powerful eroticism that probes the age-old dichotomy of woman as virgin or whore. Yet, unlike in Renaissance representations of the Madonna which offered visions of virtuous grace through edifying images of fecund female beauty, Ofili brings her innate sensuality to the fore in a deeply human portrait. As in No Woman No Cry, 1998 (Tate, London), Ofili’s sensitive portrait of Doreen Lawrence inspired by the public inquiry into the racist murder of her son, Ofili depicts a woman who has lost her child, a woman whose being signals universal human love. Yet surprisingly it is No Woman No Cry that crafts the image of an icon, and The Holy Virgin Mary that presents a complex image of what it means to be a woman.
Evocative of the Western tradition of religious painting in which the Madonna is often depicted with a suckling infant at her breast, in The Holy Virgin Mary Ofili draws upon this repository of source imagery, forming his Madonna’s breast from dried dung. Inaccurately reported as smeared and splattered across the canvas, it was the application of dung to the painting that caused the greatest outcry at the painting’s unveiling in New York. Ironically the painting underwent its own act of iconoclasm when it was vandalised with white paint shortly after the exhibition’s opening – restored by the artist, it was soon returned to the Brooklyn Museum. A hallmark of Ofili’s practice, the incorporation of elephant dung into his painting was inspired by the artist’s first visit to Africa in 1992, where he was struck by the dichotomy between his formal art training and the energy of the natural landscape which surrounded him. Applying elephant dung directly to the canvas was, for him, a way in which to bring the environment directly into his painting. Used widely as a fertiliser, here, the dung is a symbol of growth and motherhood. In this way, Ofili’s Madonna is at once of heaven and earth. Gilded with sparkling beads, it becomes a metaphor for transformation: the humble material elevated in the same way the Virgin becomes sacred with the birth of her son.
For Ofili the formal quality of his visually complex painting is paramount, and despite the media furore that surrounded The Holy Virgin Mary, its subject matter is no more important than Ofili’s masterful and exquisite technique. He observed, ‘I really think it’s a very beautiful painting to look at, full of contradiction which is perhaps why it’s been misunderstood’ (C. Ofili, quoted in Chris Ofili, exh. cat., Southampton City Art Gallery, Southampton, 1998, p. 88). With its intricately decorated surface and visually compelling subject, the painting in fact had nothing to do with the hysteria it provoked, which in fact hinted at a discomfort with the representation of a Madonna of African descent. ‘I think some of the most serious and weighty subjects should be presented sometimes in a light, glittery, glistening way to lure you in and then, slowly as you become accustomed to that, other layers start to reveal, to unfold. The paintings are layered. My surfaces are always about seduction’ (C. Ofili, interview with T. Golden, ‘A Conversation’, in Chris Ofili: Within Reach, British Pavilion 50th Venice Biennale, 2003, n.p.). Ofili’s all over decorative style is concerned less with figuration than a commitment to painting, challenging the postmodern skepticism towards the medium that pervaded the art world at this time. Referencing key figures in Western art history, from Gustav Klimt’s dazzling golden swirls to Jackson Pollock’s immersive drip paintings, in the convergence of the artist’s African heritage with the great legacy of Western painting, Ofili developed a unique pictorial language that integrates high and low culture with the urban black experience. Indeed, the glorious dignity with which Ofili depicts his gleaming Madonna references the exquisite beauty of the Renaissance painting to which it pays tribute, albeit with ambiguity. The consolidation of dung into a highly decorative style that both endorses and is critical of western traditions in painting parodies the social taboos that multiculturalism aimed to dismantle. Drawing together the polarities of Ofili’s multivalent practice into a single painting of extraordinary political, religious and artistic significance, The Holy Virgin Mary is a career-defining work that embodies his rise to public acclaim but also the unparalleled technical virtuosity for which his practice is continually celebrated.