“It’s not the Virgin Mary. It’s a painting.” These were the words uttered almost in unison by a group of Brooklyn Museum guards as they stood in front of Chris Ofili’s picture titled The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), the work that launched a thousand slurs. To describe the painting is to know this image is many things, but not what its detractors make of it. A very black woman cloaked in a stippled, Prussian-blue robe hovers over an intricate golden ground of enamel dots and glitter. Her mantle is open to reveal a black breast made of elephant dung and festooned with pins. The painting rests on two clumps of dung; one is decorated with the word Virgin, the other with the word Mary.
The figure is surrounded by 100 cutouts of female genitalia and buns. At first these variously colored bottoms look like little putti, a celestial choir; it’s only when you get close to the painting that these flickering cherubs turn rude. Ofili loves to mix the sacred and the profane—the image of the spirit with the stuff of the earth. Absurdity and humor mingle with something intensely penetrating and rise off Ofili’s image like a dank perfume.
How does this mere painting transcend its origin and that of its author? How does The Holy Virgin Mary stop being a painting and transubstantiate into something so real and awful? Ofili slyly de-Westernizes this most Western image, and de-Westernizes painting in the process. He paints in a loopy, cartoonish, semiabstract style—part decoration, part dream, and part parody. His images are airy, like hallucinations, but his process is derived from comic books and Australian Aboriginal art. Ofili fuses history, religion, and pop with the irredeemable.
To understand how he does this, look at Afrodizzia (1996), also on view at the Brooklyn Museum. A psychedelic rainbow ground of dots, lazy paisleys, and the faces of Richard Pryor, Little Richard, and Louis Armstrong (among others) is ornamented with elephant dung. These clumps are adorned with the names of Miles Davis, Diana Ross, James Brown, and Cassius Clay. But the black community isn’t up in arms over this work; it isn’t branding the painting “offensive.” Maybe that’s because black viewers know that all so-called black art (Ofili, of course, is black and of Nigerian origin) doesn’t have to be serious. They also know that government officials love exhorting them to get insulted.
Ofili is a serious artist but he’s also playful and ironic. His paintings discharge as much psychic energy as they generate; they create a temporary feedback loop of perpetual metaphysical motion. Those exasperated by his Holy Virgin Mary may be responding not to the dung but to the Africanization of an icon, the hybridization of a face that has almost always and only been white.
The Virgin is, however, not Ofili’s best painting. It begins an uneven phase of his work in which he abandons his decorative, all-over wild style for specific images. The most impressive thing about The Holy Virgin Mary is that it seems to have survived the current onslaught of hatred, adrenaline, and misinterpretation.