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Chris Ofili “The Holy Virgin Mary”
“The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996)Chris Ofili

That time this ‘hip hop Virgin Mary’ really pissed off the art world

As Chris Ofili’s ‘The Holy Virgin Mary’ returns to the city where it instigated an ideological war, we look at how it all went down

In the mid-late 90s, artist Chris Ofili really pissed a lot of people off. His controversial, 8-foot tall painting, “The Holy Virgin Mary” depicted a black mother of Christ constructed from pornography collage and elephant dung. It deeply upset Catholics – such as Rudolph Giuliani, who was the Mayor of New York City at the time – and the general public – including Dennis Heiner who tried to deface the painting in 1999. But despite this, it travelled the world – notably in Charles Saatchi’s seminal show, Sensation, which ventured from London to Berlin and New York in the late 90s. It stirred up more headlines in 2005 when it sold for £2.9 million at Christie's, and again last week, when “The Holy Virgin Mary” was gifted to New York’s MoMA, courtesy of billionaire hedge fund manager, Steve Cohen, who serves on the board of the institution and as a benefactor.

As “The Holy Virgin Mary” returns to New York, we go back to the beginning of its story to find out why it caused such scandal in the first place.


When the Young British Artists grabbed the art world by the balls in the late 80s, Manchester-born Chris Ofili – a student of Chelsea College of Art – was there with them, and one of the only artists of African/Caribbean descent of the radical movement. Ten years later, he was a symbol of more change, when he won the 1998 Turner Prize as the first black artist to ever do so.

It was during an artist’s residency in Zimbabwe that his work’s literally turned to shit. As reported by The Telegraph, he brought elephant dung back to London in his luggage and began using it in his work. “It had a connection with Africa,” he told the paper. “People seemed to react to me using it, as a person of African origin. They assumed it was a front for selling drugs or had healing, mystical powers. But over time it became very beautiful and desirable — a spectacular substance in its own right.”


The media only needed to hear the words ‘black Madonna’, ‘elephant dung’, and ‘porn cut-outs’ for Ofili to become an easy target for conservative critics looking to ridicule modern art. The painting became emblematic of everything deemed offensive and irreverent about contemporary art.

When “The Holy Virgin Mary” originally travelled to The Brooklyn Museum with Saatchi’s Sensation show in 1999, Mayor Giuliani tried to withdraw the museum’s $7 annual City Hall grant in protest, describing the painting as ‘sick.’ The museum’s director, Arnold L. Lehman, was forced to file a federal lawsuit against the mayor, accusing Giuliani of breaching the First Amendment. Lehman won the case and Giuliani reacted to the verdict by saying, "There's nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects!" The whole ordeal stands for a metaphor of the hypocrisy American conservatism and its agenda to suppress the dissenting voice.


Only two months into the Sensation exhibition in New York, a 72-year-old pensioner named Dennis Heiner managed to squirt white paint behind the plexiglass shield protecting “The Holy Virgin Mary”, smearing the paint across its surface with his hands. Apparently he’d feigned illness to distract the security guard. According to The Guardian, an eye witness described how Heiner “covered the head and face down to the shoulders and then down to the breast line.” When the guard asked what had possessed him to deface an image of the Virgin Mary he quietly answered, apparently without irony, “It's blasphemous.”

Heiner’s misguided attempt to protect Mary’s virtue failed and museum staff managed to restore the painting by removing any traces of his hostile ejaculations from the face and breasts of the mother of Christ. But the painting had become collateral damage in the war against the supposedly offensive values of modern art.


Depictions of Mary, the mother of God, can be traced back as far as the 7th century, in various modes of representation. Ofili regards his own painting as sitting comfortably within this tradition. As an altar boy during his childhood, he remembers thinking about the immaculate conception and feeling “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." Ofili told The Guardian

”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" – Chris Ofili


Like many artists who’ve incited controversy, the outrage surrounding their work can be reductive. While generating exposure for the artist, notoriety can eclipse the work, reducing the art itself to a footnote in the scandal. But Ofili made a conscious choice to try and allow his work to speak for itself, and decided he wouldn’t join the dialogue surrounding “The Virgin Mary”. Reflecting on Sensation show in Brooklyn and his choice not to respond to critics, he told The Guardian, “I just thought, what's the point of throwing anything out there at all? I've already done the painting and they're going to work that to mincemeat. Then, as time passed, I thought it would be more interesting to be in the audience than on the stage. I was actually scared as well. It was this American rage. I was brought up in Britain, I don't know that level of rage. So it was easier and perhaps more interesting not to say anything. I'm still glad I didn't.”

There’s a poetic justice to Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” being back in NYC, where it caused so much offence back in 1999. It’s acceptance as a part of the city’s cultural heritage goes against a time when it denounced and attempted to destroy it.