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The Figure of Mary
Much has been said and written recently about the Chris Ofili "stink" at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and its implications in terms of free speech. So much "dung" has flown in both directions that we may be missing the whole point in what the artists is trying to say. Speaking of dung, one thing this exhibit says is that anything is now fair game to be used as an art medium. I figure emu dung will be the next rage. Think of it as recycling. If Ofili were reusing aluminium beer cans we'd be praising his conscientious efforts in preserving the environment--"Madonna of the Rolling Rocks" maybe? But seriously, having said that, maybe we should set aside matters of dung, beer cans, and good taste. Frankly, I'm not sure "good taste" means much anymore in the rarefied world of New York art anyway. On the other hand, publicity does. Standing in the shadows of the Met and the MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum curator may have felt like staking out a little ground with this controversial British exhibit as his lightning rod, hoping the politicians and media would react exactly as they have.

Zeroing in on the artwork, rather than the time and place, the very limited word from the artists himself in all this is that he was underlining the "sexually charged" nature of traditional depictions of the Virgin Mary in this work using his highly abstracted African-American vernacular (read elephant dung) in depicting her. He has a point. From at least as far back as the Medieval period, the clergy, aided and abetted by artists such as Giotto, Cimabue, and Duccio with their enthroned Madonnas, going right up through the Baroque era and beyond, have sought to fill a vacuum in Christian iconography--that being the lack of a female godhead as in various pagan religions. An interesting example of the Ofili's "sexually charged" Madonna images can be seen in Parmigianino's Madonna with the Long Neck painted around 1540. In this centuries old process, the church and its paid painters have attempted to elevate Mary to a position on a par with Christ himself, praying for intercession with God through her, rather than through Christ. According to the Bible, Mary was chosen by God to be the earthly mother of Christ, and a shining example of motherhood for all time, nothing more.

In his apparent disgust with what has become known in recent centuries as the "Cult of the Virgin" in which the figure of Mary has been assigned something close to a "wife of God" status, (something definitely not supported by Biblical teaching), Ofili would seem to be doing nothing less than what Martin Luther and other Reformation figures did in attacking the blatant iconography so present in the church of their time. The Counter Reformation reversed (or at least buried) many of the practices the Northern branch of the church found objectionable including the nudity and other "sexually charged" elements that had crept into religious painting at the time. It is not so much religion, but a manmade religious institution that Ofili (a Catholic himself) appears to be attacking in his clumsy, ham-handed way with his elephant dung Madonna. The only question seems to be, now that he has the world's attention, whether his chosen medium may be getting in the way of his message. It's unfortunate Ofili's protest had to take on the tasteless guise it has, but perhaps, it had to be so tasteless in order to effectively make its point. Thanks to the combined efforts of the church and state (city) he may succeed. When's the last time you can recall a single painting having had such an impact?

Contributed by Lane, Jim
30 September 1999

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