The Holy Virgin Mary

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Artist: Chris Ofili

Year: 1996

Date of Action: 1999

Region: North America

Location: New York, New York

Subject: Religion

Medium: Mixed Media, Painting, Photography

Confronting Bodies: The City of New York and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani

Description of Artwork: The large painting by artist, Chris Ofili, depicts a black woman wearing a blue robe, characteristic of the Virgin Mary. The mixed media work includes elephant dung, map pins, and pornographic images. The central Black Madonna is surrounded by small images of female genitalia. Ofili has described the painting as a hip hop version of traditional depictions of the Virgin Mary.

The Incident: Mayor Rudolph Giuliani deemed the art offensive and sacrilegious and demanded that the Brooklyn Museum of Art cancel the opening of the exhibition. He threatened to cut off all city subsidies to the museum if they did not follow through and cancel the exhibit. He said "You don't have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else's religion and therefore we will do everything that we can to remove funding for the Brooklyn Museum until the director comes to his senses..."

Results of Incident: The City very much took issue with the exhibit and took action to remove it. They attempted to withhold funds, and then attempted to eject the Museum from the City-owned land on which it existed for over one hundred years. The Brooklyn Museum announced that children under 17 must be accompanied by an adult. Mayor Giuliani continued to threaten the museum, but was disputed by Floyd Abrams, a New York First Amendment lawyer. He said that they mayor's threats put the artist's First Amendment rights. This case is an example of the struggle between artists who are trying to express themselves artistically with the government trying to define what is or is not acceptable in the public art sphere. Ofili defended his art by expressing that portraits of the Virgin Mary are all sexually charged, but his was a more alternative and current rendition of the classic subject matter. "The court granted the Museum’s request for a preliminary injunction, prohibiting the Mayor or the City from punishing or retaliating against the Museum for displaying the exhibit. The court granted the injunction due to its finding that the museum was and would continue to suffer irreparable harm if an injunction was not granted. The court also based its ruling on the finding that the Museum was likely to prevail on its First Amendment claim at a full-blown trial."


Giuliani Vows to Cut Subsidy Over Art He Calls Offensive

The Holy Virgin Mary (wikipedia)

Significance: Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences V. City of New York