The Holy Virgin Mary: Postmodern Art and Shock #3
The Holy Virgin Mary in 1996 by Chris Ofili (born 1968)
(Postmodern Art and Shock #3)
Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary has caused so much commotion in New York City to the point of New York City launching a legal challenge to block funding for the Brooklyn Gallery that was showing this work and security guards had to be deployed around the work.
In Western culture the Virgin Mary has always been portrayed as a white woman, despite the historic Mary (the mother of Jesus of Nazareth) being a Middle Easterner. This is an act of white racism appropriating holiness for the white race. An accurate portrait of Mary would have resembled an Arab woman, not a white woman. So, if the whites can portray Mary as a white woman, then there is no reason why Virgin Mary cannot be portrayed as a black woman. White racism is historic, systematic, prevalent and taken for granted as a normal state of affairs in Western culture; this may include Korea as well. As a result, white Virgin Mary became a major Western religious and cultural icon. Given all this, it is understandable that many white people would be shocked and upset by a black Virgin Mary. One can argue that this shock was the intended effect of the work: The work forces us to recognize the historic maltreatment of and systemic prejudice against blacks and encourages us to work toward bringing about a change.
(Although Ofili does mention that the work in part addresses Hip-Hop music video’s treatment of black women as sex objects, Ofili’s critical stance on the white racist undercurrent in Western culture stands out as the main critical content manifested in the work.)
The Holy Virgin Mary does succeed in getting its critical content across, but it nevertheless is vulnerable and may suffer the same fate as most artworks because of its traditional visual art format. Because The Holy Virgin Mary is still drawn on canvas (linen), it can be easily bought as a novelty item and a source of investment. The work is vulnerable to absorption into the very white-dominated culture it criticizes and can have its critical content neutralized when it falls into private ownership and control. This is a problem because an artwork containing a critical message that affects us all should avoid being kept in exclusive private control.
A book containing critical content has a “token-permanence”: it can be copied and the copies can be distributed just about everywhere, so as to ensure propagation of its critical content. However, a visual work of art is one-of-a-kind item. Therefore, in order for an artwork with a critical content to reach its full potential, it should remain and circulate in the public domain in order to continue to raise awareness and contribute toward bringing about change.
The Holy Virgin Mary is an interesting postmodern work that challenges our contemporary social and aesthetic norm and forces us to recognize the racist undercurrent of Western culture. The work does succeed on that level. However, because of the work’s traditional visual art format, the work is vulnerable to absorption into the very white-dominated culture it criticizes and having its critical content neutralized. It would have been better for Ofili to have found a suitable alternative format in which to execute his work to avoid the problem of absorption and content neutralization.