Do you remember how elementary school teachers or parents would try to motivate you to do well in school by telling you that if don’t get good grades, you wont get a good job, and you’ll end up cleaning up elephant dung for a living? Christopher Ofili was born October 10, 1968 in Manchester, England. Ofili studied at the Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College of Art, however he still ended up working with elephant dung. It wasn’t because of his poor grades; it was because of his artwork.
He studied at the Royal College of Art from 1991 to 1993, and in 1992 he got a scholarship to travel to Zimbabwe. There he was able to study cave paintings, which would influence his art style. From 1995 to 2005, he mostly focused on watercolors. In his paintings he would try to highlight “Blaxploitation”, which is an ethnic subgenre of the exploitation film, meant to appeal to an urban black audience. He would do this to question racial stereotypes. In 1998, Ofili was the first black artist, and the first painter in 12 years, to win the Turner Prize, which is an award given out to British artists. Ofili was notorious for using elephant dung in his paintings. It is easy to see how his art materials can be seen as disgusting or sickening, and its no surprise that not everyone was a fan of his art.
In 1996 Ofili created the artwork called The Holy Virgin Mary. The painting matches many aspects of typical paintings of the Virgin Mary, however the woman in the painting is black. The materials he used consisted of oil paint, glitter, polyester resin, map pins, a collage of pornographic pictures, and, you guessed it, elephant dung. His artwork emphasized the importance of showing a black Madonna. Around the Madonna, was a collage of pornographic pictures and map pins that spell out “Virgin Mary”.
As one can imagine, this was a very controversial painting. It was made in 1996 and was moved to New York in 1999. The mayor of New York at the time, Rudolph Giuliani, said the painting was sick and disgusting. The media reported that the painting was smeared, splattered, or stained with elephant dung. Giuliani and The City of New York brought the Brooklyn Museum to court for Ofili’s painting. The director of the Museum filled a federal lawsuit against Giuliani and eventually won.
Christopher Ofili’s case forces us to ask ourselves: what is art? Can something that is typically seen as gross or vile be accepted into the world of beauty and aesthetics? Clearly Giuliani was in the wrong for trying to bring the museum to court because he thought a painting was sickening, but if the artwork makes you sick, does it belong in a museum? In the end, it seems that Ofili’s painting was of high quality and highly desired. In 2015, The Holy Virgin Mary was sold for $4.6 million at auction. I guess working with elephant dung isn’t such a scary punishment after all.