Depicted on a lush, glittering ground of shimmering orange resin that recalls the gold leaf of religious icons, Ofili’s Virgin Mary is resplendent, majestic, and imperious yet also suffused with sexual potency. Close inspection reveals the delicate, fluttering cherubim surrounding her to be crafted from images of women’s buttocks clipped from pornographic magazines. The introduction of eroticism to the Christian Virgin’s sacred image is far from new. “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 has said.
Ofili became renowned for the use of elephant dung in his works. The material serves a dual purpose here: it is an element of the composition (he uses a ball of dried dung in place of the Virgin’s bared breast, alluding to an absent baby) and also a support for the painting, which stands on two balls of the material. Map pins letter the name of his subject on the supports; one reads “Virgin” and the other “Mary.” Ofili’s decision to lean his paintings against the wall, close to the floor, suggests that he envisions them as part of the real space of the viewer’s world rather than the suspended space of art dictated by tradition.
Publication excerpt from From MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019).
Ofili depicts a black Virgin Mary with an exuberance characteristic of his work from this decade—in addition to paint he covered the canvas with glitter, resin, and pins, so that it reflects light and sparkles. He positioned the painting atop two patties of elephant dung, a substance believed to have medicinal properties, while a third patty stands in for the Virgin’s exposed breast. Ofili crafted the cherubs flying around her from images of women’s buttocks that he clipped from pornographic magazines. Through his use of unconventional materials, he updates classical depictions of the Virgin Mary to better inhabit and reflect the world in which he lives; Ofili has described his portrayal as a “hip-hop” Virgin, implicitly equating the musical genre’s “sampling” strategies with his own.
Gallery label from 2019