Depicted on a lush, glittering ground of shimmering orange resin that recalls the gold leaf of religious icons, Ofili’s Virgin appears 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; in place of her bared breast, a lump of elephant dung sits on the canvas, protruding into the viewer’s space. A material often used by traditional African artists, elephant dung has been incorporated into works by a number of contemporary African-diaspora artists to evoke their cultural heritage. Ofili began to use dung in his work following a visit to Africa to explore his roots. “There's something incredibly simple but incredibly basic about it,” Ofili told The New York Times in 1999. “It attracts a multiple of meanings and interpretations.”
Ofili frames his Madonna as proud, black, and sexual. Yet the introduction of an erotic charge within the Virgin’s sacred image is far from new. As Ofili once stated, “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.” In 1999, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani attempted to block the painting from being shown at the Brooklyn Museum, threatening to cut off funding for the museum, but the museum refused to withdraw the painting and won the court case.
Additional text from Ann Temkin, The Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture