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Chris Ofili’s Thumping Art-History Lesson

It was a shitstorm that ended in a witch hunt. “If this painting is censored, I’m canceling the show,” snapped English megacollector Charles Saatchi. He said this to me privately in the early hours of September 18, 1999, amidst an exhibition installation at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Days before, the New York Daily News had run the headline “B’KLYN GALLERY OF HORROR. GRUESOME MUSEUM SHOW STIRS CONTROVERSY.” The “gallery” was the Brooklyn Museum. The “horror” was Sensation, a show of about 40 young British artists from Saatchi’s collection who’d emerged in the early 1990s, most of whom were already fading, making the show seem, to those in the art world, something of a non-event.

Until the Daily News headline. The “controversy” was one painting: Chris Ofili’s beautifully bioluminescent 1996 depiction of a black woman cloaked in cerulean blue. A wavy visage composed of what look like light-emitting microorganisms, she’s surrounded by radiating dots of enamel paint and constellations of small, cutout photographic body parts. Her right breast is fashioned of elephant dung secured to the canvas and decorated with black map-tacks. The painting rests on two dung balls, one festooned with pins that say “Virgin,” the other, “Mary.” Whether it was the visage being black with large “negro lips,” Ofili being black (Nigerian-born, Catholic, and a former altar boy), the body parts in the photos being black, the dung (a material many cultures deem sacred), or the title The Holy Virgin Mary, everything went to hell. Sight unseen, then-mayor Giuliani opined that the dung had been “flung,” called the painting “sick,” and vowed to defund the museum of millions of dollars. The Catholic League objected to the Madonna being “black” and railed over “anuses.” The Jewish Orthodox Union insidiously suggested that the next defacing might “be a Jewish ritual item.” Just one year after the Supreme Court ruled against Karen Finley in her case against the NEA (whose grant to her had been vetoed over “decency issues”), the art world got its shorts in a moralistic twist and, rather than defending Ofili, denounced the museum for colluding with Saatchi to show a private collection in a public institution...

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