Controversial Chris Ofili Painting Is Up For Auction at Christie’s. With an Estimate of $2.3 Million.

Chris Ofili Holy Virgin Mary
(The Holy Virgin Mary, image via Saatch Gallery.)

Chris Ofili is a British-born contemporary artist of Nigerian descent who has traveled and studied all over the world. He incorporates many aspects of African culture and the diaspora in his works, such Zimbabwean cave paintings, hip-hop, blaxploitation films, among other influences. His early works were heavily influenced by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Ofili is best known for his 1996 work The Holy Virgin Mary and the controversy that surrounded it. The 8 foot by 6 foot mixed-media painting depicted a black Madonna and incorporated glitter, elephant dung, oil paint, resin, and collage images. Many of the collage images, which were cut out from pornographic magazines, appeared to be butterflies from far away, but upon closer inspection were actually images of the female genitalia. The work was displayed in London, Berlin, and New York from 1997 to 2001 as part of the Sensation exhibition. While international showings of The Holy Virgin Mary went off without a hitch, when the work arrived in New York’s Brooklyn Museum it was quickly mired in controversy.

Many New Yorkers protested The Holy Virgin Mary, calling it obscene. A Daily News article about the Brooklyn Museum show was titled, “B’KLYN GALLERY OF HORROR. GRUESOME MUSEUM SHOW STIRS CONTROVERSY.” The Holy Virgin Mary even attracted the attention of then mayor Rudolph Giuliani who called the painting “sick” and “disgusting” and even initiated a lawsuit against the Brooklyn Museum, threatening the institution with eviction and attempting to withdraw $7 million grant. The Brooklyn Museum stood their ground, and fought back with a countersuit, which they won, on the grounds of free speech. Following the controversy, a planned exhibition, which would include the painting, at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra was cancelled in 2000. In 2007, David Walsh, an Australian professional gambler and art collector purchased The Holy Virgin Mary.

Walsh has teamed up with famed auction house Christie’s to to sell the work, which is expected to fetch approximately $2.3 million at auction. According to the New York Times, the sale definitely isn’t a gamble for Walsh, as a guaranteed offer from a third-party buyer has also been secured.