chris-ofili-holy virgin mary

AT CHRISTIE’S LONDON, expectations were high for Chris Ofili‘s “The Holy Virgin Mary” and the results didn’t disappoint. The mixed-media painting sold for more than $4.5 million (including fees) at the Post-War and Contemporary Evening Auction last night, setting a record for the British-born Ofili.

In a post-sale press release announcing the record, Christie’s called the 1996 painting of a black madonna with an exposed, elephant dung breast, “a generation-defiining work.” Causing a “sensation” when it was first exhibited in New York 16 years ago, the Ofili painting was among the top selling lots at the 66 lot sale.

Australian collector David Walsh commissioned the sale of Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” along with several other works by various artists (including “The Naked Soul of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars,” another dung painting by Ofili) in order to raise funds for new acquisitions and the expansion of his Museum of Old and New Art.

Chris Ofili by Grant DelinWalsh describes Ofili’s painting as wondrous” and “incredibly aesthetically pleasing.”

“Selling isn’t easy. But I’ve lived with works that inspire and challenge me and I can learn to live without them if it means buying for the museum, and for those who visit, and for the sake of learning, and for the future,” he told Christies in the video below. “The proceeds of this auction will help to fund a wing to house a number of James Turrell works.”

“The Holy Virgin Mary” was on view last fall at the New Museum in New York, featured in “Night and Day,” Ofili’s first major solo museum show in the United States. The exhibition is traveling to the Aspen Art Museum and, as noted in the sale listing, the painting is promised to be included in the show, which opens July 17.

The painting has made news before, first garnering widespread media coverage in 1999 when it was included in “Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection,” a group exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Executed with layers of paint, glitter, resin, pointillist dots and collaged images of genitalia cut from porn magazines, an elephant dung breast protrudes from large-scale canvas which is perched on two elephant dung balls embellished with map pins that spell out “virgin” and “mary.” Incensed by the depiction, then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened to cut off the museum’s funding.

At the height of the controversy, which raised Ofili’s international profile, the artist told the New York Times: “I don’t feel as though I have to defend it. The people who are attacking this painting are attacking their own interpretation, not mine. You never know what’s going to offend people, and I don’t feel it’s my place to say any more.”

“I don’t feel as though I have to defend it. The people who are attacking this painting are attacking their own interpretation, not mine.”
— Chris Ofili, New York Times

Estimated to sell for between $2.1 million and $2.8 million, “The Holy Virgin Mary” achieved $4,522,643, nearly twice the anticipated price at the June 30 Christie’s London sale. According to The Economist and Christie’s, Ofili’s previous record was $2.8 million, set exactly five years ago when Orgena (“a negro” spelled backward) sold at Christie’s London on June 30, 2010.

At the time, Victoria Miro, Ofili’s dealer, told The Economist, “The dung paintings are hard to come by. Chris stopped making them in 2003 and many are in public collections.” CT


ABOVE IMAGE: Chris Ofili by Grant Delin via David Zwirner Gallery


Published last fall, the exhibition catalog “Chris Ofili: Night and Day” features full-color images of works from throughout Ofili’s career, along with scholarly writing. Fellow artists Glenn Ligon and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye are among the authors.


From left, Installation view of “No Woman, No Cry” (1998) and “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996), at New Museum in New York, October 2014. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine


Collector David Walsh discusses his decision to commission several works of art for sale at Christie’s including “The Holy Virgin Mary” by Chris Ofili.


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