“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.” Romans 12:9
To preface, I am a Christian. I cannot tell you a time I didn’t know about Christianity or Mary or the story of Christ. I firmly believe it is true and good. I spent a summer in Italy looking at every holy Madonna, pieta, and Mother and Child, and Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary is best I’ve seen.
Holy Virgin Mary is a modern 95 theses on the white evangelical church’s door. I say I am a Christian, but I say it with the addendum that the church has a lot of work to do. Racism has been swept under the ugly church history rug for far too long. While I am beyond privileged to have never been personally affected by racism, learning the nasty history of colonialism, slavery, the civil rights movement, and the involvement of the church has altered my faith and relationship with the church forever.
I cannot understand why the church has said the obligatory “I’m sorry! It won’t happen again!” but refuses to continue the discussion. They say from the pulpit not to walk in shame, but it is clear shame keeps them silent. To me, the ugliest thing under the ugly history rug is the church-going slave owner. How a man could sit in a pew on Sunday and rape his slave on Monday I do not know, but Holy Virgin Mary speaks to that breed of Christian in its true and ugliest form.
The painting is aggravating. It should set the blood boiling of each and every viewer. But it’s not aggravating because Mary is painted with shit or because there are vaginas replacing angels, its infuriating because of the foolish-looking caricature of a black woman that used to be disseminated in the South. It’s disgusting because the vaginas are cut from magazines that capitalize off of the hypersexualization of black women. Its horrifying because these women may no longer be slaves but they are still being raped.
All these things together are completely damning to the idea of a caring, nurturing, mother of God. The Bible says “hate what is evil, cling to what is good.” If I do not hate the content in this painting, something is deeply and disturbingly wrong within me. It calls out the church for being silent and not doing enough to change the situation. The church teaches that love is not a feeling but an action. If I am charged to love with sincerity, then my response to this painting should be action that brings change.
Protesting the defamation of Mary does nothing. Mary has already been defamed by the actions of the men who rape and then go to church. She was defamed when the first black person was enslaved. To counter this great defamation, it is not the painting that needs to be removed. What needs to be changed is the hyper sexualization and exploitation of black women. Without those things, Ofili would have never had cause to paint Mary in this way.
Holy Virgin Mary is the bold shout in the silence that there is evil we are not doing enough about. It’s the painting that’s calling “elephant bull dung!” on those who claim to love God but ignore the plight of their neighbor. It gives voice to the feelings and resentment I have toward the church in a beautiful and provocative way. And yes, I will protest the painting, but I will be doing it with a sign that says “Hey church? Do you see this? It’s time to do something.” Because this is the best Christian painting I’ve seen.
Image courtesy of https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/chris-ofilis-holy-virgin-mary-goes-moma-gift-steve-cohen-10158/ and Christie’s