The last image is of a contemporary and controversial painting, the Nigerian, Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996. A controversy arose in 1999 when the painting was to be exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, NYC. Offended at the representation, Mayor Giuliani threatened to withdraw the city’s financial support for the museum, due to his perception of the painter’s disrespect for catholicism. It was the painting’s materials rather than narrative that offended Giuliani and the public. The artist used paper collage (snips from magazines representing black women’s buttocks), oil, glitter, resin, and elephant dung for this 8 foot tall composition. The incorporation of images of fragmented body parts and dung into a painting of Mary, the Mother of God, was deemed sacrilegious. But what was Ofili’s creative objective? To create a visually stunning, yet traditional art object? Or, to create a work that embodied the power of women’s bodies in respect to cycles of life and death? Should the painting be interpreted from the Western perspective or the African perspective? While it subverts many of the values of traditional European art, it is an earthly embodiment of metaphysical power. All aspects of the “real” being have been transformed into an allusive, unearthly form as the Heavenly Mother is no longer of this earth, but represents and is symbolic of universal issues within the Neoplatonic realm.


Design elements such as color, value, repetition of line and shape, balance, symmetry, and rhythm are of little concern to African carvers. Their motivation is to bridge the gulf between the physical and metaphysical worlds and bring the powers and blessings of the spiritual realm down to their daily lives.