Thursday, February 18, 2016


 By Biko Agozino
The art of Chris Ofili causes offense to powerful interest groups the way that his historical subject, The Virgin Mary, caused and still causes offense to the non sensibility of certain communities of interpretation. The idea of a virgin mother was abominable in her historical era and she would have been stoned to death had the New Age man, Joseph, not accepted to play the role of a surrogate father to the child of his fiancee.

This is why we should avoid religious sectarianism and political posturing in our reading of what seems to be a historical excavation by Ofili for the purpose of recovering a lost tradition that is threatened with extinction. This work by Ofili seems to argue that The Virgin Mary was black. There is anthropological evidence in support of this argument. For example, Frazier's classic comparative anthropology, The Golden Bough, documents evidence that ancient Egypt was the first to develop the mythology of the Virgin Mother of the Sun God whose birth day was celebrated on the 25th day of December many centuries before the birth of Jeso Christi.
If Mary was blonde and blue eyed the way that Western artists portray her, it is impossible to understand why the Roman army and owners of Motels could have turned away a heavily pregnant blonde and blue eyed mother on the pretext that the motels were full. Such a treatment is reserved for black couples in racist cultures although racism would not be the same in those days as it is today. Even with a husband, the pregnant virgin could not find lodging in any hotel because she was a Black Madonna. Toni Morrison narrates this painful aspect of the black experience in her latest novel, Paradise, where even heavily pregnant black women were refused rest and forced to trek for miles to virgin land. The Black Madonna was turned away with the familiar excuse, 'No blacks, no donkeys, no bullshit'. And so, we are told, the holy Bambino had to be born surrounded by sheep, donkeys and, of course, smeared with dung!
If this was not enough indication of the lowly origin of the beloved Christ, we are told that the Virgin Mary was chosen because she was a maid, not a princess or a queen. Those who deny her African ancestry are forced to agree that the Wise Men came with gifts from Africa. The star that guided them was an Eastern Star, right? They had to be in Africa in order to follow an Eastern Star to Jerusalem. If they were from Persia in the European continent, as some white supremacists would have us believe, then the Eastern star would have led them to Moscow. They were from the East, not the Middle East and not from the Far East. Geographically, that East is Africa because Jerusalem is to the East of Africa and so travelers who follow an Eastern Star to Jerusalem must have started their journey from Africa.
Historically, there is evidence that the young family fled to Africa to save the life of the young Christ. Mary fled home to her kinsmen and kinswomen in Africa and she was taken care of, no questions asked, because Africans have had a longer tradition of belief in the ability of virgins to have Divine children. This is similar to the story in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart where Okonkwo had to go to Mbanta, his maternal kindred, when he was forced into exile by calamity. So the thesis of Ofili's essay is not as strange or as offensive as it seems. The Virgin Mary was and could only have been black.
Chris Ofili is not only a Catholic but also almost a Christ by name! His essay is challenging Modernist ideas of progress and increased human happiness to acknowledge that the Virgin Mary is a sad figure today due mainly to neglect and ridicule. He seems to have demonstrated, indirectly, that King Herod is still in power in New York and that he is still ordering the massacre of innocent creations. The controversy over the work reminds us that in spite of the posturing to being an enlightened age, we still clamor for the dung-smeared virgin to be excluded from respectable Guest Houses and confined to the manger once more. The same people who are chanting the rosary in condemnation of a homage to the Black Madonna would have been the first to chant, 'Crucify him, crucify him!' when Pilate gave them a chance to parole the innocent lamb.
Ofili seems to be arguing that the true origins of the Black Madonna have been hidden, downtrodden like dung; but that the Black Madonna is far from being a waste product. Rather, the dung represents manure, fertility, a source of life and a source of fuel, energy and strength. Blackness signifies dung to white supremacists except when it says that their bank account is in the black - an obvious reference to slave-holding measures of wealth and worth.
Do you know that in Scotland, there is a mythology of the black foot? If the first person to step into your house after the New Year is black, that is an omen of affluence or in plain English, an indication that you will have your own house slaves to wait at your own great table. John Dunn, the Scottish poet illustrates this with a poem about 'One Blackamoore' in which a French merchant gave the king of Scotland a gift of an African Princess. The black woman was so beautiful that the king decided to organize royal battles in her honor. The prize for the winner was that they had to kiss her black ass. Of course, the king always won the battles! This is probably why many European cultures have cults dedicated to the worship of the Black Madonna in the spirit of capitalism, hoping to be made rich and prosperous at the same time that they were using a ship called The Jesus to engineer the African holocaust.
Jesus Christ once told his disciples that if no one believed his gospel, he would turn rocks into his obedient followers. Chris Ofili seems to be saying that Westerners no longer believe in virginity, period. Anyone who remains a virgin until marriage today in the West is to be pitied and ridiculed rather than admired or venerated. Similarly the elephant was, once upon a time, a venerated being around the world. Indians worshiped it and tamed it to transport them to war, Hannibal used it to carry his strong army to Europe, the Igbo of Nigeria sing a victory song that compares them to a community of elephants (Enyi Mba Enyi) - suggesting strength, fearlessness, intelligence, resilience, respect for elders and egalitarianism all at once.
But the elephant has since become a laughing stock. Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate, laments this in his elegy to Ajanaku, a dead elephant whose skeleton and yam pounding mortar-sized molars are awesome and whose spirit seemed to be imploring humanity to celebrate the living elephant and not the dead one. Today, the elephant is more to be remembered for such laughable metaphors as a white elephant or an ivory tower. The French came to West Africa and did not see the elephants, how much less their mountainous dung. All they saw was ivory in a place that they tried to name the Ivory Coast! That was a better name, however, compared to the British who called the coast a Slave Coast long before it occurred to them that Gold Coast sounded better.
Ofili seems to be saying that the miracle of the elephant dung (how could one being do such a mountain of poo?) has been ignored, denigrated, marginalized for too long. He goes on to show that some cultures still value the dung for fertility and energy reasons. The lesson of his work of art is that Africans should take this to a higher level of technology. Africans should re-learn the culture of taming the elephant for transportation, agricultural and energy purposes.
The wider lesson from Ofili's essay is that we should try to see the beauty in things that are different. We should be more tolerant of diversity or we will continue the genocidal culture of massacring the innocent just to keep a clique in power. You do not have to be a Catholic or a Rocket Scientist to know that the vilification of Ofili is ill informed. Let us join him and chant the rosary, 'Hail Black Maria'!
First Published in 1999           'Ofili’s Black Madonna', October 26, also published in The Guardian, October 31,

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