One of the things I love the most about living in New York City is finding out about the history that lies within these streets, especially those pivotal cultural moments that took place before my time, so to speak.
One such occasion was an art exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 that caused a riot of protest and then-mayor Rudi Giuliani to bring a court case against the museum and threaten it with eviction. All because of British artist Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary painting, which was part of a showcase of the Saatchi Collection. His piece, made of his trademark materials at the time – glitter, resin, map pins and elephant dung, plus an added extra of pictures of buttocks plastered in little places all over the canvass, drew incredible ire. Just about every possible protest group picketed outside the museum and there were threats that its city funding would be withdrawn. At the end of it all, the museum won the case but it remains one of the storied tales about New York’s art world.
This work, together with other pieces spanning two decades of Ofili’s work, make up the New Museum’s Night and Day exhibition, which begins this week. In it, you see the shifts in his work, from using the dung to going without it. His influences – from Scripture, to hip hop, to Blaxploitation movies and kitsch, all swirl in his palette. His African heritage led him to using dung, first from a trip to Zimbabwe, then from the London zoo, as one of his tools.
On the 2nd floor, you’ll see the famous Mary, but you’ll also see, placed next to it, another one of his works, that was shown next to Mary in the Brooklyn Museum 15 years ago (time, she flies!) To me, it’s an even more powerful image, titled No Woman No Cry, taken from the Bob Marley track. It’s from 1998, and was made in response to the racially-motivated killing of Stephen Lawrence in London, a case that dragged on until 2012. Race, police inefficiency, brutality – all of these are still so relevant today, unfortunately so, but the resonance of the piece is striking. The thing about seeing it in person though, is that you get to see up close, the pictures of Lawrence – within the tears of the woman – his mother. It’s deeply moving.
Another piece that stood out for me is the sculpture titled Annunciation, yet more twisting on perceptions of the Virgin Mary. This time she’s intertwined with the angel Gabriel. I spent a very long time looking at it, with its mix of materials, feeling a weird sort of response that I’m still not quite sure how to articulate.
And yet another great thing about living here is you don’t have to step inside an art museum to be moved. Walking out of the New Museum and down onto the streets of the Lower East Side, I was once again taken aback by a work from Chilean street artist Dasic Fernandez a few blocks away. Like with Ofili’s No Woman No Cry piece, it’s in the eyes.
Night and Day is on until January 25th at the New Museum. Dasic Fernandez’ work can be spotted all over New York, but this piece is on Rivington and Clinton St on the LES.