Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection (exhibition)

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Date: 1999

Region: North America

Subject: Religion, Political/Economic/Social Opinion

Medium: Painting, Mixed Media


Artist: Chris Ofili

Confronting Bodies: Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the City of New York

Dates of Action: 1999

Location: Brooklyn Museum, part of the exhibit Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection.

Description of Artwork: The Virgin Mary portrayed as a black woman, integrating elephant dung and cutouts from porn magazines as part of the composition. The piece is a multimedia fusion of styles referencing Byzantine mosaics, imagery from popular culture and African sacred symbols.

The Incident: The Sensation exhibit, which included Ofili's piece, was scheduled to open October 2, 1999. Prior to the opening, Mayor Giuliani, offended by the "anti-Catholic" content of Ofili's work, ordered the museum to remove the controversial artwork or to cancel the show. He also threatened to cut off funding to the museum and eject it from its current building. In response, the museum filed suit in a federal court seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent the City from withdrawing funds and evicting it.

Results of Incident: Judge Nina Gershon from the Eastern District ruled that Giuliani's attempt to cut funding from the museum was unconstitutional for its violation of the First Amendment. Judge Gershon ordered that funding be restored to the museum and declared that no future funds be withheld. Giuliani later appealed the decision. The case was settled during appeal in March 2000. As a part of the settlement, the city agreed to pay $5.8 million over the following two years to help repair the museum's entry hall (New York Times, March 2000).

Despite the court's ruling in favor of the museum, Giuliani continued to seek ways to control the content of art shown in city funded institutions. In early 2001, the mayor denounced another piece exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum. The controversial artwork was a staged photograph by Renee Cox entitled Yo Mama's Last Supper, which used the structure of DaVinci's painting of Christ and the Apostles in his Last Supper; instead of Christ, Cox had placed a nude image of herself in the central position. This is part of the exhibit Committed to the Image, which shows the work of 94 contemporary Black photographers. In response to the museum's inclusion of Cox's work, Giuliani assembled a "decency panel" to explore the possibilities of controlling the content of art shown in city-funded institutions. The committee met with degrees of protest and ridicule on the part of New Yorkers and is expected to fade out when Giuliani leaves office.

Source: NCAC