Chris Ofili, “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) / paint
In December 1999, this work was damaged while on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Dennis Heiner, a 72-year-old Manhattan resident, feigned illness to distract a security guard before darting behind a plexiglass shield; he then squeezed white latex paint from a plastic lotion bottle and spread it across the figure’s face and body.
Ofili’s work had caused controversy due to its content: a portrait of a black Madonna, adorned with pornographic cut-outs and accented by a clump of shellacked elephant dung. Heiner, a retired teacher and anti-abortion activist, said the painting was “blasphemous,” and claimed he’d attacked the work in order to “clean it.”
When asked of her husband’s actions, Helena Heiner said, “We kneel down on our knees and pray to the Blessed Virgin every day to help our family and help our country. We have been upset about this painting for a very long time.” Denouncing the work as “abusive,” she encouraged her husband to take action. “He was not afraid of getting arrested, absolutely not. He was trying to clean the painting,” she said. “The man who painted it showed very poor taste and very little respect for the representation of the Virgin Mary. If [Ofili] saw a picture of his mother depicted in that way, he’d take a knife to the person who made it. He would kill him.”
Heiner was charged with criminal mischief, making graffiti, and possessing instruments of graffiti—all misdemeanors because the damage to the painting was valued at less than $1,500. The work was quickly restored and placed back on public view.