art in unusual places - imigongo

With much shock to my poor Western perceptions, I recently became aware of the process of Imigongo - the traditional Rwandan process of making art out elephant dung.

Far from being used for shock value or novelty, Imigongo is one of the most resourceful art forms I've ever come across. Making use of a readily-available, natural material, these pieces are typically created by local women and are used to decorate village huts or to be used as wall hangings. 

My first thought was, why?

Surely the art aspect is all in the painting skill and design, what could the inclusion of shit ever do for a painting? (no sarky remarks, please).

Turns out the dung is what gives the paintings their characteristic raised surface, forming peaks and ravines once the paste dries. Usually the paintings are completed on wood boards for a sturdy surface, then later painted (often with a simple black and white palette, but sometimes with colour, too). Designs usually feature geometric patters and spirals.

It's also important to highlight that this art form contributes to more than just interior decoration. After the practice was very nearly wiped out during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, thankfully things have come full circle and now many locals practice Imigongo as a way of crafting a more prosperous life for themselves and their families. The artworks play an important part in keeping Rwandan culture alive and kicking, and are popular with locals and tourists alike.

I can't decide whether it's ironic, ludicrous or inspiring, but this East African tradition has filtered down into the multi-million pound Western art world. 

British artist Chris Ofili, recognised as one of the few artists of African/Caribbean descent to be considered a member of the Young British Artists, and winner of the Turner prize in 1998, creates his phantasmagorical mixed-media work out of paint, resin, magazine cut-outs and elephant dung.  

The official understatement of the year would be to say that Ofili's work is a bit controversial. His piece 'The Holy Virgin Mary' (consisting of acrylics, oils, polyester resin, paper collage, glitter, map pins and elephant dung on canvas) was included in the 1999 exhibition 'Sensation' at the Brooklyn Museum.

An aptly-named exhibition, it would seem, as many visitors were horrified by Ofili's depiction of a semi-nude and dung-smeared Virgin Mary. The icing on the cake being the clippings from porn magazines that flutter unassumingly about the canvas. 

The mayor of New York was so offended by the whole thing that he threatened to cut the museum's funding, and evict them from their publicly-owned building. A nasty lawsuit ensued. The museum was ultimately victorious, and 'The Holy Virgin Mary' has since been sold at auction for £2.9 m ($4.5 m).

An unbelievable (and somewhat hilarious) sense of hysteria, all over a painting that brings a whole new meaning to 'crap art'.


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