Denotation/Connotation (or, The Relativity of Shit)

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Denotation/Connotation (or, The Reality of Shit)(after Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary)

Like any queer artist of a certain age and disposition, I lost myself in the Brooklyn Museum of
Art In the last months of the Millennium, a fresh thing with gesso smeared on my pantlegs, Top
Ramen broth staining my fingers. I was looking for something bold, beyond the exhausted sigh,
beyond the shoulders, of the Y2K craze, looking for sensation.

And there she was. An ink blot of a limbless figure, roll of the dice eyes, a minstrel mouth,
glossy cutouts of female genitalia as if caught in a butterfly net, a blob of elephant shit gooped
on her left tit, the iconic blue shawl and spray of yellow around her head the viewer’s only teddy
bear.

Janey, my play-mate, my art-mate, an every kind of checkmate, whispered in my ear, “that’s the
most beautiful virgin I’ve ever seen.” I smiled to her without turning my head. Like any queer
artist of a certain age and disposition, we were stoned. And so proud of our ability to observe.

Give me the word that comes to mind when you think of a museum.

I was running from someone at the end of the Millennium. I was lost in the Brooklyn Museum of
Art because it was big and it was full of things I had no control over. Janey sported overalls with
metallic ribbons shooting from her pockets. We danced to the colors of the room, or we stared
when the movement became too much touch for becoming.

Chris Ofili inspired the ire of pasta-sounding Catholics with this virgin, and particularly that of
New York’s most notorious, Rudy Giuliani. NEA 4 Rudy. Jesse Helms Rudy. Ruined New York
with a sweep of his wrangled hand Rudy. Time’s Man of the Year not soon after, when a
violence once again allowed folks to forget all the violence that came before.

For whatever reason, it wasn’t the porn-mag pussies nor the black-faced Mary that made Rudy
mad. It was the poop. Rudy said, “you can’t do things that desecrate the most personal and
deeply held views of people in society.” Neoliberal Park Slope white folks loped in defense of
Ofili, claimed that the artist was of Nigerian descent, and how in African Culture elephant dung
connotes power and fertility.

Ofili, born and raised in London, only said this about his work: “My Mary is simply a hip-hop
version.” Me, born and raised in hip-hop Baltimore, only said this about his work: “Can an entire
continent be whittled to a single culture?”

Give me the word that comes to mind when you think of a museum.

That same year red-headed, spindle-limbed Craig Brown walks into his high school sporting a
white t-shirt with a black swastika and the word RECLAIM in red stretched across his chest.
Teachers pulled him out of homeroom with full moon paws. He pleaded that the symbol only
recently bared its teeth. Wickedness and war obliterated its spiritual connotation. That for
histories before, its angles and lines leaned soft in the mouth, and whispered: “what is in
existence, will continue to exist”.

Connotation: the socio-cultural and ‘personal’ associations of a signifier, typically related to the
viewer’s class, age, gender, ethnicity and so on.

Denotation: what all viewers from any culture and at any time would recognize the signifier as
signifying.

In other words, “we know the difference between the font of 20% more and the font of teriyaki.”
But they are merely fonts, shapes and gestures. And yet, our lips are wet with them.

I was running from someone at the end of the Millennium. I was lost in the Brooklyn Museum of
Art because it was complicated and required nothing of me. I didn’t read the didactics on the
white wall. I only looked at the pictures and mimicked their shapes with my tongue.

When I said, “I need to be creative”, he heard, “I need the space to create.”
When he said, “You can have whatever you want”, I heard, “As long as you color between my
lines.”

Give me the word that comes to mind when you think of a museum.

Chris Ofili became famous. He won the Turner Prize. And for the celebratory exhibition in the
Tate Gallery, he installed a burlap bag filled with cow manure, placed it on a white pedestal. He
called it Bag of Shit. Days after the exhibition opened, an unidentified man towed a wheelbarrow
full of cow manure up to the steps of the Tate Gallery, and dumped it square in front of the
entrance doors.

When Ofili said, “modern art is full of shit,” maybe the wheelbarrow man heard, “You can have
whatever you want.”

And when the wheelbarrow man said, “modern art is full of shit,“ maybe Ofili heard, “Unless
you color between my lines.”

I was running from someone at the end of the Millennium. I was lost in the Brooklyn Museum of
Art because I knew he wouldn’t find me. But he was there.

Denotation: What is there. What is actually there.
Connotation: How our feelings spill into the lines of us all.

What is in existence, will continue to exist.

Janey pulled a ribbon from her overalls and handed it to me. She said, this is your offering to the
virgin. I asked her, “but where shall I place it?” I’ve never been able to answer that question. She
took my arm in hers, and that sensation: the closest I would ever be to belonging. A fresh thing.
A word that comes to mind. But I already forgot what it was.


Photo used under CC.

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About Author

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Miah Jeffra is author of the essay collection The First Church of What's Happening (Nomadic Press 2017). They have been awarded the New Millennium Prize for fiction, the Sidney Lanier Prize for fiction, The Oregon Writers Colony Award for nonfiction, the Clark-Gross Novel Award, and a Lambda Literary Fellowship for nonfiction. Other fellowships and residencies include Ragdale and Hub City Writers Project. Miah is editor of queer literary collaborative, Foglifter Press.

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