Ofili’s Glittering Icons

Ofili’s Glittering Icons – work of Chris Ofili at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, New York

Lynn Macritchie

The intensely decorative paintings of Chris Ofili are informed by the vibrancy of black popular culture and the reality of British racism, aspects often overlooked in the controversy surrounding his work in “Sensation.”

Chris Ofili’s paintings are joyous things to behold. Dotted with bright pastel colors, layered with shiny varnish, sprinkled with glitter, their surfaces seem to dance and dazzle and shimmer and shine. Some even glow in the dark. Complex, decorative and mostly figurative, they are populated with an ever-increasing cast of characters, both real and imaginary. And, oh yes, they are often presented leaning against rather than hanging on the wall, supported on balls of varnished elephant dung, the way that over-stuffed armchairs used to rest on carved wood spheres.

Nothing in Ofili’s paintings is there by chance. Two of their most distinguishing elements, the elephant dung and the colored dots, he began to use after making a six-week British Council-sponsored trip to Zimbabwe in 1992, when he was still a student at London’s Royal College of Art. The dot technique was used by the artists who created the ancient cave paintings Ofili saw and admired in the Matopos hills. Ofili’s use of dung began in Africa when, dissatisfied with the paintings he was making there, he picked up some dried cow dung and stuck it onto one of his canvases. When he returned to London he took some elephant dung with him and began to include it in his paintings as a counterpoint to his increasingly decorative surfaces. Elephant dung also turned up in several 1993 performance pieces he did in street markets in Berlin and the South London neighborhood of Brixton. For these works, he spread a piece of cloth on the ground, arranged balls of dung on it and posted a sign reading “Elephant Shit.” The balls of dung were not actually for sale, but presenting them as if they were allowed Ofili to observe the reactions of passersby as they sized up this young black man apparently offering them exotic substances, like a witch doctor or drug dealer. Elephant dung (which the artist now obtains from the London Zoo) has come to play an integral role in the presentation of his paintings, both as support elements and as points of emphasis in the overall painterly scheme. The dung balls themselves are often adorned with map pins, arranged in abstract patterns or spelling out parts of the works’ titles.

Ofili takes pleasure in rendering his paintings as visually rich as possible. “I try to make it [the painting] more and more beautiful, to decorate it and dress it up so that it is so irresistible, you just want to be in front of it,” he told me in a telephone interview last summer. But viewers, seduced by the highly decorated surfaces into coming closer for a really good look, may then find themselves, as Ofili intends, seeing more than they bargained for. Most notoriously, the floating, seemingly abstract shapes which hover all around the full-length figure of The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) turn out to be small collaged cutouts from porn magazines, cropped to center on rear views of women’s buttocks and genitals [see “Front Page,” A.i.A., Nov. ’99]. Here, Ofili brings one of Christian iconography’s most sacred images into the closest proximity with contemporary commercial culture’s everyday profanity. But he does not stop there. In contrast to traditional European painting (and with a nod, perhaps, to the vernacular tradition of the black Madonna), he shows Mary as black rather than white. Her right breast is exposed, represented by a single, strategically placed ball of elephant dung.

As a painter and as a Roman Catholic, Ofili has long been familiar with the image of the Virgin as both an artistic and a religious icon. As a young black male steeped in contemporary culture, he found it perfectly sensible to rework Mary as a black woman and to place her in juxtaposition with the contemporary discourse of pornography. In doing so, the artist chose to make explicit the sensual undertones which cannot be separated from any image of a beautiful young woman suckling her child. “I was going to the National Gallery and looking at van Eyck’s paintings of mother and child,” he explains in the catalogue for his exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1998. “I just wanted the image of the breast, really. The exposed breast is hinting at motherhood but those images are very sexually charged.” This may explain why Ofili left the child out of his picture–in order to put greater emphasis on the icon’s sexuality. Mary’s direct gaze seems to challenge the viewer to look at her bared breast. Her mouth, too, with its wide and luscious pink lips, seems to echo the sexual organs on view in the collaged photographs.

Ofili is something of a veteran where publicity is concerned. He was first exposed to the full glare of media attention when “Sensation” had its clamorous London debut at the Royal Academy in 1997 and The Holy Virgin Mary came in for its share of abuse. “Academy on the rack over `porn Virgin,'” one headline blared. The following year he was nominated for the Turner Prize, which involves the competing artists in a round of interviews, photo shoots and TV appearances; then Ofili won the Turner Prize and garnered further tabloid coverage, as well as critical attention, both pro and con. Next came the storm over “Sensation” in New York [see article, p. 53]. But media attention is not something Ofili seeks. His subjects are chosen not to court controversy but rather as his way of exploring themes drawn from his own life experience, his family history and his continuing study and practice of painting.

In the six years since he graduated from the Royal College of Art, Ofili has evolved a visual vocabulary of ever-increasing strength and complexity. As a result, he is able to translate his own interests and obsessions into paintings that deal with some of the trickier issues of the day, such as sex, religion and politics. Ofili has made blackness one of his chief subjects. An early piece, Black (1993), was a simply made book consisting of crime reports photocopied from the pages of a local newspaper. What linked the articles, which Ofili presented without comment, was their use of the word “black” to describe suspects. Ofili delighted in the book’s ambiguity–in the fact that it could have been put together by a white racist as well as by a black artist.

Ofili takes the images and perceptions of blacks that he finds around him–on TV, in magazines, in popular music and on the tough, drug-ridden streets near his studio at Kings Cross–and weaves them into his paintings. His pop-culture sources include “blaxploitation” movies of the 1970s and pornographic magazines featuring black women, while his pictures also abound with references to jazz, soul and hip-hop. He has invented a character, Captain Shit, whose splendid Afro hairdo and outrageous outfits happily recall the visual excesses of musician George Clinton and the funkmasters of the 1970s. This connection is made more explicit in his recent painting The Naked Soul of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Blackstars (1999). Perhaps the most unusual thing about Ofili’s take on the charged subject of blacks in popular culture is the humor and delicacy with which he treats his imagery. With their decorative surfaces, his paintings exude an overall elegance and grace that lure the eye even as their content challenges the viewer’s preconceptions.

Ofili works his themes over and over again. In the process, the street-smart references he so much enjoys sampling from urban culture are being gradually incorporated into a more formal vocabulary which seems to be taking the work forward into its next phase. Larger, single-figure paintings such as She (1997) were the first steps in this new stage of development, which was more fully displayed at Ofili’s recent solo show at his New York gallery, Gavin Brown’s enterprise, which featured striking bust-length portraits such as Princess of the Posse and Prince amongst Thieves (both 1999). The show also included watercolors and drawings employing similar imagery. For me, Ofili’s blend of portraiture and politics is at its best in the beautiful picture of Doreen Lawrence that was included in his 1998 Turner Prize exhibition at the Tate Gallery. Doreen Lawrence’s son Stephen was murdered by a gang of white youths in London in 1993. This young black man’s killers have never been brought to justice, and his parents’ campaign to expose police incompetence has become a touchstone of race relations in Britain. In his portrait of the victim’s mother, Ofili brings together the familiar elements of his work–dots of bright color, collaged photographs (of Stephen Lawrence’s face, arranged like tears running down his mother’s cheek) to create a contemporary icon drawn from his experience of the real world.

The portrait heads, whether taken from myth or reality, mark a new level of achievement in Ofili’s work. His technique, as it becomes ever richer and more complex, is developing an emotional range to match its decorative facility. This 31-year-old artist has come a long way fast, and it looks like it’s going to be worth hanging on for the ride.

Chris Ofili’s recent work was seen at Gavin Brown’s enterprise in New York [Oct. 16-Nov. 13, 1999]. Several earlier pieces are currently on view in “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art [through Jan. 9].

Lynn MacRitchie is a writer and critic based in London who regularly covers contemporary art for the Financial Times.

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