Currently at Tate Britain, NOT at the south bank Tate Modern, is the mid-career retrospective of Chris Ofili. Without getting too much into the debate surrounding the recent phenomenon of surveying an artist’s career while they are very much still IN their career, it is interesting to note which artists major museums feel comfortable organizing a mid-career retrospective for. Key issues to consider would be how has the artist developed their career (does it grow and mature and change), what prizes and exhibitions they have been involved in and, more cynically, what collections and collectors are interested in the artist.
I missed the Sensation show back in 1999, the exhibition of Young British Artists—I wasn’t enough into contemporary art back then to make the trek to the Brooklyn Museum of Art—so I was super excited to see The Holy Virgin Mary “in the flesh” for the first time. If you don’t remember or likewise you weren’t as inclined to follow contemporary at that time, Sensation was a traveling exhibition of works from Charles Saatchi’s collection including artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Gillian Wearing and Marcus Harvey. Mayor Giuliani at the time took great offence to this particular work by Ofili and proceeded to sue the Brooklyn Museum of Art and make overt statements to the effect of how the first amendment couldn’t possibly mean to support offensive and disgusting work…
Interesting to note that though Ofili’s work caused quite a stir in New York, here in London the biggest media controversy was over Myra, an image of the Moors murderer Myra Hindley by Marcus Harvey (left) created from the handprints of children. This puts into perspective what can be thought of as truly offensive—Myra and her killing partner, Ian Brady, in a matter of two years murdered five children, at least four of whom were sexually assaulted.
The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996 (below) like many of Ofili’s works, involves layers of color, collage images from magazines, glitter and the painting is supported by varnished balls of dung (typically elephant), sometimes the dung balls are also incorporated in the work. There are many cutouts from pornographic magazines of close-ups of female genitalia, yes vaginas. It is graphic and in your face but that shouldn’t necessarily add up to a negative. I admit on my first real life look at the painting I was shocked by the amount of vaginas he was able to fit on the canvas without looking like a giant collage. They are cut and arranged around the black Madonna reminiscent of cherubim and seraphim. So here we see how Ofili is able to straddle the sacred and the profane in this work. The Madonna is draped in a blue cloak (as she is usually represented) but not so traditionally, her features are of an African woman. On the balls of dung are the words Virgin and Mary spelled out in shiny map pins. Ofili has here merged blaxploration (an American film genre that emerged in the early 1970s when many exploitative films were made targeting an audience of urban black people), hip-hop and Christian imagery. Though this work might have been one of the primary catalysts to motivate me to see the show, the best feature in the end could be the academic curation that undoubtedly shows there is more to Ofili’s practice than shit, pussy and penises.
This controversy should not solely be what you think of when you look at his works. Ofili won the Turner Prize in 1998 and represented Great Britain in 2003 at the 50th Venice Biennale. Born in Manchester in 1968 to Nigerian parents, Ofili spent time in 1992 in Zimbabwe and since 2005 he has lived in Trinidad. Both of these living experiences have had profound impacts on him and his works. All of the works in this exhibition are post his time in Zimbabwe and this was the pivotal trip that led to Ofili’s incorporation of elephant dung in his works. The round balls used as base supports (important in regards to making paintings more like sculptures as they are leaned against the wall) or also directly applied to the linen canvases are purposely curious and aesthetically pleasing so as to intrigue and repulse. I must admit even though I know what the material is, elephant shit, it far from repulses me—but perhaps this is more of a reflection of my desensitization.
The Chris Ofili show consists of seven rooms basically in chronological order. The first room contains works from early to mid 1990s, works that were influenced by his visit to Zimbabwe. 7 Bitches Tossing their Pussies before the Divine Dung, 1995 is a painting Ofili created in direct response to William Blake’s The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Devine Thrown, 1803-5 where the dot painting technique (inspired by the cave paintings in Zimbabwe), use of dung and cut out images from black music and porn magazines can all be seen. When interviewed, Ofili claims it was his attempt to emulate hip hop music in his work where something could be sweet, smooth and vulgar at the same time. When these works were shown at his first solo show in New York at Gavin Brown, the Blake’s hung next to Ofili’s paintings.
The second room displays works from the mid to late 1990s including, No Woman, No Cry, 1998 (left) which was one of the works presented in 1998 that helped win Ofili the Turner Prize. Also in this room is the aforementioned, The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996. In the third room or The Upper Room, there is a deliberate change of pace as the viewer enters a chapel like wooden room designed by architect David Adjaye who also collaborated with Ofili for the British pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennale. Contained in this space are the meditative almost monochromatic paintings based on a Warhol collage of a monkey holding a chalice. The fourth room holds the red, black and green paintings started in 2000 and displayed together at the British Pavilion in Venice, 2003.
These works make up the colors of the pan-African union flag. The fifth room hosts works on paper and was one of my most favorite rooms. After rooms of intensely colored and intricately ornamented paintings, the lighter watercolors and pencil and paper works make a room that functions like a breath of fresh air. I always enjoy these more sketchy and perhaps spontaneous works as they seem to lend a look into the artist’s process and play with their works.
The sixth and second to last room has the Blue Rider works made after Ofili’s move to Trinidad in 2005. The canvases are even larger and have returned to hang on the wall. This change in his living environment also prompted other significant shifts in the works as there are no longer dung balls, resin, glitter, beads or collage used. These works are stripped down to basics of painting and color. As the name of the works suggest, they are mainly large blue paintings and seek to create a dialogue with the 20th century artists group of the same name who sought to merge art and music which as seen in his earlier work, Ofili has also been interested in. Finally, the seventh room contains the most recent works also made in Trinidad. They remain large, but rather than being simply cool and dark painting of twilight or moonlit nights he has slowly reintroduced color. One work, Last Light, First Flight, 2008-9 he has even experimented with mixed media again where he has incorporated oil, charcoal, aluminum foil and paper collage on linen. Nature plays the most significant role in his work to date but he still creates richly suggestive subjects.
So what do we think after it is all said and done? Ofili plays an important role in art history through being a significant player in the YBA scene, being a black contemporary painter and because of the controversial debates he has stimulated. Well worth it to go see this show, I am not sure where it is going next, but, it has not yet been scheduled to travel to any New York museums. This show illustrates how Ofili takes elements from popular black culture and gives them a new context, almost like a social experiment in each work. The show starts with works that show the physical conceptual layering in each work as he builds up his materials on the canvas and takes us to his present paintings where he has stripped them down back to paintings basic elements but the layers of symbolism and meaning are still there. And by the way he is able to accomplish all this with a playful and humorous attitude and mood to the works—go see it!
Ofili is represented by Victoria Miro Gallery, London and David Zwirner, New York.