Chris Ofili: Exploring the African Diaspora

Photo of Mélissa Leclézio
11 October 2016

Manchester-born artist Chris Ofili caused a sensation in the international art world with his participation in the provocative Sensation show at the Saatchi Gallery in 1997. With Nigerian heritage, cultural scrutiny lies at the heart of this controversial artist’s work. We contemplate Ofili’s art and look into his continual exploration of ‘blackness’.

Ofili was born in 1968 into a family of Nigerian origin, although he never asserted his African roots. He left Manchester at a young age to attended the renowned Chelsea School of Art in London before completing a Masters at the prestigious Royal College of Art. First and foremost a British talent, Ofili’s style is nevertheless difficult to pinpoint – it is neither rooted in the European pictorial tradition, nor strictly limited to African aesthetics.
That is not to say that Ofili is at odds with his African identity. In 1992, he was granted a British travel scholarship to Zimbabwe, an experience that would reconnect him to his roots and inspire his future works. It is at this time that the artist had the idea of using elephant dung as a way to add texture to his canvases. For Ofili, this makes the painting feel ‘more relaxed, instead of being pinned upon the wall like it’s being crucified’. Symbolically and literally speaking, it also subsumed a piece of Africa into his work. While the dung is systematically treated with chemicals as to avoid odour and putrefaction, it remains what it is – with all the connotations that come with it – and Ofili revealed to Frieze Magazine in 1994 that displaying elephant dung ‘reversed the dynamic’ between Europeans and Africans. While African elephants have historically been mutilated by people from Western countries for their ivory, they somehow get their revenge through Ofili’s paintings: ‘shitting on the viewer from a great height, tusks intact’. In Zimbabwe, Ofili also drew inspiration from the exquisite decorative motifs present in cave paintings. Interestingly, the irony behind Ofili’s work is that the London Zoo provides the dung, the decorative ethnic gizmos such as African beads are produced in Taiwan and the African textiles come from The Netherlands. This truly places the artist within a contemporary art setting that stretches beyond country allegiances and cultural categorisations.
Watch an interview with Chris Ofili below:

It has been suggested that Ofili, although he is a talented artist, also benefitted from a favourable political conjuncture. On one hand, the election of New Labour in 1997 instilled a new energy in England, which dedicated itself to an extraordinary rebranding exercise in a move to appear ‘cool and modern’. In the midst of this vibrant zeitgeist, the Young British Artists, including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, were conquering the international art scene. These glitterati testified to the birth of a dynamic and creative generation of artists that would embrace the work of Chris Ofili. On the other hand, the 1999 McPherson report triggered a wave of positive inter-ethnic collaboration and gave rise to an increasing celebration of racial differences, which also helped Ofili gain momentum.
In 1998, Ofili was the first artist of African descent to win the Turner Prize, raising his profile dramatically and leading to competition between major galleries in the UK and in the United States to showcase his paintings. But with great success comes great criticism, especially when artists address sensitive subjects such as religion in a provocative fashion. When Charles Saatchi’s Sensation show was exported to New York for instance, Ofili’s painting The Holy Virgin Mary was castigated and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani himself sued the art gallery. The ‘profane’ depiction of a dark skinned Virgin Mary surrounded by female genitalia borrowed from porn magazines deeply shocked conservative American audiences. This episode could have been extremely damaging, but Giuliani lost the trial and the publicity helped to increase Ofili’s notoriety both within the hyped-up contemporary art microcosm and with the general public.

Ofili’s early works draw on various sources of inspiration and suggest a meticulous attention to detail as well as substantial labour. His lavish layers of paint, glitter, press cuttings and resin – adorned with complex and beautifully executed patterns – yield an almost psychedelic effect. The lush, eerie, and sometimes chimerical, atmosphere that he creates alternatively exudes the cheerfulness of African landscapes and the mystical feel of Christian iconography. Tackling themes such as street culture, the history of African diaspora, death, the sacred and the profane, sexuality and self-awareness, these works are often ironic celebrations of ‘black’ stereotypes. For instance, one of his most notorious paintings, No Woman No Cry – whose title was borrowed from a Bob Marley song – represents a dark skinned Pieta wearing exquisite Renaissance ornaments and set against a backdrop of Byzantine-like motifs. This painting was a tribute to Doreen Lawrence, whose son Stephen was the victim of a deadly racist attack in 1993. Ofili’s body of work is in fact deeply connected to the spirit of the times. He often used cuttings from 1970s comic books and pornographic magazines, humorously combining them in his paintings.

Ofili’s career took a new direction in 2005 when a visit to his friend and fellow artist Peter Doig in Trinidad turned into a permanent move to the Caribbean island. This had a lasting impact on his work, encouraging him to adopt more elementary colours and explore island motifs such as tropical landscapes, Trinidadian mythology and lascivious figures. However, Ofili is very aware of the stereotypes associated with an African artist living in the Caribbean. He refuses to be, in his own words, the ‘Voodoo King, the Voodoo Queen, the witch doctor, the drug dealer, the magicien de la terre, the exotic’ – in brief the symbol of ‘Blackness’ as perceived by foreign cultures. As a result, the artist is constantly challenging his own stereotyping, privileging a subversive and whimsical aesthetic in his works. Afrodizzia (1996) perfectly epitomises this idea, pushing stereotyping to its extreme with references to Afro haircuts and sexual potency.
Perhaps ironically, at only 44 years old Ofili is now fully integrated into the British art establishment. This was particularly discernible when the Tate Britain hosted a major retrospective in 2010, bringing together more than 45 paintings as well as etchings and pencil drawings. The question now is not so much how Ofili will challenge ethnic categorisation in the art world, but rather how he will re-invent himself away from the mainstream.
By Mélissa Leclézio

Image courtesy: 1: Mark Barry/ Flickr

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