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10 Reasons Why Chris Ofili's New Museum Retrospective Was NYC-Relevant
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10 Reasons Why Chris Ofili's New Museum Retrospective Was NYC-Relevant

Picture of Tracy Kinnally
Updated: 24 April 2017
Culturally fun and socially relevant, Chris Ofili: Night and Day at The New Museum was an engaging display of the British artist’s repertoire. It offered a visual, sensational feast for the eyes and mind in a continually fresh retrospective show. Ofili’s work spans over two decades, and this was his most comprehensive show in the USA to date. We find out more.
The Culture Trip
Chris Ofili, Installation Images at the Fourth Floor, The New Museum | Photo Courtesy of The New Museum


Anyone Could Appreciate This Show

Chris Ofili’s art is accessible enough for anyone to immediately enjoy. With everything from his lush and tactile colors, his use of glittering media that uplift standard acrylics and watercolors, his works on paper and his bronze and wooden sculptures to the presentation of elephant dung, the aesthetics of the show’s pieces could be easily relished, even by visitors who are not art savvy.


The Show Provided An Intellectual Fix

Chris Ofili’s visually-pleasing aesthetics exist harmoniously with the deep culture in his pieces. The works on display featured references to Renaissance paintings, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Roman Catholic iconography. Ofili intertwines those within his re-imaginings of recurring arts and literature motifs, in a colorful, often Afro-centric fashion. His retrospective gracefully maintained the artist’s hip-hop references alongside antique art historical tropes.


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Chris Ofili, The Annunciation, The New Museum, 2006 | Photo Courtesy of The New Museum


This Show Was Sexy

Featuring tactile sculptural works such as ‘The Annunciation’ (2006) and ‘Saint Sebastian’ (2007), the exhibition addressed sexual desire and its place in religious art history, without completely dismantling the archetypes. Instead, visitors could see these iconographic figures through a 21st century lens that embeds Multiculturalism (an Afro-donning angel visits the Virgin and Homoeroticism (an abstracted, vulnerably penetrated young man). This is a reinvigorated expression of sexual desire within art history. There are also explicitly portrayed genitals in some of the works, for those who prefer not to beat around the bush.


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Chris Ofili, No Woman No Cry (left) and Holy Virgin Mary (right), The New Museum, 1998 and 1996 | Photo Courtesy of The New Museum


A Contemporary NYC Icon

Chris Ofili’s work already serves an integral part in New York’s contemporary art history. Ofili showed work in the extremely publicized and aptly named 1999 exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection held at the Brooklyn Museum. His work, The Holy Virgin Mary’ (1996) then stood as the central figure of a heavy media attack to defund the museum. This attack, led by the Catholic League and endorsed by then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani, resulted in a blockbuster exhibition and even a brazen protester’s attempt to deface the painting with a tube of white paint (immediately fixed before said paint dried). Today, visitors can enjoy the piece without nearly as much fanaticism to contend with.


This Show Was Seductive And Escapist

Entire rooms were painted in purple-toned landscapes against mythological dancing figures, or colorful couples embracing in red, green and black-jeweled ‘Afro nirvana.’ For those who craved a small break from hectic New York City living, the show provided ample opportunities for indulging in far-away places and fantasies.


Beat The Winter Blues

Whatever the needs may be; meeting religious impulses through engagement with art, or exploring the divine in the mystery of color tones, the exhibition space ‘Blue Rider, Extended Remix’ provided an ideal setting for indulging your winter blues. Images of deep, great blue reflected on twilight in Trinidad, as well as on works from Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky. Displayed in reference to the secessionist group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), as well as to the Rothko Chapel, these images enriched the space with possibilities for artistic contemplation: both political and spiritual.


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Chris Ofili, Blue Rider Series, The New Museum, 2006-2008| Photo Courtesy of The New Museum


Strong Political And Social Relevance

In another series, ‘Blue Devils’ (2014), Chris Ofili depicts a traditional Trinidad Carnival where revelers dress in blue paint to hide their identities and menacingly command authority over other revelers. With this series, Ofili directly addresses the social relationship between the black man and the police. Also, his ‘No Woman, No Cry’ (1998) was created in reference to Doreen Lawrence and the murder of her son in the 1990s. The case became one of the highest profile racial killings in UK history, and its investigation by The Metropolitan Police was found to be ‘institutionally racist.’ The subject matter he addresses in his art clearly hits on deeper systemic issues protested very recently in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ marches in New York and Washington, DC.


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Chris Ofili, Shithead, The New Museum, 1993 | Photo Courtesy of The New Museum


Elephant Dung

From the playfully hidden ‘Shithead’ (1993), halfway up the steps between the third and fourth floor exhibition spaces, to works featuring ‘Captain Shit,’ Night and Day was full of it. While irreverence is a distinct part of the artist’s playfulness, it often holds further meanings. The elephant dung for instance, used repeatedly throughout his works, generally helps to demonstrate the contradictions within culture and human existence. It is especially captivating when contrasted to the human form in fantastic, glittering grandiosity.


A Calmer Alternative To MoMA

Anyone who has ventured into the Metropolitan Museum of Art or MoMA during the holidays knows that it is brimming with visitors during December and January, especially on the weekends. The New Museum, while having a steady stream of respectful viewers in the space, offers a calmer place than some of its larger New York counterparts.



Many of the pieces exhibited are incredibly playful, such as ‘Belmont Guru’ (2006), in which a man’s face is created out of a series of smaller Afro-sporting heads. Furthermore, the previously mentioned display choices of the ‘Blue Series’ and ‘Metamorphosis’ encourage the sensations of playing cat and mouse with the visitor. All together, the exhibition created a marvelous cultural game.


New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York, NY, USA +1 212 219 1222


By Tracy Kinnally