British Painter and Sculptor
Summary of Chris Ofili
Chris Ofili is famous for shocking the world by using elephant dung on a painting of the Virgin Mary, however as well as being provocative, his work is embroiled in a nuanced and complex set of religious and socio-political issues.
His paintings include unconventional craft materials such as glitter, map pins, glue and collage, as well as the more controversial elephant dung. His work is often seductively brightly colored, detailed, and heavily layered so that new details and images might appear on each viewing of a painting. Ofili’s primary interest is in documenting and celebrating Black experiences and memorializing and challenging instances of racist violence. He also often returns to themes of religion, particularly as displayed throughout art history.
- Hybridity is an idea introduced by postcolonial theorist, Homi Bhaba, to name the way that migration, particularly between places that have been colonized, and those doing the colonizing, produces new complex identities, which are a mix of multiple cultures, rituals, and ideas. Ofili's paintings often mix Western and Nigerian iconography and ideas in one canvas, and also use collage and multimedia techniques to suggest multiplicity and diversity coming together in one space.
- Ofili's paintings often appear decorative, that is they are extremely pleasing to look at and use materials, such as glitter and map pins, associated with unserious aesthetic objects. To call a contemporary artist's work 'decorative' is usually an insult, as it suggests there is nothing beyond appearance in the work. Ofili challenges this by making delicate, beautiful images using techniques from traditional African and Aboriginal art, which then draw you into their political complexities.
- Almost all of Ofili's work deals with elements of Black experience. The work is explicitly anti-racist and often challenges white supremacy and its real (in the streets) and symbolic (in galleries) violence. Ofili is also one of the few artists to make work about police violence against black people, here using a subdued, dark palette very different to his bright, dynamic paintings.
Progression of Art
The Holy Virgin Mary
This life-size painting shows an abstracted black Virgin Mary with a vibrant yellow background. One breast is exposed, as is traditional in classical depictions of the Virgin Mary and, less traditionally, is embellished with elephant dung. All around her flutter butterflies made from buttocks and vaginas cut from pornographic magazines.
The painting is Ofili's attempt to deal with his childhood questions about race and virgin mothers, in particular which women are permitted to be holy, to be pure, and to be considered 'good mothers'. The black Madonna is often seen in Catholic iconography in Africa and the Caribbean, although Ofili's depiction is an intentionally provocative rendering of the subject. He said: "When I go to the National Gallery and see paintings of the Virgin Mary, I see how sexually charged they are. Mine is simply a hip-hop version."
The piece was well received in England, and then in Germany when it was exhibited in Berlin, but caused a public fury when exhibited in New York. Then-mayor Giuliani famously threated to remove funding from the MoCA after losing a lawsuit to shut down the YBA Sensation exhibition where the painting was featured. A 72-year-old pensioner called Dennis Heiner also defaced the painting with white paint because he was offended by its "blasphemy". He pretended to be ill to distract the security guard, and then squirted the paint behind the shield protecting the work.
Combining pornography, elephant dung, and an image central to Catholicism was intended to shock and challenge the gallery-going public, even if Ofili could not have foreseen the violent protest of the work by conservative Christian America. However, the work is also a rigorous investigation into religion, race, representation, and desire: The Holy Virgin Mary speaks to hybrid cultures in Africa and the Caribbean, which mix Catholicism and traditional spirituality; challenges the way that whiteness is associated with purity in art history (the white virgin's breast is never sexual); and situates the Holy Virgin as a real woman with a real and messy body - she rests on elephant dung to bring her closer to earth.
Paper collage, oil paint, glitter, polyester resin, map pins and elephant dung on linen - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Afrodizzia is a colorful abstract composition embellished and propped up with elephant dung reinforced with polyester resin. Multiple heads from Blaxploitation movies are collaged into the vivid colors, glitter, and multi-layered paint effects alongside well-known black figures, which then have Afros comically pasted around their faces. The title is a play on the word 'aphrodisiac', which references a substance ingested to increase the libido, and again complicates relationships between blackness and sexual desire.
Blaxploitation cinema emerged out of Black Power and civil rights movements in the 70s and it remains a controversial genre, which both challenges and reinforces racial stereotypes. Despite its difficulties - in particular treatment of black women, and reinforcing 'gangster' stereotypes - Blaxploitation was an angry celebration of Black America and this complexity is reborn as a contemporary festival of Black cultures in Afrodizzia.
The work honors the renaissance of Black creativity that Ofili said hip-hop helped create. He listed his heroes as Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, L'il Kim and Wu-Tang Clan. "It was like revisiting the idea of Black power in the seventies, but through a more celebratory lens - not fighting for power but celebrating a newfound power. A lot of Black art that came before was set up to critique the system. I thought that was boring. I wanted to be sincere and outrageous and friendly and rude and experimental and conventional." The work is an original and singular instance of art about Black experience - representational elements are subsumed by joyful abstraction, and African-ness is shown as a euphoric, as opposed to mournful, state of being.
American art critic Jerry Saltz wrote: "A good Ofili brings to mind Funkadelic album covers, William Blake, Zimbabwe rock painting, Sigmar Polke, Brazilian bead work, Op Art, carnival posters, Celestial Seasonings packages, Haitian voodoo figures, Australian Aborigine 'dot paintings,' and Post-Impressionistic Pointillism."
Oil paint, paper collage, glitter, polyester resin, map pins and elephant dung on linen - Saatchi Collection
No Woman No Cry
In this moving painting, Ofili depicts the weeping profile of Doreen Lawrence, whose son Stephen Lawrence was murdered by a racist gang in London in 1993. There was a massive outcry about the police's failings to properly investigate the case, particularly in black communities in London and the public inquiry that followed found the Metropolitan police force to be institutionally racist. In each of the tears shed by the grieving mother is a collaged image of her son's face, while the words 'R.I.P. Stephen Lawrence' are just discernible beneath the layers of paint.
This narrative work uncompromisingly depicts grief and pain, not only of Doreen and Stephen Lawrence, but all victims of racist violence. Ofili said: "This kid had been killed by white racists. The police had fucked up the investigation, and the image that stuck in my mind was not just his mother but sorrow - deep sorrow for someone who will never come back. I remember finishing the painting and covering it up, because it was just too strong."
Again Ofili references Black music with the title borrowed from a Bob Marley song and the painting provides a powerful example of Ofili's physical and metaphorical layering: he builds up materials on the canvas as he layers meanings.
No Woman No Cry became a rallying point for anti-racist activism, and continues to be exhibited at major UK galleries in the context of remembrance and ongoing social change. It is a vital piece of art in the tapestry of UK political and social history, which often ignores the pain of black people in its memorials.
Oil paint, acrylic paint, graphite, polyester resin, printed paper, glitter, map pins and elephant dung on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Pimpin' aint easy
This work is unlike anything you might expect to see in a gallery! The vast canvas is filed with an enormous black penis, with grinning cartoon minstrel face and an Afro. Bizarre crab-like creatures made of collaged and mismatching heads and legs surround it. Three balls of elephant dung sit at the bottom of the work.
In the early 1900s, minstrel shows were extremely popular in America, in which white performers would wear blackface including exaggerated huge lips and pitch-black skin to caricature black people. Elements of this practice still exist in more contemporary society, as in gollywogs and 'coon' cartoons. One of the most pervasive racist stereotypes is that of the sexually virile, well-endowed black man. This stereotype contributed to false rape accusations and lynching historically and is still perpetuated today as a reason to fear young black men.
The title Pimpin' aint easy is taken from a Big Daddy Kane Gansta Rap track, and the painting inflates both contemporary 'pimp' and historical 'minstrel' stereotype to a ridiculous degree - rendering the stereotypes harmless through humor and excess.
Art critic Adrian Seale said in The Guardian, the piece was "too erudite, too funny, too seductive for any kind of single-minded reading".
Ofili said: "That is a hilarious painting for me. I mean, can you imagine making that? I had to sit there and look at that and go: 'I've done this. Nobody else is making this up! I made this.' So I'm looking at it and thinking, this is an unusual one to reckon with. Because it's really funny to me now, but what happens when I show it outside the studio? Joke's over, Chris. It's not funny anymore."
Oil, polyester resin, paper collage, glitter, map pins, and elephant dung on linen - New Museum, New York
The Upper Room
The Upper Room installation of 13 paintings is an explosive rendering of the sacred and secular in the context of human and non-human worlds. Each painting features a rhesus monkey, the primate that most closely resembles humans. 12 canvases are arranged equally on either side of a larger one, suggesting Christ and his apostles, as they are historically depicted in paintings of the Last Supper. The title also references this Bible story; the Upper Room is where Jesus' last supper before crucifixion was held, alongside 12 apostles.
The paintings were exhibited at the Tate in a quiet, dark, chapel-like room designed by friend and architect David Adjaye. Ofili wanted the venue to feel like a space of worship and the paintings were illuminated so they would refract colored light, as if stained-glass windows.
Like much of the artist's work, The Upper Room remixes art historical religious iconography to raise contemporary concerns, in this case the strong division between nature (the monkeys) and culture (the Bible, historical paintings, the gallery).
Replacing Jesus and his disciples with psychedelic monkeys has been considered taboo by some, but Ofili has stated that the installation is not intended to be offensive. Cheeky, loud, and intelligent, rhesus monkeys are highly respected by certain religions. A biologist writing about the first showing of The Upper Room pointed out that rhesus monkeys show more compassion for each other than we do for our fellow humans and this installation of paintings is remarkable in its capacity for simultaneous shock, awe, and reverence.
Installation of oil paintings comprising resin, glitter, mapping pins and elephant dung - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Compared to the brightness, optimism and vivid color of Ofili's earlier works, the Blue Rider series provides a marked departure. In tribute to Wassily Kandinsky's and Franz Marc's Der Blaue Reiter movement, this series of dark canvases abandon the cheerful style of Ofili's 1990s works. Iscariot Blues shows two figures playing musical instruments while a third hangs from a gibbet under the cover of darkness. It is uncomfortable to look at, as the hanged figure's head snaps back from the pressure of the rope. It is also difficult to decipher; the tones and colors so dark it is hard to discern the figures.
The work is drawn from the Trinidadian folklore of the island he has made his home where, at carnival time, people dress up as blue devils and terrorize onlookers with blood, snakes and frogs. Tradition dictates that these blue 'devils' have permission to behave in a menacing and intrusive manner that would normally be prohibited by society. In this series, Ofili associates these 'blue devils' with the 'boys in blue', the British police, explicitly challenging police violence in the UK. The images in the painting are rendered in such darkness they are barely visible, suggesting conduct that occurs in a state of near invisibility.
This image in particular expresses the anger and humiliation inspired by 'stop and search' (or 'stop and frisk' in the USA) tactics, which are overwhelmingly used by police without provocation on black and brown youth.
Matthew Ryder QC, a barrister who has experienced the indignity of stop and search, explained: "This piece captures something much harder to express - the peculiar way that such confrontations between black men and the police are simultaneously intensely crude and unusually subtle. They are crude because of the pervasive sense of menace and the blunt threat of violence. The dark intensity of Blue Devils reflects that beautifully: just as in real life, as we stare at the interaction, it takes your eyes a moment to adjust and take it all in."
Police violence against black people, especially black men, is an international scourge currently, in both the UK and the USA, and is difficult to challenge because of the power of police forces and the fact that the general public often holds the police in high esteem. This series is a dark, affecting, soulful depiction of police violence, and one of the very few representations of this kind of racist violence.
Oil paint and charcoal on canvas - Victoria Miro Gallery, London
Biography of Chris Ofili
Born in 1968 in Manchester, England, to Nigerian parents, Chris Ofili was the second of four children. His parents had only been in the country for three years when he was born, and they worked hard to give their children a good life. They were both employed in the McVities biscuit factory, but Ofili's father, Michael, left the family when Chris was 11 years old and went back to Nigeria where he had another family.
His mother, May, worked hard for 30 years to ensure she could support Chris, his sister and two brothers through college - and her work ethic rubbed off on her son, who had no interest in art as a child and never visited galleries. Brought up Catholic and an altar boy he heard Bible stories being read out repeatedly, and they stayed with him, dominating his work. But in secondary school he stopped going to church to concentrate on schoolwork and playing football.
Early Years and Training
After embarking on an art foundation course at Tameside College, he fell in love with painting and abandoned the idea of becoming a carpenter. Ofili was inspired by Chris Clark, a teacher who would famously encourage his students to lie down and meditate before they embarked on a painting.
In 1991 he completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Chelsea College of Arts where he befriended artist Simon Ling and Scottish painter Peter Doig, who was seven years his senior. Doig said: "Chris always seemed the older one. I don't think he ever lacked self-confidence, in his work or in himself." Two years later Ofili achieved his Masters of Fine Arts from the Royal College of Art, London.
The following year, on an art scholarship in Berlin, he threw himself into the vibrant nightlife and learned how to translate his love of hip hop into his art. He said: "They allowed twenty-four-hour access to the school, and there was a night club in a bombed-out basement in Potsdamer Platz with amazing hip-hop music. Music was the battery, fully charged. I wanted to paint things that would feel like that music."
Ofili had grown up in a politically turbulent time. He was born in the year MP Enoch Powell made his infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech, a polemic on what he perceived to be the dangers of immigration. In the 1980s, racist political groups like the National Front stirred up tensions and riots took place across the nation. Then on April 22nd1993, when Ofili was in his twenties, black teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a racially motivated attack while he waited for a bus in Eltham, South East London. Dissatisfaction with the police investigation caused racial tensions, and police integrity fell into disrepute.
Growing up witnessing such discord had left an impression on Ofili, and he began to explore issues of race and identity in his work.
In 1997, riding the tide of "Cool Britannia", the movement that saw the UK rebranded as a fresh and vibrant cultural capital, Ofili's work shot to fame. In September that year, renowned art collector Charles Saatchi's Sensation! show opened at London's Royal Academy, exhibiting works from Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Marcus Harvey and the Chapman Brothers, who would become known collectively as the Young British Artists. The exhibition caused near universal outrage, not least because among these pieces were Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary depicting a black Madonna and collaged with images of vaginas, and incorporating elephant dung, a motif that would become a trademark for the young artist.
Ofili's career went into orbit when The Holy Virgin Mary controversially won him one of the highest accolades awarded to British artists - the Turner Prize. He was just 30 and he was the first black winner. That year he held solo shows in New York, London, and Berlin.
He was invited to become a member of the prestigious Royal Academy, but he declined: "Does it come with a parking space outside the Royal Academy? Because, if not, I can't see anything in it for me."
In 1999 Ofili became an international figure of controversy when his Holy Virgin Mary was taken for exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. The piece caused furious condemnation from Mayor Rudy Giuliani (who said "its sick"), the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O'Connor and Donald Trump (who called it "degenerate stuff"). The Mayor threatened to withdraw funding and the show was closed down.
The ensuing media circus unsettled Ofili. He said: "I was scared. It was this American rage. I was brought up in Britain, I don't know that level of rage." But he also wanted to escape notoriety and the feeling that he was being pigeonholed. He didn't want to be known as "black British artist" or "pachyderm shit Giuliani guy", and the following year he travelled to Trinidad to host an art workshop with his close friend Peter Doig.
Success had come at an emotional price for Ofili - fame left him with a "slight sense of guilt" - and he went quiet, refusing to speak to the press and staying out of the spotlight during the controversy. "Success can overwhelm you," Ofili said, "The perception of you can be elevated to such a status that it's not you any more. But you start playing you. You have to leave the real you at home because the fake Chris Ofili has been invited to dinner. I was being invited to all kinds of functions and meeting all kinds of interesting people. But I went to very, very few because it was hard to be the person they thought I was. There was a point in time where the thought of people even talking about me made me anxious. Physically."
In 2002 he married Roba El-Essawy, a singer and songwriter from London hip-hop outfit Attica Blues and three years later they moved to Trinidad, where they had two children, a girl called Amel and a boy, Dalil. They kept their house in the English capital and he continues to work in New York and London while based in Trinidad.
His wife told a reporter in 2014, "Chris is the most private person I have ever met. I'm pretty sure that to this day most people here on the island don't know what he does for a living."
The Legacy of Chris Ofili
Ofili's decorative, brightly colored paintings were entirely unlike the work being produced by his YBA contemporaries in the 1990s, and his expression of black British experience remains extremely important for British artists of color. Ofili brought painting back into the spotlight, alongside artists like Jenny Saville, and in 1998 he was the first painter to win the Turner prize in 13 years. In the words of architect David Adjaye "he positioned himself as an artist who could redefine art practice by affirming the relevance of painting for the 21st century", inspiring a new generation of painters from both sides of the Atlantic.