Every majestic oak tree was once a nut that stood its ground – Old proverb
To be a classic, one must have all the gifts and all the needs, but one must force them under the same yoke. Chris Ofili was born in Manchester in October 1968 to Nigerian immigrant parents compelled by circumstances to seek a better life in Britain. He was born in a year of anti-establishment convulsions around the globe: Mexican students’ rebellion, popular uprisings in Paris, Berlin, Prague, Rome and the widespread anti-Vietnam war protests occasioned by the My Lai massacre. It was the year British MP Enoch Powell (MBE) made his xenophobic and notorious Rivers of Blood speech and the year Dr Martin Luther King, leader of the American civil rights movement, was assassinated. That year, if anyone puts his ear to the womb of the world to hear “the roaring desire for existence”, “the innumerable shouts of pleasure and woe,” he would surely break into pieces, Nietzsche says in Birth of Tragedy
In his formative years, Ofili lived through spells of racial tensions that led to bloody upheavals all around the United Kingdom: the riots in Lewisham, Brixton, Nothing Hill, Bristol, Birmingham, and Oldham in Manchester. He lived through the ultra-conservative political climate of Thatcherism with its open hostility to ethnic minorities, their subjectivities, their artistic and other intellectual manifestations. He lived through a time when the mainstream media’s gleeful presentation of black achievements was their prodigious presence at the other end of the criminal justice system.
At the age of 20, Chris Ofili enrolled at the prestigious Chelsea School of Arts in London and later at the prestigious Royal College of Art from 1988 to 1993. As a black dot in a sea of white faces, he lamented, “there was no one else painting black people or black life” to confront the stereotypical presentations perfunctorily reproduced in the media and entrenched in Britain’s consciousness. The young Ofili grasped the deep void between the conventional assumptions of these stereotypes and the true reality of the black world. And since then, he has been un sensing that deep void, painting energetically and subversively against it.
His initial outputs were self-portraits or works with himself as the main protagonist of the canvas. This preoccupation however is not like the narcissistic self-devotion of the romantics but the intense assertion of individuality and willful self-belief of the moderns that enabled them to transcend and sublimate the crass morass all around them into profound works of art. From The Queen and I (1989) to Self-Portrait (Red Heels, 1989), Self-Portrait (Orange Shirt, 1990) to, Self-Portrait (Arnolfni, 1990) Chris Ofili was testing the truth of himself against the blight of the society. However, he was still timid. The color combinations in the works are earthy and composed mainly of dour and muted tones. The compositional choices are grounded too strictly in principles of harmony and order. The brushwork is coarse and Basquiatian. His hair is always drawn bushy and rough. Besides locating his figures in an oppressive space with limited headroom, his countenance suggests loneliness, introspective melancholy, deprivation and nonstop existential dread. Painting after painting, there is little contextual or emotional variation. In this Self phase (1989 -1993), there is certainly a pervasive threat that organized the outlook of his portraits as a function of his inner world.By the time Ofili journeyed to Zimbabwe for the Pachipamwe International Artists’ Workshop at the age of 24, like Prometheus in the Greek myth, he had seized the creative fire in form of dots and dung. Ofili saw elephant dung as a gut medium, a Nietzschean agency made out of the elephant’s devouring of the landscape, absorbing what is valuable for its body and rejecting the rest as a toxic waste. Ofili grasped the correlation between this toxic waste and the place of his race in western societies. Armed with this correlation, Ofili invested in the toxic and inaugurated the Dung phase (1993 – 2006) that eventually granted him worldwide fame and assured him a secure space in the history of art. Through prolific frenzy and originality, Ofili broke loose from self-imposed strictures into a freewheeling conception of art and the world. In Shithead (1993) that marks this revolutionary transition, animated by Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty, Ofili molds a boulder out of elephant dung, carved a face into it and placed along its edges a scattered dentition of incisors and molars to suggest an eerie mouth. He ripped off his trademark dreadlocks whose depictions characterized his self-portraits and fixed them permanently on the ghoulish dung. It was the omen of the impudence to come.
“It is precisely in great art,” Heidegger says, “that the artist remains inconsequential as compared with the work, almost like a passageway that destroys itself in the creative process for the work to emerge.”
Ofili launched into the new freewheeling phase with self, the hitherto protagonist of his canvas totally dissolved into abstractions with volcanic origins . Estimating that the scope of the plain canvas would not cope with his energy and versatility, he added more layers. Polyesters, resins, paper collages, beaded dung decorated with doting delicacy all collaborate to give his outputs in this new phase a unique edge. Patterns begin indefatigably and end abruptly. Profusion of tiny dots takes the place of lines and shades. Ofili gives them a fecund verve and decorative momentum: they swirl and swoon all over the paintings with alliterative lyricism, varying, counterpointing, and recapitulating. Were one to score them as music, they would play like Bach’s great fugues. . Open (1992-1993), Mya (1993), Geetha (1995), even Spaceshit (1995) with its impertinent allusion to Monet’s Waterliles, offered Ofili the freedom to splash vivid colors in vibrant adventurousness. It was his vision for a fairer society. Unlike Seurat in his revolutionary pointillism which makes use of tiny dots and leaves no perceptible gaps in-between to enhance the grainy luminosity, Ofili uses on his layered canvas, larger dots with spaces in between so that the underneath, the unnoticed, the least, like the ethnic minorities he belongs to, would be visible and have a say in the overall chromatic outlook of the painting.
On closer examination, not only do these abstract initiatives disclose a recurrent pattern to the artist’s response and testify to the monotony of unregulated emotions, they do not, however, lend themselves to any arresting drama or tensions that engender greatness in art. Even his signature material, elephant dung, seems babbled or bullied into the compositions like a reluctant or enforced presence not that the sizzles of the composition compelled their presence as an additional force. Ofili concedes: “If you live in the world, abstraction doesn’t do it. I tried it. It had a big place in my work for a time” And so he began to scale down the abstractions and encourage semblances of human and other realistic representations.
With the Popcorn series (Blind Popcorn, 1995), Popcorn Shells (1995), and Popcorn Tits (1995), Ofili begins to incorporate magazine and newspaper cut-outs of black icons and pop stars, alienated black nipples and their corresponding pubic parts into his paintings. He arranges them as innovative motifs in a manner that add fresh meanings to the colorful and aggressive vitality of the abstractions. 7 Bitches Tossing Their Pussies before the Divine Dung (1995) begins to resemble the place of black consciousness few seconds after the Big Bang or the centrifugal force propelling black creativity rather than mere delightful outbreak of anarchy without the cut-outs. With Them Bones (1995), Ofili gradually moves beyond the cut-outs and paints his first identifiable figure: a standing skeleton with squares for eyes carrying real elephant dung in each hand and around him are patterns like intense radiations from an energy source. But it is with The Holy Virgin Mary (1996)(Fig 4) that Ofili enhances his own becoming during the Dung phase, by putting his first human figure, a female, on the canvas.
Produced when he was 28 years of age, The Holy Virgin Mary is a canonical masterpiece of high tensile strength that keeps up an elegant flow of artistic and social queries, and speaks to the essence of an artist in contemporary times. There is a dramatic encounter between extremes of purity and filth captured on the canvas. The Holy Virgin is floating in the air perhaps during her Ascension into heaven, and tiny magazine cut-outs of split vulvas and gaping vaginas are raining down from the same heaven like Special Forces parachuting to a mission. Indeed, the history of art is replete with the Virgin’s countenance defined by calmness, modesty and prayerful grace that mirrors the state of her soul, Ofili’s intervention gives her a bewilderment of the grotesque type bordering on humor. To heighten the intensity of her face in this painting, he inflates and distorts with savage appeal her eyes, nose and skull. Her mouth, with its labial red lips and side clitoris incarnates Ofili’s belief that painting the Virgin was a pious means to smuggle eroticism into the bedrooms of priests during those centuries of repressed sexualities. Also, Ofili gives the Virgin’s bulky profile unique vividness by spreading tonally varying yellow as background and a complementing blue as the Virgin’s flowing robe/veil. However, recalling that each of the gaping vaginas like the Holy Virgin is a human being with personality and appearing tiny means they are far away whereas the Virgin has all the mass and volume, Ofili is adding a quality of compulsion to the themes of the picture by hastening the convergence of the far and near, of modernism and antiquity, of his own work and the modern masters.
The Holy Virgin Mary seems to demonstrate with brutal clarity a truth that is often ignored: that filth adds balance and stability of meaning to holiness just as freedom requires the company of chains to achieve the fullness of meaning. The clusters of genitalia are least concentrated at the bottom half of the board where the Virgin is most bulky, whereas these genitalia are biggest and most cockily patterned at the top half where the Virgin’s head is situated; it is also where they split and gape the most. Significantly, it is also the place where the Holy Virgin’s halo, the symbol of her divinity, spreads out the most. What is grace without gravity, the painting seems to preach; of what use is beauty or purity without their messy basis? Our idea of truth, beauty, perfection, and the marvelous implies their own contradictions and it is the job of the artist to keep tight these tensions without which essence is meaningless and existence bankrupt. Had Ofili filled the painting with only purity or only dirt, he would not have been a faithful interpreter of the contradictory realities of human or divine nature. How is it possible that the same heaven we are asked to aspire to, is the place that loves to rain down fire and brimstone on people whose crime is that love differently? Or how is it possible that the best era of human history, the modern age, with its life-prolonging discoveries in medicine and life-enhancing achievements in the arts is also the most nihilistic wherein the obliteration of existence or civilization is no longer a mere metaphor but could be enhanced through nuclear or atomic bombs? The moral calling of the artist is to keep us focused on this paradox lest we substitute nihilistic tendencies for progress and progress for nihilism.
In 1998, when the American phase of the “blasphemy” controversy broke out, as New York’s Mayor Rudolph Guiliani was trying to get Sensation, (the exhibition in Brooklyn Museum displaying the work) closed, a man was caught on camera vandalizing the work with white paint.
Being a militant for holiness and purity, one would have expected him to attack what he found offensive. Rather, in a fit of phallic aggression and painterly automatism, he focused on shading off the bewildering black Madonna and the sacredness she represents, leaving behind the genitalias. Whether the enemies of Satanic Verses or proponents of Degenerate Arts, the foes of necessary art always seek to destroy the sublime, the ennobling dialectics. The artist’s need for dangerous knowledge is the creative pressure that drives him to transgress. The eventual beneficiary is the society. For when a serious work of art generates controversy, a wall is about to come down.
Another painting, No Woman, No Cry (1998) has the confident strangeness of a masterpiece. Dominating the frame is another female figure, that of Doreen Lawrence whose son, Stephen, was stabbed to death in a racist attack in south London in 1993. Neither the brutal violence meted on the teenager nor the institutional racism of London’s Metropolitan Police harassed Ofili’s conscience and stirred him into creativity. It was, he stressed, the quiet dignity of the mother. Why? Possibly because Ofili is a compulsive artist who is used to meeting insights and inspirations head on with an array of convulsive responses. Seeing a woman who displayed impeccable self-command and taut control in the face of inner turmoil and social turbulence surrounding the violent death of her son could not but have presented him an example of the arresting dramatic ideals that was becoming fundamental to his compositions in the dung phase.
Freed from the philistinism of conscience therefore, Ofili presents a big, bold somber figuration of Doreen with beautifully painted turquoise teardrops in which are placed cut-outs of the murdered son in a cheerful mood. Each drop is executed with crystalline exactness and is so enthralling that one forgets that they are collectively meant to be sorrowful tears. Ofili gives beauty and brutal death an alliance akin to the force that killers of Stephen Lawrence employed, untroubled by its sense of evil. Unlike The Holy Virgin Mary, the Doreen figure does not face the viewer but faces the right side of the picture frame, and this gives Ofili the opportunity to commit the composition to nuanced tension and marvels of tragic poetry. First, in a masterstroke, he closes the eye of Doreen which immediately draws in the viewer. Then a single continuous narrating line slouches leisurely round the canvas teasing out Doreen’s forehead, her nose, her lips, chin, her curiously long neck, her broad shoulders till it slouches out of the frame via the bottom diagonals. Her richly plaited hair offers Ofili a chance to contrast the narrating line with several curves that converge at different speeds. Their boastful concentricity, their lyrically gorgeous knitting together and their balanced proportioning according to their emotional intensities are all superb echoes from his earlier abstract works. And extending the hair to an unAfrican length beyond the shoulder gives Ofili more room on the canvas to work the magic of the tragic tension from the narrating line and curves on awed viewers.
The tearful Doreen’s red lipstick resonates with the colored bead decorating her hair and it foregrounds the red flame-like pattern on her chest. In The Holy Virgin Mary(Fig 4), Ofili commenced the use of echoes, visual rhymes and pictorial ambiguity that he later perfected in his Blue Phase (2005-2010). It is difficult to demarcate where the Virgin Mary’s veil stops and where the robe begins but from the way the dark veil/robes shrink below her head, Ofili suggests the possibility of a neck. From the way the veil reveals the robe at the chest of the Virgin, Ofili sketches a fish-like pattern that announces the outlines of a breast in 2D and boosted it with elephant dung in 3D to enhance and, at the same time, satire its sexual comeliness. It is hard to look away. In No Woman, No Cry, the flame-like pattern that spreads out on Doreen’s chest suggests it could be a dress. But by closing her eyes above to give an introspective tonality to the work, Ofili could as well be suggesting that the flame-like pattern is a spread of sorrow from her heart: their serrated edges dramatically recall the charming realism of Doreen’s eyelashes under a gorgeously blue eyelid. This work which celebrates the triumph of self-possession in the face of ghastly misfortune made Chris Ofili at 30 the youngest winner of the highly coveted Turner prize in its 24-year history; he is also its first black recipient.
The sense of the true is always a kind of conquest, but first, it is a gift. Ofili’s formative years was marked by series of a rapid and wide range moves from one useful context of artistic education to another. From Manchester where he completed his high school to Lancashire where finished his college year; from London where he obtained his BA and MA to Berlin where he went to as an exchange student and to Zimbabwe were he discovered elephant dung, it was as if there was a bottomless hunger to Being he was desperate to satisfy, and a craving to leave Nothingness behind he was bent on fulfilling. His life as a professional painter continued this restive hunger and craving. Never satisfied with the status quo, Ofili moved his studio around London four times in ten years, going from the affluence of West London to the red-light, drug-riddled part of Kings Cross, and then to North London. In 2005, he left the country altogether travelling southwards to the Caribbean. Like an illegal immigrant staying ahead of the law, Ofili is always on the run to defeat the law which is what creativity his essentially about. New visual idioms, themes and new stylistics always prefigure his change of studios. In 1996, when Ofili moved his studio to King’s Cross from Fulham in West London, productions like Foxy Roxy (1997) in Fig 6, Blossom (1997), She (1997), Pimpin’ aint easy (1997), Rodin…The Thinker (1997-1998) became indebted to the pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers of his new neighborhood. Ofili affirms: ‘I wouldn’t have done [them] if I didn’t work in King’s Cross … it was just being here and seeing what was going on in the streets.”
What this indicates tellingly is that the orgasmic explosion of colors in his abstract artworks done in the upper-class district of Fulham, the blaxploitation collages in Afrodizzia and Popcorn series (1995-1996), the works he put on display at Cocaine Orgasm Exhibition in 1995 that feature lives of drug and flesh dealers were all anticipating his move to low-life district of King’s Cross. Again once these defining themes and motif became tedious and ceased featuring in his outputs, it became the cue he was about to move on to another neighborhood to sustain his eclectic experimentation and stylistic innovation. Indeed, in 1999, he moved his studio to the inner city of East London where he began to work on the monkey series.
This piece is culled from Critical Interventions: Journal of African Art History and Visual Culture Volume 7, Issue 1, 2013