Furthermore, in The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), the leaves that collect to form the hem of the Virgin’s garment would later persist as the pastoral motifs in the very large intensely alluring Garden of Eden works he collected together as Within Reach (2003)at the Venice Biennale. Two years later, he eventually packed up his studio and emigrated to Port of Spain in the Caribbean in a bid to open himself fully to the influence of the vegetation of the tropics. Ofili was not just painting an idyllic tropics, he is above all, projecting what it was like to live in it. Therefore what one sees or experiences in each of Ofili’s works is both the work in itself and the premonition of works and deeds to come.
In the Upper Room (1999-2002), Ofili presents an ambitious marriage of art and architecture. Thirteen paintings are housed in a spacious room and lit only by spotlights coming down from an invisible source in the ceiling on each of the paintings. Any space beyond these paintings is in stark darkness. To dramatise the entrance to the room, there is an anticipatory visual silence, a long, dark, ascending passage. It is meant to slow the viewer down, to increase the heartbeat and to coach the eye about what is coming. According to David Adjaye, the architect, “the reason to do this was to reverse the convention of the delivery by turning the very act of entering the gallery to encounter the work as part of the whole experience.”
While the Bible documents Jesus and his twelve apostles instituting the Eucharist, the holiest of the sacraments according to Catholic theology, in Upper Room, Ofili features Mono Oro and his twelve fellow monkeys holding up a chalice each in the same position while elephant dung featuring as the Holy Eucharist is suspended at the same distance above each chalice (This attest to Ofili’s growing confidence in the narrative use of dung, a leap from its decorative use in No Woman, No Cry). Except for Mono Oro, the chief of the monkey brotherhood, each of the monkeys is similar in bulk. Each has the same expression on its face and the same length of tail coiling in the same pattern like a halo over their heads. Each monkey outlined in bold lines is an order superimposed on the chaos of lines and curves denoting the jungle in the background. Light beams cast identical shadows on the floor in front of each painting. Though conceptually these paintings are a visual correlative of a biblical event, however, their over-determined synchronicity, intransigence to variations resemble more the board meeting of Lehman Brothers unaware it was the last day of economic boom than the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with his apostles.
Unlike artworks from his earlier monkey series [Monkey Magic – Sex, Money and Drugs (1999), Dead Monkey – Sex, Money and Drugs (2000), Monkey Magic –Sex, Money and Drugs -Flip (2001)] that are executed with great artistry, good sense of composition and color balance, the Upper Room paintings do not persuade viewers as a great work of art. The photographic realism of the tiny colorful flowers on the monkey’s waistcoat set on a white background in Monkey Magic – Sex, Money and Drugs in Fig 8 has given way to chaotic and blurry use of color in the Upper Room series. Ofili says he intended to paint one Mono, only to discover he had embarked on a project that he lacked the will to stop. He went on and on in delirium until he arrived at 13 Monos. Compulsion and automatism are notable characteristics of the artistic process; they are not in themselves artistic virtues. That what comes naturally ought to be naturally welcomed on canvas is a fallacy which even the surrealists would find too extreme to accept. The raw at whatever speed it pours forth must be subordinated to imagination and intelligence if it is to have an artistic impact. So why would Ofili elect to envelop this series of paintings in a serious and solemn atmosphere and preface them with an elaborate aura of preparation with an effect, as David Adjaye noted, analogous to many religious experience? If its goal was to scandalize human expectations or to reveal the hollowness of hype and emptiness of the symbols and brands that compel our religious worship, then Upper Room succeeds in great measure.
In Within Reach (2003) an exhibition presented at the Venice Biennale, Chris Ofili repeats the alliance between art and architecture. He uses the pavilion housing his paintings as the dark context for an amazing fluency of love and life. The paintings like an album depict a couple in love. They hug, kiss and Ofili superbly captures the romantic electricity between them in the vegetation in which they are ensconced. Unlike the Upper Room where the spaciousness of the room is a counterpoint to the oppressive use of space in each of the thirteen works on display, in Within Reach, the room space is large as is the headroom and other territories on each canvas unoccupied by the passionate couple. Whereas in other the Self phase paintings, the average ratio of the unoccupied territories, that is, the ratio of space left unused by the portrait to the size of the painting, is 22.1%. Here in these pastoral paintings the average, the average ratio is 67 %. The figures in the Self phase may seem claustrophobic, here in the pastoral series, they bask in the freedom of nature. Ofili has been accepted into the establishment as a talent to reckon with.
Because of Ofili’s indifference to the use of ghost pavements of linear perspective which usually adds realism of depth and volume to landscape painting, each of these idyllic scenes should have jumped at the viewer had they been situated in a conventional museum. However, because of collaboration with architect David Adjaye, it is the viewer who feels transported from the hypnotic calm of the installation’s dark surroundings into the transcendent sensuous allure of a starry night in the pastoral paradise that the paintings depict. To sustain the utopian tenor of these works, Ofili abstains from a narrative or structural use of dung, restricting himself only to its ornamental value as though they might constitute a defiling encroachment of reality.
However, Ofili’s purpose is more compelling. Chosen to represent Britain in the Vienna Biennale, the first time for a black, he displayed artworks titled Afro Love and Unity, Afro Apparition, Afro Jezebel, Afro Love and Envy, Afro Red Web, Afromantics, Afro Sunrise, Afronirvana, Union Black, and Triple Beam Dreamer. By substituting the red, white and blue colors of the British imperial flag with the red, black, and green chromatic dissonance of Marcus Garvey’s return-to-Africa flag, Ofili is not substituting one nationalist vanity for another. Rather, he is suggesting that the utopianism of these pastoral scenes is as sensuously attractive as the dangerous allure of nationalistic vanities, race provincialisms and other abiding contraptions of divisions that poison our common humanity.
Instead of architecture supplying the dark room housing the paintings like in Upper Room and Within Reach, in the paintings that mark Ofili’s transition to the Blue phase (2005-2010), the darkness is painted into the works inch by inch. A rider mounts a horse (Night Watcher); entwined lovers emote on wooden cliffs (Lover’s Rock-Guilt), thick vegetation has ambiguity lurking behind it (Strangers from Paradise), and musicians play their instruments in reckless abandon (Iscariot Blues). These paintings, Ofili submits, document his direct observations of the ordinary at nights in the Caribbean. They are not totally visible pictures neither are they fully dark. They are echoes. Dour, watery and impressionistic, they eschew dialectics, intensity, sharpness and veritable details big or small. While the masters of Impressionism deprived art of photographic details, they compensated with unusual visual angles, colorful zest, inclusion of movement, suggestions of the passage of time and depiction of light in its changing qualities, Ofili’s echo impressionism obstinately refuses to offer any arresting compensation.
The darkness that has taken hold of every inch of his canvas in this new phase is not only physical it is also metaphoric. The abstraction Ofili weaned himself of completely by the climax of the Dung phase has started to make an ominous comeback. In The Healer (2008), all around is steeped in darkness save for the yellow light streaming from the mystic’s mouth at the middle of the painting. The lines that make up the mystic’s face form prayerful hands that metamorphoses into abstract lines and dissolves into vacant zones of darkness dully spreads out.
The darkness on the canvas is not only physical, it conceptual. In Iscariot Blues (2006), a self-assured man is intimately picking sweet tunes from the strings of a banjo while another man behind is fanning him regally. In their front, a bulky man hangs on a noose from a stake formed out of the wooden platform the musician is sitting on. The surrounding leaves and flowers are blooming and actively indifferent too to the suffering man. Ofili says he wanted to document another scene he found fascinating in the Caribbean but he discovered the right side of the picture frame had too much space so as an afterthought he inserted a lynched man. Whereas, had this composition being well-executed with all the gravity of his faculties demonstrated in previous phases, it bears potentials to rise up to the level of Goya’s Disasters of War, Francesca’s The Flagellation of Christ, Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Even as Ofili’s painting stands, it is still powerful in eloquently disclosing the cruelty behind calmness, the frightful perversity behind composure and politeness, and the special talent of contemporary artists to look the other way when horror is so close by.
The darkness in the works comprising this Blue Phase is not only physical, it is also semantic. Even the different interviews Ofili grants during the new phase now strangely accommodate alarming revelations: ‘The move to Trinidad was about trying to be in another place that would allow me to step back from myself, to approach each new day with less strategic defense’… ‘I’m more comfortable with that’… ‘I work through a painting by doing less and less’… ‘Accept that you’ve got certain limitations and work with them. Not that you’re disappointed in what to do, but you know that there’s always room for more. And I think that’s the feeling that I’ve tried to adjust to, that you can’t do it all.’ These contrasts to his statements during the fiery Dung phase: ‘It is about doing the maximum’…’the Virgin Mary was an excuse for pornography in the homes of those holy priests and God fearers’… ‘Dung is a ready-made from an elephant’s arse. It dries out and it’s ready to go…. ‘And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee (Ezekiel, 25:17).’
In this Blue phase, Ofili welcomes his own spiritual and creative pacification by consenting to an entirely new visual idiom radically independent of the vocabularies and metaphysical imperatives of earlier phases. Dots and dung are gone. Creative intensity has given way to decorum and etiquette. Multi-layered canvases have been replaced with plain canvases. Outlines now enclose color. There is a great deal of good-boy politeness guiding his brush movements. The paper collages from the black world that spark inter-media significations have also been decommissioned. Chris Ofili now signs his name at on the paintings at the corners and hangs them conventionally on the walls unlike before when he propped them on elephant dung and set them against the gallery and museum walls in poses that recall the humiliating roadside frisking of black men by the British police which were commonplace during his formative years. His ruthless will to assert and to differ, his exciting sense of the dangerous, his physical attack on the senses, his pertinent challenges to conventional pieties and the bravura contentiousness that were his creative signature have now drained away. Hence the darkness is in his new artworks is not only physical, it is symptomatic of creative faculties.
Save for the Picassoan ambiguity of Douen Dance (2007), or the chromatic incantation of The Raising of Lazarus (2007) and Confession of Lady Chancellor(2007), had this Blue phase happened before the Dung phase, the artist Chris Ofili would still be struggling to find fame and a firm footing in the history of art.
But not all is lost. There are still some hangovers of his revolutionary creativity. In 2006 alone, he produced over 40 paintings. Also, Ofili still retains his dogged refusal to see a complete angle to any initiative. As a painter who produces artworks in series, he is always inducing visual possibilities, reallocating meanings through recontextualizations. All full stops are premature and limiting, his works insist. There is still an array of vast possibilities that full stops exclude. And it is always the excluded that comes around to unsettle the status quo. In the Captain Shit series done during the Dung phase, Ofili takes an image of Captain Shit and paints several versions of him, from the hubris of a man whose significance is not acknowledged in Captain Shit And The Legend Of The Black Stars (1996) to the emphatic erection that Ofili adorns the Captain with in The Naked Soul Of Captain Shit And The Legend Of The Black Stars (1999) that suggests the terrible boredom that lies at the other side of triumph. After three paintings, he took up the captain again like a stubborn nightmare, till he arrived at the hunger of a man hollowed out by the demands of fame in The Naked Spirit of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars (2000). In the Blue Phase, Ofili appropriates Malick Sidibé’s iconic photograph of a dancing couple in Noel Nuit (1963) and holds an endless discourse with it producing Douen Dance (2007) and Christmas Eve (2007). He even inserts the couple again into a cocoon in Lazarus in Dream (2007); this painting itself commences another of his set of works, the Lazarus series.
Ofili has the Self series, She series, Abstract series, Monkey series, The Popcorn series, The Watercolours, The Blue series, The Pastoral series, and The Centripetal series that includes 7 Bitches Tossing Their Pussies Before The Divine Dung (1995) and Third Eye Vision (1999). His works are his efforts to surmount social decay and mental dissolution through the concept of eternal reoccurrence manifested in the series. This is unlike works of other contemporary artists who tend to present bric-a-brac installations or weird stunts and worse still, ascribe high-minded meanings to them. The meaning a work of art makes possible cannot be the sole measure by which we justify that work of art. Rather it is the intensity of a work’s creativity that justifies the meaning it makes possible.
When Picasso painted a beautiful woman, he rendered her unbecoming, even downright ugly so that the painting itself would be beautiful. In Seven Brides for Seven Bros (2006), inspired by the movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers which itself is modeled on the legend of The Rape of the Sabine Women, Ofili did a series of nude women in different erotic poses. They are meant for seven men whose names are the titles of each work. The women seem to take pleasure in their own objectification. Though the men they are meant for are not drawn, insights into their identities and personalities are revealed through each woman. Bro Ephraim for instance. His bride’s fresh, shy face and the prepubescent pointiness of her conical breast suggest Ephraim is an aspiring pedophile. However, the bride is pleased and so are the viewers since the work is the most beautiful in the series. Perversity was one of the muses of modernism and by engendering beautiful outputs, modernism was very effective in showcasing the noble in man.
Ofili also retains his preoccupation with the self in this new phase of work. Though he attempted to reject the proliferation of explicit self-portraits with Shithead (1993), all his subsequent works are still declarations on behalf of the self in its surplus manifestations. Be it monkey, man or woman, Ofili does not draw more than a single figure on canvas. Even in paintings of the pastoral series or the Noel Nuit discourses, the couple therein aspires to monolithic fusion of a single identity through hugs, kisses and dance. To achieve a semblance of sociality, he either uses paper collages or groups individual works together like in Upper Room, Seven Brides for Seven Bros (2006), and the one hundred and eighty one watercolours that constitute Afromuses (1995 – 2005). Ofili tries to run away from the self but he was always retuning to it in its florid variations. Perhaps this is because the self is the net result of his love for absolute solitude on the one hand, and his desire to be free from provincialism of place and style that this solitude engenders. In the art of fugue inspired by romantic self-obsession, Bach used his name to establish all the series of counterpoints that made up the work. There were dashing and tepid sequences, terrific inversions and wildly inventive transitions and beginnings. The music almost mandates a return to origins, an eternal recurrence of a self confronted by the circular nature of all things. It seems, as T. S. Eliot noted, all travel has the ultimate goal of returning the traveler to the place he started from, to know it for the first time. In January 2010, Ofili left the Caribbean and returned to England to begin anew.
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 (a name which according to its Nigerian origins means he-who-has-come-to-stay) was born in a year that rocked the world and defined a generation through the intersection of arts and activism. Still in mid-career, he has revamped the British art scape and reclaimed honor for the canvas by persecuting it with queries, strange media, witty parodies and an edgy lust for non-conformism. His elephant dung, flamboyant in its decadence, is more delicious and inspiring than many contemporary installations littering various museums and galleries. At the end of his Self, Dung and Blue phases (1993 – 2010), Ofili has executed over 500 large paintings, innumerable watercolors, sculptures, drawings and illustrations, and has participated in over one hundred and forty seven art exhibitions all over the world (except in Africa), nineteen of them solo shows. And he was just over 40 years old then.
This piece is culled from Critical Interventions: Journal of African Art History and Visual Culture Volume 7, Issue 1, 2013