By Nika Sarabi.
The viewing experience of Chris Ofili’s work is something akin to being smacked in the face by a rainbow. Although his style has mutated over the years, the graphic quality and vivid colors in his paintings evoke the divine through the simple language of the mundane.
Ofili uses allusions of hip hop culture, Blaxploitation movies, porn and the bible with media that is equally as variant: paint, map pins, glitter and the infamous elephant shit. He is highly in tune with the human spirit—that which animates us, the unsaid inner being—as well as the tangible world around us. His skill lies in bringing the two together. The mythical, physical, and sometimes political co-exist on a particularly flat but intensely layered picture plane.
The Holy Virgin Mary 1996.
Part of Ofili’s process includes making quick watercolors that are always completed in one sitting. He goes back to these for reference and inspiration.i These pieces seem to become characters within his richly layered narratives. Beyond the biblical and his imagination, Ofili also draws from human experience. His painting No Woman No Cry is based on Doreen Lawrence, a Jamaican born British immigrant, who lost her son Stephen to a racial attack which was believed to have been investigated incompetently.ii This image engages us not because of its unique context, but because it emotes the pain of all such injustice that has happened before and continues to happen today. It becomes the story of many martyrs.
No Woman No Cry 1998.
The Upper Room is an installation co-designed with architect David Adjaye. Originally at Victoria Miro, later purchased (with great controversy) by the Tate. The entrance of the installation is a long darkened hallway, it was designed with the intention of “slowing yourself down and emptying your luggage as you enter the space”. Once in, the room is not museum white with tags on the walls. It is paneled with dark wood, only the paintings are lit. Ofili created the atmosphere for people to “get out of themselves and into the painting”. There are twelve paintings of monkeys in his signature style—dung and all. Six on each side of the room, with the thirteenth main monkey centered perpendicular to them, at the head of the table so to speak. The thirteenth monkey is golden with a giant elephant turd floating over his head like a halo, cluing us into his specialness. The Upper Room or Cenacle, is where the Last Supper was said to have taken place. Ofili has recreated this classic setting on his terms. In his version, we the viewers are in the middle where the dinner table would be. We become interacting parts of his greater whole, monkeys and all.
Chris Ofili and David Adjaye, “The Upper Room” (2002)
His sculpture The Annunciation, which by definition is “the announcement of the Incarnation by the angel Gabriel to Mary (Luke 1:26–38).”i The sculpture depicts a black potbellied angel who is conjoining with a golden woman. It looks like a more intense version of sex where even limbs are the focal point of the creative act. This is another instance of Ofili taking the myth and throwing its realness via his imagery into our face, leading us into a quiet contemplation.
Ofili states that religion and its belief system were very important parts of art, then, modernism swept in and separated the two.i He, like the great Renaissance painters, has taken the biblical and made it relevant to our twisted times. Michelangelo brought God and Adam on the same plane with the same importance, where they can be close enough to almost touch fingers. God went from our scary domineering father to being an entity that works with us and that we can commune with. Ofili is further adding to our spiritual evolution, by adding shit and glitter he is playing with the myth of religion and making it something that is more a connection of mind, body and our surroundings. In our current world, where everything has become so far removed and disconnected from our natural original state, he is bringing our natures back in touch with each other, that which we have created, the shit that comes out of us, the stories of the human spirit and emotion that bring us together. He makes the disgusting precious and gives the sacred a sense of mortality, it’s a re-balance that we are desperately in need of.
“I want to know less about where I’m going and embrace that more. I think that area, that abyss or that unknown area was actually more… I was more afraid of that because it suggested less control. I’m feeling good, there’s less of a fear of things going wrong. There’s more evidence of my process, the creative process of thinking and reacting and seeing and mark-making. There’s more evidence of that in the work and there’s less neurosis.”
True belief is being able to let go and have enough trust in whatever you believe in to lead you to your highest potential. I suppose Ofili’s greatest feat is letting himself live in that place, where time, preconceptions and worries are irrelevant. A place where only the truly spiritual know, it is without description; where being simply is. He is lucky enough to have found a way to record it. Our only job is to be clear enough to enter.
Nika Sarabi is a contributing writer for by such and such.
An Artist’s Gallery of Ideas, New York Times, 2005.
Andrew Dixon Interviews Chris Ofili.
Chris Ofili at Crowne Point Press.