Close Look

The Double-Sided Spirituality of Chris Ofili's Art

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The Double-Sided Spirituality of Chris Ofili's Art
The artist Chris Ofili

Chris Ofili makes seductively beautiful art that has provoked reactions ranging from burning, over-the-top rage to multimillion-dollar sales. The 45 year-old British artist, who is now based in Trinidad, earned his first lively round of art world chatter as a member of the group designated the Young British Artists (YBAs for short—you've heard of them: think Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Rachel Whiteread) who revitalized a waning British art scene in the late-1990s. The YBA's gained quick notoriety through the traveling group exhibition "Sensation," showcasing works from the advertising magnate Charles Saatchi's collection.

Ofili's work in that show, a painting titled The Holy Virgin Mary, was basically what it sounds like—a 20th-century updating of the Madonna—albeit with two important innovations: the Ofili's Virgin was black, and her bared breast was made from a mound of elephant dung. On top of that, Ofili used cut-out images of female genitalia from pornographic magazines to make butterfly-like figures that float in the painting's background, like unholy cherubim.

When the show toured from London to the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, this artwork quickly became the center of one of the most heated art controversies of the 20th century, earning Ofili the scorn of the Catholic church, a place on conservative writer and political pundit Bernard Goldberg's list of the "100 People Who Are Screwing Up America," and instant art world fame. Was Ofili simply going for shock value with his choice of materials? Sort of—but as in most art scandals, there's more to this, and the rest of Ofili's bombastic oeuvre, than first meets the eye.

CONTROVERSIAL ART FOR CONTROVERSIAL TIMES
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Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996

Regardless of the many multifaceted components that make up Ofili's paintings, when The Holy Virgin Mary was shown in Brooklyn, it so offended New York's powerful Catholic lobby that it incited former New York mayor Rudi Giuliani to bring a court case against the museum. (Giuliani, calling the work "disgusting," attempted to withdraw the museum's annual funding, and even threatened to evict the entire institution; he didn't succeed.) You might see Ofili's use of elephant dung and pornographic collage as purposefully blasphemous, indiscriminately desecrating Christianity's holiest icon with profane materials, but that would be a misreading of the artist's thoughtful, highly personal, and—ironically—highly spiritual oeuvre. In fact, the complex mix of religious iconography, racial themes, and popular culture is exactly what earned Ofili the coveted Turner Prize in 1998 (just before his 30th birthday) and led him to represent Great Britain at the 2003 Venice Biennale. 

Born in Manchester, England, Ofili attended the Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College of Art in London before beginning to show his work at the north London Saatchi Gallery. He quickly gained notoriety in the international art world for work that collapsed the divide between the sacred and the profane, taking aesthetic inspiration from his African heritage (Ofili's parents emigrated to London from Nigera) as well as the European branch of African culture as filtered through centuries of colonialism and subjugation: gangster rap, blacksploitation movies, the caricature of the 'black pimp,' and so on.afromuse

Afro Muses, 1995–2000

Growing up in London in the 1980s, with the vocal presence of racist political groups like the ultraconservative National Front, left an indelible impression on the young artist and lead him to ruminate on the state of British society in the 20th century, and how his identity as a black man was subject to forces beyond his control. In his earliest work, this manifested as a desire to combine beauty and ugliness, and to directly interrogate the uncomfortable aspects of race in Western society. In works like No Woman No Cry (1998), for example, Ofili directly references the racially motivated murder of south east London teenager Stephen Lawrence five years earlier. Many of Ofili's works are concerned with the aesthetic presentation of back identities. His Afro-Muses series, completed between 1995 and 2005, are pseudo-portraits that combine remembered faces and expressions with distinctly '70s-style hairdos and clothing. 

YES, IT'S ELEPHANT POO
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Blossom, 1997

Despite the fervor around his most notorious painting, as critics since have pointed out, Ofili's use of elephant dung was actually influenced by a trip the artist made to Zimbabwe on a scholarship in 1992. Ofili simply wanted to bring a ubiquitous part of the African landscape back to England with him, to incorporate into his artwork. (Later, he used dung from the elephant pen at a London zoo.) It's worth noting, as well, that elephants (and, yes, their dung) are considered sacred in many African cultures. 

Ofili first used the contentious material in a piece called Shit Sale (1993) in London. On the streets of London and Berlin, he presented balls of dung laid out on a piece of African-inspired fabric from department-store designer Laura Ashley, like a peddler selling handbags or jewelry, a commentary on the scores of young African immigrants who illegally sell such wares on those city's streets. (This work was also inspired by David Hammons 1983 Bliz-aard Ball Sale, where he sold snowballs in a similar fashion.) 

The dung balls soon found their way into Ofili's painting, a development that the artist considered exciting enough to take out a quarter-page ad in art magazine Frieze that simply consisted of the words "ELEPHANT SHIT." The art world was intrigued. In Ofili’s paintings, dung is either placed in clumps on the canvas's surface or in balls on the gallery floor, used as mini-plinths to prop his canvases up, with the title of the work pressed into them with map-pins and glitter. Dung, however, is hardly the defining feature of Ofili's work (not to mention the fact that the artist hasn't used the stuff in his work since 2003). His most celebrated compositions are meticulously executed and densely variegated, built up in rippling layers of paint, resin, glitter, paper cutouts, and ink. 

THE SACRED AND THE PROFANE
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The Upper Room as installed at Victoria Miro Gallery, London, 2002

As a kid, Ofili attended a Catholic school and was an altar boy, and the incorporeality of Christian mythology and iconography remains highly influential to the artist to this day in both the narratives depicted in his paintings and the effervescent materials he uses. (It also makes the accusations of blasphemy leveraged against him seem pretty ridiculous.) Ofili has made an entire body of work that combined the Biblical story of the betrayal of Jesus with Kandinsky’s Blaue Reiter series (Iscariot Blues, 2006). His celebrated installation The Upper Room (2002), originally shown at London's Victoria Miro Gallery, emulates the interior of a Catholic chapel, consisting of 13 monumental paintings that each depicts a monkey as one of the figures at the Last Supper, half-subsumed beneath the canvas’s gilded surfaces. It doesn't take much digging to see that Ofili's work plumbs the rich depths of religion's aesthetic and narrative power, rather than making shallow, cynical commentary.

Ofili has also made work that's deeply influenced by literature, including Ovid's epic poem Metamorphoses (Ovid – Diana & Actaeon, 2012), stemming from a project wherein the artist designed the set and costumes for a ballet made in collaboration with London's National Gallery and its Royal Ballet that was based on Titian's work. He's has even created his own mythologies—his Captain Shit is a black superhero-cum-superstar who has appeared in his paintings since 1996.

MODERNISM BACKWARDS
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Afro Sunrise, 2002–2003

Ofili is, at heart, a modernist; his compositions are concerned as much with figuration, color, and texture as they are with identity and mythology. In a way, as critic Charles Darwent has written, Ofili "seems to be reliving 20th-century modernism backwards," cycling through clear formal periods wherein his compositions have become more stripped-down, foregoing the dense layering and collaged elements of earlier works ,and often focusing on a limited color palette—including the red, green, and black of Marcus Garvey's pan-African flag in the series of paintings he began in 2000 and showed in concert in an immersive environment at the 2003 Venice Biennale's British Pavilion. The artist has also expanded, in his more recent work, into working in large-scale sculpture.

annunciationThe Annunciation, 2006

Ofili moved his home and studio to Trinidad in 2005, and his latest work has been inspired by the rolling tropical landscapes he found there. Regardless of how his influences and materials may change, Ofili's distinctive style is always clear. In the end, there's no arguing—all controversy aside—with his prodigious talent. 

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