Chris Ofili at Tate Britain

Opening tomorrow at Tate Britain in London is an exhibition of the work of Turner Prize-winning artist Chris Ofili. The show brings together a selection of his paintings from the late 1990s, including many featuring his signature use of elephant dung, alongside recent works created in Trinidad, where Ofili now lives.

Blossom, 1997, Private Collection, all images: © Chris Ofili


Opening tomorrow at Tate Britain in London is an exhibition of the work of Turner Prize-winning artist Chris Ofili. The show brings together a selection of his paintings from the 1990s, many featuring his signature use of elephant dung, alongside recent works created in Trinidad, where Ofili now lives.

It is a pleasure to see Ofili’s early works again, which pop as much as they did when they were first exhibited in the Tate, when he won the Turner Prize in 1998. The diverse materials that Ofili incorporates into the paintings – which include glitter, map pins, cut-outs from porn mags, alongside the aforementioned balls of elephant dung – result in noisy, energetic paintings, which also buzz with the music of the hip hop stars that were influencing Ofili at the time.


Third Eye Vision, 1999, courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

While there is much humour in these early works (one of his Captain Shit paintings, featuring a comic book funk superstar, is in the Tate Briain show, as well as Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy, a painting of a giant phallus adorned with a clown face), Ofili didn’t shy away from the politics of race at the time. His work No Woman No Cry, a portrait of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence’s mother Doreen, which includes small photos of her son in the teardrops that spill down her face, remains deeply poignant today. His depiction of women in these works is ambiguous however, with explicit porn imagery shown next to more respectful, and beautiful, images of women such as Blossom (shown top). Ofili’s use of porn imagery, which he says was a direct response to living in King’s Cross in London where he witnessed the street life of prostitutes and pimps, reached its zenith of controversy back in 1999 when Mayor Giuliani complained about his depiction of the Virgin Mary in a painting included in the Sensation exhibition that was showing at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Guiliani threatened to withdraw funding from the Museum for exhibiting the painting, which depicted a black African Mary surrounded by pornographic imagery.

Speaking of the conflicting imagery in his work in an interview with Parkett magazine in 2000, Ofili commented: “It’s about the way the black woman is talked about in hip-hop music. It’s about my religious upbringing, and confusion about that situation. The contradiction of a virgin mother. It’s about the stereotyping of the black female… It’s about beauty. It’s about caricature. And it’s about just being confused.”


Afrodizzia (Second Version), 1996, courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery, London


The controversy appeared to provoke a shift in Ofili’s work. At the centre of the Tate exhibition is a bespoke wooden space that was specially designed by architect David Adjaye to exhibit a series of paintings from 1999-2002 that reveal a more subtle approach, with spiritual overtones. The works show variations of an image of a monkey that is apparently originally based on an Andy Warhol collage, and the presentation in the hushed and low-lit Adjaye space conjures a deliberately reverent atmosphere. These works weren’t without their own controversy, however – when the Tate brought them in 2005, Ofili was a Tate trustee, a connection that caused attention and outrage.

The second half of the show brings together a series created by Ofili for the Venice Biennale in 2003 and a room of his elegant watercolours, which for a period he was making every day. Ten years worth of these watercolours were exhibited at the Studio Museum Harlem in 2005, and the show signalled the end of this process. “When I had that show at the Studio Museum in Harlem, that was the end of it, the celebration,” Ofili explains in an interview in the latest issue of Tate Magazine. “I kind of miss it though, and I would like to replace it with something else. For example, now I keep more sketchbooks and I make drawings of alternative ideas for images that I’m working on, which allows me to develop images with a more automatic, stream-of-consciousness approach. And I’ve been photographing a lot more here [in Trinidad]… I’m seeing so much here, I have to record it because I won’t remember it, and things change so quickly – the light will be different, a tree will have fallen. The leaf that was significant because it was a bluish-green, might be a brownish-green the next time you go back.”


Blue Riders, 2006, courtesy Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin. Photo: Jochen Littkemann


As Ofili implies, Trinidad, where he has lived since 2005, has had a huge influence on his work, as evidenced by the final two rooms of paintings at the Tate. Nature, and especially the light in Trinidad, have taken over from the urban sprawl and hip hop references that played such a strong part in his early works. Consequently perhaps, Ofili’s more recent paintings are more pared back and subtle – while some retain the bright colours seen throughout his career, the layers of extra materials (including the elephant dung) have disappeared, replaced instead by an interest in the mythology of the island and a more intense investigation of spiritual ideas. “When you live somewhere like this,” Ofili explains in the Tate Magazine interview, “you become aware of different types of energies. The place itself has an undeniable energy. The force of nature is overwhelming.”


The Raising of Lazarus, 2007, courtesy David Zwirner, New York


Ofili’s mid-career survey at Tate Britain reveals how much his work has evolved since he burst onto the contemporary art scene in the 1990s, and his most recent works hint at unpredictable and exciting developments yet to come. Chris Ofili opens tomorrow and will remain at Tate Britain until May 16. For more info, visit the Tate website, here.

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