CAMERON SHAW REVEALS THE ARTIST CHRIS OFILI
BEHIND THE MID-CAREER RETROSPECTIVE EXHIBITION
AT THE TATE BRITAIN
I met Chris Ofili in 2005, when I was working at his New York gallery. He had
just moved from London to Trinidad with his family, and I was inspired by his
warmth and openness in describing his adventure—with all its promises and
uncertainties. At that time, I knew little of the place, its people and its myths.
Over the next few years, I would learn through images—not hasty snapshots
but rather rich, glowing canvases. I saw Trinidad through the eyes of Ofili, a
painter who was not only discovering the land and culture for himself, but
also growing and changing as an artist.
Ofili first garnered attention in the 1990s for dazzling works that re-imagined
the icon, conflating the Western giants of painting with the newly emerged
image of the hip-hop superstar. Keenly mining pornography and theology
alike, the British-Nigerian artist confronted stereotypes of blackness with a
ferocity and humor seldom seen, not just in the museum, but in any context.
For the next decade, he perfected a style, relying on beadlike dots of acrylic
paint, which he borrowed from Zimbabwean cave paintings, to create
dense and seductive works that seemingly transformed canvas into stained
glass. As a final flourish, he perched the effulgent beauties on elephant dung,
as a nod to African ritual practices. Represented by his anti-hero ˝Captain
Shit,˝ his black Virgin Mary, and tantalizing Eve in her garden, this Ofili is fully
present in his first mid-career survey, currently at Londons Tate Museum.
There is also another Ofili on view, however, that fewer will recognize.
Ofilis work from the last five years realizes a dramatic shift in form and spirit;
the pointillist markings are gone, along with the clumps of dung. The first
paintings the artist showed at his Berlin gallery after the 2005 move were
a deep, almost monochromatic indigo. Known as the Blue Rider series,
these works are as much an homage to the eponymous group of German
Expressionists as to the inky island nights. Far from the city lights of London,
Ofili explored the gleam of the moon and ostensibly the darkness inherent
to moments of great personal change. When he re-emerged with his Devil’s
Pie exhibition at David Zwirner in 2007, the paintings blazed with new, almost
delirious color. It was there, in New York, that I learned the slope of Trinidads
Lady Chancellor hill in the bend of a temptresss back. I imagined the strum
of a traditional Parang musicians cuatro and glimpsed the eternal dance of
the Douen, the folkloric ghosts of the islands unbaptized children.
The Tate exhibition includes many of these works and several never
seen before paintings that may alternately confound and enchant. The
works from 2008 and 2009 are gorgeously layered; they feel precarious and
Ofilis help, Im beginning to understand its magic n Chris Ofili, Jan. 27-May16,
dreamlike—a figure balancing atop a precipice or floating on the wings of
one of the islands plentiful avian species. Ive yet to visit Trinidad, but with
Tate Britain, Millbank, London, England + 44 20 7887 8888 tate.org.uk and
Chris Ofili, Contributions by David Adjaye, Thelma Golden, Okwui Enwezor,
Peter Doig, Kara Walker and Cameron Shaw, Rizzoli, rizzoli.com