Chris Ofili is a Manchester-born artist who currently lives in Trinidad. He has worked with a variety of materials- paint, resin, glitter, pins, elegant dung- to create multi-media paintings and sculptures. His works, presented in a beautiful survey at the New Museum, deal with black identity in contemporary society. These works have a distinctly layered quality. Even his paintings appear three-dimensional. Ofili’s influences- the Renaissance, his new home in Trinidad- also manifest themselves in his art, layered upon one another to create the final evocative image.
In the first room, an entire wall is covered in small frames. Within each frame is a watercolor and ink portrait of a black figure. The collection is entitled “Afromuses.”
These characters are muses for his larger works. For ten years, Ofili worked on one portrait per morning, before starting on a larger painting. These paintings are variations on a theme. All the females are depicted from a frontal position, while the males are shown in profile. All figures are cut off below the chest. Yet their clothing, jewels, and expressions depict tremendous variety. Part of this variety may be attributed to the nature of watercolor. Watercolor on paper tends to spread rather quickly, resulting in a degree of chance with each brushstroke. The images are contained by their existence within a repetitive pattern, but allowed to blossom with individuality within each frame. The result is a brilliant celebration of black culture and beauty on a wide scale.
Beside “Afromuses” is a completely different piece of art, a sculpture entitled “Annunciation.”
Here we are presented with a visual representation of the story of Annunciation from the Gospel of Saint Luke. In this story, the angel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary to tell her that she will conceive the son of God. The drama of this encounter as depicted in Ofili’s sculpture recalls the dramatic depictions of the Annunciation painted by Fra Angelico during the Renaissance. Ofili takes the sensational elements of Angelico’s paintings and merges them with his own aesthetic and social commentary. He paints Gabriel black, roughly texturizing his skin. The Virgin is left smooth, gold, and highly reflective. Their limbs intertwine sensually, even merging in places where it looks like they could be anatomically connected. A strange circle of metal extends behind her, emphasizing the sexual overtones of their embrace. “Ascension” is aesthetically breathtaking- the juxtaposition of materials pleases the eye. And yet, it is also disconcerting. The imposition of sexuality to the story of the Virgin Mary removes the splendor of religiosity somewhat, and grounds the sculpture in some kind of realistic truth. While Christianity is certainly not attacked with this sculpture, its fantastic elements are addressed.
In the next room, I was awed by Ofili’s stunning “No Woman No Cry.”
This portrait was created using acrylic, oil, paper collage, glitter, map pins, and elephant dung (yes you read that right). Careful shading with acrylic and oil illustrate this woman’s face and body. Map pins and glitter decorate her, and give her depth. A piece of solid elephant dung forms the necklace around her neck, and the stands upon which the painting rests. A beautifully beaded border cross-hatches over her figure and onto the background. Yet the significance of this painting lies not in its aesthetic, beautiful as it is. The woman in “No Woman No Cry” is Doreen Lawrence, the mother of a boy who was murdered in a racially-fueled attack in South London in 1993. When the killers were not convicted, Doreen became a public voice, adamant about changing the institutionally racist Metropolitan Police Service. Though the killers were eventually brought to justice (20 years later), the event still resonated with Ofili, as well as the rest of the world. Ofili was struck by Doreen’s sorrow. The depths of her sadness, despite the social action that she stimulated, inspired Ofili to portray her sadness in a way that would humanize the story in the headlines and remind people that a valuable life was lost.
Her beaded tears reach her shoulders and then evaporate. It is as if she is has just started to cry every time one looks at this artwork. She raises her head to be strong, yet closes her eyes instinctively. I find the saddest part of this entire work to be the necklace. The heaviness of this “stone” seems to weigh down her entire body. It also draws attention to her heart, which seems to be bleeding with red paint. Doreen bears an aura of dignity in the golden halo around her head. She is oblivious to it, concerned only with the matter at hand: the heart-breaking loss of her son.
The last room I went into was an unconventional space. The walls were painted with purple flowers and colorful paintings were hung on top in a circle.
I was particularly drawn to a painting entitled “Lime Bar,” created with oil on linen.
This painting depicts a lime bar in Trinidad, Ofili’s new home. It is clear how taken he is with his new paradise. The colors are vibrant and geometric dots of paint resemble confetti. The figures are framed by an abstract border of this confetti on a black background. The scene looks like a torn postcard, or as if the viewer is peering through a deformed keyhole. It leads one to wonder why these bar-goers are depicted through an asymmetrical lens. Are we meant to feel distanced from them? The black border also resembles the curtains of a stage. Perhaps Ofili is portraying the stereotype of the frivolity of island life as a theatrical production. By abiding by these stereotypes yet placing them on a stage, Ofili confronts the misconception that island life is merely what it seems on the surface. This is conjecture, but it is a thought worth entertaining. I am also intrigued by the choice to paint his characters entirely black, wearing black, and in the same exact tone as the background. Perhaps Ofiili is emphasizing the color of their skin. Or maybe they are meant to be silhouettes at a particular time of day. I find the uniform coloring of these figures evocative, but cannot quite put my finger on why. Regardless, this painting is electric, and I found myself standing in front of it for ten minutes, attempting to puzzle these questions out. Feel free to disagree, or come up with your own interpretation.
In this same room I fell in love with these two paintings. “Ovid- Desire” and “Confession (Lady Chancellor)” are equally mesmerizing.
“Night and Day” will be showing at the New Museum until January 25th. I urge you to check out Chris Ofili’s masterful works. There are several paintings I was unable to photograph due to low battery on my phone… if you ever find yourself blogging I highly recommend charging your phone BEFORE spending the day at the museum. These, as well as the images pictured here, are truly remarkable artworks in terms of their technique and social connotations. I left feeling inspired to do some mixed-media art of my own! Stay tuned…
xoxo, Chloe <3