Chris Ofili is best known for his mix of religious and secular elements in work that complicates distinctions between the sacred and the profane. While his paintings and works on paper often comprise an assortment of materials—from paint, gold leaf, resin, glitter and map pins to elements of collage—it is the artist's use of elephant dung that has been the cause of much debate.Read More
Ofili's use of the material in The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), along with his depiction of a Black Madonna surrounded by pictures of female genitalia sourced from adult magazines, became the subject of a large controversy. Following its inclusion in the Brooklyn Museum leg of the Sensation exhibition (1999), the work incited condemnation from New York City's then-mayor Rudy Giuliani as well as a series of protests in the United States.
Back home across the Atlantic, Ofili—a member of the Young British Artists (YBAs) alongside figures such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas—was no stranger to controversy, having established himself amidst a milieu of Britain's most contentious art-world agitators. And yet in spite of the controversies Ofili was awarded the Turner Prize in 1998 as a mark of his contribution to contemporary art. He was the first Black artist to win the prestigious award. In 2003 Ofili was chosen to represent Great Britain at the 50th Venice Biennale in Italy, where he mounted 'Within Reach'—a suite of paintings set in an immersive kaleidoscopic space designed by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye.
The artist's earlier works—produced during and soon after his student years at Chelsea College of Arts and the Royal College of Art in London—were intricately patterned, vibrantly multi-coloured and textured abstract compositions. His later work, produced from the mid-1990s onwards, marked the creation of his now-signature style of figurative painting, fusing influences from a variety of sources including religious iconography, 'Blaxploitation' cinema, jazz, hip hop, comics, African cave painting (inspired by a trip to Zimbabwe in 1992) and the work of Romantic poet William Blake. Ofili deployed this diverse array of source material alongside his heady mix of media to create complex and challenging images of Blackness in both its contemporary and historical manifestations. As an artist of Nigerian ancestry and a member of the African diaspora, his forays into the intricacies of identity can be read as both a personal meditation and a political commentary.
Following his move to Trinidad in 2005, Ofili created the 'Blue Rider' series, named after the short-lived 20th-century German Expressionist group. Much like its namesake, the series is a synthesis of visual, musical and folk art influences. Ofili's large blue and silver paintings of this period marked a significant change in his practice, seeing him adopt a darker, more pared-back palette, evoking dreamlike scenes set in the moonlit landscapes of his new Caribbean environment.
Chris Ofili's works are represented in prominent collections internationally, including the British Museum, London; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate, London; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Since 2005, Ofili has been living and working between Port of Spain, Trinidad; London; and Brooklyn.
Tendai John Mutambu | Ocula | 2017