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Essay

THE WORK OF British-born artist Chris Ofili, Turner Prize–winner in 1996 and 2003 British representative at the Venice Biennale, poses a particular challenge. Almost every review of his major 2010 retrospective at London’s Tate Britain alluded to the “spirituality” of the work of this former altar boy; the artist himself often gives religious titles to his paintings and installations, such as Holy Virgin Mary (1996), The Upper Room (1999–2002), and The Raising of Lazarus (2007); and, in interviews, he is prepared to affirm that “stories within the Bible still have a relevance to my life and contemporary life in general.”

Plate 7. Chris Ofili. The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996. Acrylic, oil, polyester resin, paper collage, glitter, map pins, and elephant dung on linen. 96 x 72 inches. Courtesy of Victoria Miro Gallery, London. All images copyright of the artist.

And yet this is the artist whose work fomented a globally reported storm at an exhibition of controversial British art at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, when New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, objecting to the artist’s use of feces and crotch shots cut from pornographic magazines to adorn a painting of a black Virgin Mary, threatened to withdraw public funding from the museum (the picture was also attacked with white paint by one Dennis Heiner, a pious seventy-two-year-old Roman Catholic) [see Plate 7]. This is an artist who, inspired by the low-life of London’s King’s Cross area, where from his studio window he could observe the shady goings-on of pimps and drug dealers, gave his works titles such as Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy (1997), Seven Bitches Tossing Their Pussies before the Divine Dung (1995) and The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars (1998)—works not obviously critical of the exploitative world they observe or possibly even celebrate.

In what sense, therefore, can the work of Ofili, one of the most important British artists of the Damien Hirst generation, be seen as spiritual, or as exhibiting spirituality? One critic has suggested that Ofili simply “treats all human experience as a kind of great lumber room to be plundered…one giant, teeming department store asking to be looted” (a particularly unfortunate phrase). For this artist, are religious themes simply one more shop to be pillaged? Or is it that the luscious, almost excessive richness of the decorative surfaces of his works, of a quality that is extraordinary even for our hardly sensually deprived era, evokes a response more usually associated with the further reaches of religious experience? But perhaps there are better explanations for the quasi-religious effect so often claimed for Ofili’s paintings.

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First, the biographical details. Ofili was born in 1968 and brought up in the inner suburbs of Manchester, an industrial city in the north of England, in a practicing Roman Catholic family. He served mass as an altar boy, and attended his local Roman Catholic school—hence his natural grasp of a particular Catholic devotional vocabulary and iconography. His parents are Igbo from Lagos, Nigeria, and moved to England in 1965; Ofili himself, however, does not speak Igbo and indeed has never been to Nigeria.

Originally intending to pursue a career in furniture design, he embarked on an arts foundation course at a Manchester technical college and, inspired by a particular teacher, Bill Clarke, who “talked about biorhythms, spirituality, and personal energy,” discovered painting; realizing that this was to be his vocation, he studied at Chelsea School of Art in London beginning in 1988 and moved to the Royal College of Art for his MA in 1991. In 1992, he travelled to Zimbabwe on a British Council scholarship for six weeks, where he made two discoveries: ancient cave paintings in the Matobo Hills, and what was to become the signature of his early years: balls of elephant dung encountered on an abortive safari to see elephants in the wild.

He became a professional artist, moving in 1996 to fashionable studios near King’s Cross station, whose downtown ambience inspired several of his sleazier titles of the period, and exhibiting with the “young British artists,” notably in Sensation (at the Royal Academy in London in 1997 and the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, where his Holy Virgin Mary became a succès de scandale); in 1998 he won the Turner Prize, the UK’s premier contemporary art honor. In 2000 he became a trustee of the Tate Gallery, and in 2003 was chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale. In 2005 he moved to Port of Spain, Trinidad; also in 2005 his large-scale installation The Upper Room was purchased by the Tate Gallery (this, too, was a cause of scandal, as he was a trustee). He has exhibited widely in the UK and elsewhere, and although principally a painter has also created sculpture—including one of his earliest pieces, Shithead (1993), an open-mouthed face made from a ball of elephant dung with human teeth and locks of the artist’s own hair—and stained-glass work, notably for the Stephen Lawrence Centre, Deptford, built to commemorate a young black student killed in southeast London in 1993, whose bungled murder investigation became a cause célèbre.

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Plate 8. Chris Ofili. Afrodizzia (Second Version), 1996. Acrylic, oil, polyester resin, paper collage, glitter, map pins, and elephant dung on linen. 96 x 72 inches. Courtesy of Victoria Miro Gallery, London.

Ofili’s retrospective at the Tate was hugely enjoyable. The richness of the painted surfaces, the layers of color often applied in clouds of small dots reminiscent of aboriginal painting or African beadwork, the simple line and organic patterns of thinly applied paint, please the eye, while collaged images often cut from pornographic or black power magazines sound a raucous countermelody also evident in the regular occurrence of elephant turds or liquid excrement that prevents the images from sinking back in pure seduction—for example, the very beautiful Painting with Shit on It (1993), which is paradoxically redeemed by fecal smearing, or Afrodizzia (1996) where the faces of a galaxy of black heroes are collaged onto a delicious, patterned surface of saturated color and fractal lines whose fluorescent, artificial colors contradict their organic meanderings [see Plate 8].

The painting is generally quite flat—there is little sense of depth—but enlivened by the complex, quasi-organic patterning either of small dots of paint or of a lyrical, looping line or organic shapes, either plant-like or anatomical. Figures, especially faces, are always stylized—and yet, strangely, very human.

Humor abounds—the hero of Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy is a monstrous erect phallus with a cartoon face; the (black) heroine Foxy Roxy (1997) sports a huge pair of pink breasts—and so does pathos. No Woman, No Cry, a tribute to Doreen Lawrence, the mother of the murdered British teenager, shows her as a semi-transparent weeping woman of dignified beauty; small cameos of her son are collaged into her tears, and yet she appears neither bitter nor broken by her grief [see back cover].

Plate 9. Chris Ofili. The Raising of Lazarus, 2007. Oil and charcoal on linen. 110 x 79 inches. Photo: David Zwirner.

Later, a series of sumptuous watercolors exploit rich hues in simple images; paintings from his Venice Biennale period feature the black, red, and green of African identity; a series of pencil drawings celebrate a faux-naif, frank, female sexuality that would be the envy of many in the art-historical canon: if only some of the more uptight surrealists had had Ofili’s assurance, how many prurient monstrosities we might have been spared. A blue period plays a midnight cobalt against lyrical, almost illegible black figures; and the most recent works, different again, offer Tobagan themes, simplified shapes, extravagant colors, and a return of religious or at least spiritual titles [see Plate 9].

If there is one common factor running through these different periods of Ofili’s work, it is that despite their shallow, almost decorative surface and lyrical patterning, the viewer instinctively reads them as embodied, and it is surely above all this sense of embodiment that gives Ofili’s painting depth and seriousness. A number of elements come together to create this effect. There is the clear influence of dance, the most embodied of the arts. (Ofili often remarks upon the influence of hip-hop on his painting.) There is the texture of the whorls of paint which inevitably evoke the fractal irregularity of flesh. There is the organic, sinuous line that in this context evokes the sensuous complexity of the surface of the human body.

Plate 11. Chris Ofili. Blossom, 1997. Oil, polyester resin, glitter, map pins, and elephant dung on linen. 96 x 72 inches. Courtesy of Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin. Photo: Jochen Littkemann.

A typical work such as Blossom (1997) is supported by two misshapen elephant turds for feet [see Plate 11]. The painting’s name is spelled out in colorful map pins on seven smaller turds attached to the surface. On the left-hand side, a delicious orange wash forms the background—on the right, subtler pastel blues, greens, and lilac—to an elegantly stylized collection of organic, plant-like forms, leaves, and stems, painted in very inorganic blue and red and made even more artificial by a frosting of white dots of glitter. By contrast, in other places the paint has been allowed to dribble down the canvas in viscous smears reminiscent of body fluids.

Against this sumptuously visual-tactile undergrowth, separated only by a thin blue line, there emerges the figure of Blossom herself—her hair, flesh, and dress painted in complex whorls of small dots. Blossom has a flower in her hair, pink lips, and red fingernails, and rather knowingly displays her bare breast to us: half earth-mother (at one with her organic frame) and half seductress—the gap formed by the crook of her arm and painted the bright red of her fingernails hints at other pleasures. The vibrant color contrasts, the complex surface patterning, the sinuous blue line, the stylized cartoon figure whose expression is so engagingly ambivalent (like her double eyes)—all contrive to make this seductively simple, flat painting much more complex than it first appears.

Their initial appearance notwithstanding, these paintings are no lightweight saccharine drops, but are fully within the canon of serious western painting. Despite the often scabrous humor and the desire to shock typical of a young artist, despite the in-your-face use of collage, dung, and cultural stereotypes, there is a seriousness of purpose that, perhaps fortunately, escapes the artist himself—to judge from his many published interviews. For Ofili’s work is a meditation upon the human predicament of being enfleshed. This is where his painting becomes truly interesting and possibly even spiritual.

 

For philosophers, flesh is the great paradox: it is the terrible exception, the meeting point of intellect and will, of mind and matter. Flesh is where the tangible immediacy of the real brushes against the ethereal domain of the logos. Platonists and ascetics long to be rid of it and to dwell in pure Being—artists and lovers celebrate it and protest at its decay.

In a late work, the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty celebrates this paradox of flesh. Our flesh, he says, is made of the same matter as the world, and yet the two are not the same at all. If you touch your right hand with your left:

…my left hand is on the verge of touching my right hand, touching the thing, but I never reach coincidence; the coincidence eclipses at the moment of realization, and one of two things always occurs—either my right hand really passes over to the ranks of the touched, but then its hold on the world is interrupted; or it retains its hold on the world, but then I do not really touch it—my left hand palpates only its outer covering.

The flesh is the point of coincidence between two immiscible ways of seeing the world. For Merleau-Ponty, this coincidence is as much “transgression” as juxtaposition; for him, the body is “the nullpunkt [zero point] of all the dimensions of the world”: flesh is “weltmöglichkeit”—that which makes the world possible.

Not everyone shares Merleau-Ponty’s love of paradox. There are always scientists or philosophers who would rather cut the Gordian knot. For example, in a recent discussion program on BBC Radio on the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence, scientist Paul Davies simply assumed that in a matter of centuries, human beings would have outgrown our frail, unreliable, and disease-prone bodies (his point being that visiting aliens were hardly likely to be embodied little green men). When another panelist challenged his assumption, relating the plot of Fred Hoyle’s novel The Black Cloud (1960) in which a very advanced alien visitor hovers above the world as a dark vapor, and the one thing on earth that could be found to impress it is a masterpiece of interiority, a late Beethoven string quartet, the scientist replied that this was most unlikely; music was simply a local phenomenon, far too dependent on our particular somatic functions and sensibilities to be of eternal significance.

Here is the crux of the issue: is human flesh simply a local affair? Are its vulnerability and transient beauty, its openness to suffering and love, and its evolutionary necessity to decay, as hymned by poets and celebrated by artists such as Ofili, a transient feature of the universe, to be replaced as soon as possible by some more dependable silicon-based rather than carbon matrix; or is the celebration of the flesh perhaps humanity’s most precious contribution to the sterile and inhospitable cosmos, a home in the vastness of interstellar space?

Poets like to point out that the evocation of the philosophers’ transcendental sublime is only ever achieved with extraordinary carnality: the blood, sweat, and tears of musicians rubbing horsehair against catgut, or artists their sable into pigmented oil, or philosophers their ink onto pulped vegetable matter, their bottoms wedged firmly into library chairs. Philosophers, by contrast, reply that without their fleshless symbolic order, we would not even be able to name or recognize blood, sweat, tears—or bottoms. Ofili’s painting brings this conflict between the spirituality of matter and material priority of spirit into direct focus.

Speaking of bottoms, Ofili’s use of elephant turds almost ubiquitously in his earlier works is entirely germane to this debate about the putative eternal quality of flesh. Having smuggled back to the UK some of the elephant turds he found littering the savannah of a Zimbabwean game park at the end of his revelatory visit, Ofili has thereafter consistently used them (courtesy of London Zoo) both to prop up his paintings (after they have been coated in lacquer and decorated with colorful map pins spelling out the title of the work) and as collage elements in the paintings themselves. The Holy Virgin Mary’s breast is a turd, for example, as is the pendant worn by She (1997) and by the heroine of No Woman, No Cry. But if Ofili’s celebration of fecal matter began as typical of a young artist wishing to épater les bourgeois (and the august mayor of New York gamely fell for it), the viewer cannot help but sense that the turds add more to his paintings than surprise.

There can be no life without its rich fecal counterpart. Even philosophers are aware of this. As Jacques Derrida himself put it: “When you smell shit, you smell being.” (And it is salutary to remember that the air we breathe is the excretion of several million years of microorganisms.) But this is a truth easily ignored. If the great minimalist deserts of aesthetic modernism were well in the past by the time Ofili started painting, there still remained in the art world enough of the aura of the empty white cube for its purity to be a viable subject for blasphemy. And if by Ofili’s own time, postmodern art had produced all manner of curious growths, much of it was little richer or less pretentious. As Ofili’s Captain Shit beat back the enchanted forest of briars and thickets of sophisticated contemporary art to reawaken the sleeping beauty of fleshly painting and rouse her with a dance, his erect, jovial phallus mocked both the disguised moral Puritanism that went with the aesthetic Puritanism of the intellectualizing artists and hard-edged abstractionists of the 1960s and 70s, and also the vacuous “contemporary vogue for Afro-celebration” (Judith Nesbitt) of the 1990s. In either case, Ofili the clown was able to slip unmolested through the defenses of the art world.

In passing, one should note that although flesh is prone not only to defecation but also to human discrimination on grounds of color, this does not appear to be an important theme. Ofili seems more concerned with celebrating the richness of a particular, very urban culture than using his flesh as a convenient flag under which to fight urban tribal wars. Lisa Corrin, in an article entitled “Confounding the Stereotypes,” argues that in a laidback, uncorrect way, “He confutes the clichés of blackness” and “slays the sacred cows of political correctness”—whether racist or modernist. As Ofili put it himself, “My project is not a PC project. That’s my direct link to blaxploitation. I’m trying to make serious things you can laugh at. It allows you to laugh about issues that seem potentially serious. There are no rules.”

Carol Becker likens Ofili to the mythical trickster: “the trickster mixes up the sacred and profane”; although he “appears to debase the sacred by introducing earthly dirt into his/her practice”…the “visual consequence of this dirtying is the god’s eventual renewal.” Could it be that Ofili’s art is sincerely religious behind its mockery, and contains, as she implies, the seeds of religious renewal?

Perhaps this is one source of Ofili’s evident sense of spirituality: an exploration in paint of the eternal significance of the flesh. If so, it is most effective when unconscious. The vagina-like folds (in the artist’s words) of the Holy Virgin Mary’s blue cloak and the blankness of her resonant face come across not as blasphemous, despite the pornographic cutouts and elephant-turd breast, but as a surprisingly heartfelt prayer (perhaps an echo of some Marian litany familiar from childhood) for clarity or compassion amid the semi-pornographic blaxploitation movies his circle enjoyed. The paint glows with possibilities, and even her turd-breast tricks the mind into varied chains of association, not all of them negative.

Plate 10. Chris Ofili. The Upper Room, 1999–2002. Installation at Tate Britain, 2005. Courtesy of Victoria Miro Gallery, London. Photo: Stephen White.

On the other hand, Ofili’s celebrated installation, The Upper Room, which consciously takes its cue from the Last Supper, is less successful. A series of thirteen brightly colorful, hatted monkeys holding goblets painted against different organic backgrounds are placed in a specially designed, darkened room lined with aromatic tropical walnut and lit with atmospheric spotlights [see Plate 10]. The installation was designed by David Adjaye, the architect and designer who also worked with Ofili on the British pavilion at Venice, and he has used every available device to give a quasi-religious, numinous aura to the works his room contains.

The result is a portentous religiosity. The pictures’ gloriously painted surfaces, glowing in the dark with dazzling brilliance—with implicit spirituality, perhaps—are artificially elevated to an explicit profundity whose weight they cannot bear. This is a nonsense: a shrine to no god, an empty tabernacle, a sacred space dedicated to the worst sort of contentless religious experience (“spirituality lite,” as one critic calls it) crying out for a Gideon to take an axe to it. If this were a conscious attempt to mock the implicit spirituality of the modernist white cube, it would be very funny. But one cannot even laugh aloud in this sacred grove for fear of offending the good pagans who are exhorting their children in hushed tones to look at the beautiful monkeys. Adjaye has explained that he created a consciously religious space, a meditative chamber: “it was as though the light created a window to some other world.” Ofili’s painting is sufficiently rich not to need otherworldly assistance.

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Wherein, then, lies his spirituality? Ofili represents the flesh of women and men, certainly, but perhaps too, as Merleau-Ponty describes it, the flesh of the universe. “The flesh of the world is not explained by the flesh of the body…. The flesh of the world can’t touch itself, like my flesh. It is touchable, but cannot touch.” And yet, despite appearances, the world is not something out there, final and complete. “The visible is not full presence, total immediacy…. The visible is not a chunk of absolutely hard, indivisible being, offered all naked to a vision which could only be total or null,” but “it is rather a sort of straits between internal and external horizons.” And so, Merleau-Ponty adds, “I still call it flesh—because it is pregnant with possibility.”

It is surely no accident that Saint John uses this metaphor for Jesus’s incarnation: “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” For Saint John, the impossible union of divinity and humanity actually takes place in Jesus’s flesh, just as for Merleau-Ponty, flesh is the impossible but actual emulsion that holds together those immiscible contraries: internal and external horizons, sensation and logos, that conjunction of first person and third person, so easily conjugated in the grammarian’s table, and yet “the sign in the space on the page,” as R.S. Thomas puts it, “that is the grammarian’s torment and the mystery at the cell’s core, and the equation that will not come out.”

In an article on Paul Ricoeur, Pierre Caussat suggests that even in a postmodern world without big themes or metanarrative, philosophy still has an important role to play: not to provide a unified answer to everything (as was once hoped), but simply to try to reassemble the fragmentary results of the human sciences. “Reassemble: that’s conjuring the fragments into a bouquet, certainly not unitary, but at least harmonious, even symphonic.”

What better description of Ofili’s work at its best could there be than as a bouquet conjured of the fragments of everyday life in all its multifaceted variety—elephant turds and pornographic images included—all brought together in a harmonious or even symphonic ensemble? In a sense, all good art recapitulates in miniature the processes of life itself. Just as microorganisms created our atmosphere out of sterile methane, and just as the multiplicity of earthly life in general creates organic out of inorganic substance, producing fertile loam (shit, even) out of bare matter, so human beings are turning matter into world. On earth, the dust of the Milky Way becomes vulnerable, frail, sensuous flesh, the home both of godlike reason and divine compassion; and art somehow, in some miracle of incarnation, celebrates the paradox of flesh that clothes them both. Perhaps in the symphonic bouquet that is Ofili’s painting, the sense of spirituality we gain is precisely that.

 


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