In London, Chris Ofili has won the Turner prize, represented Britain in the Venice Biennale, and is now being honored with a major mid-career retrospective at Tate Britain. Across the Atlantic, however, he’s best known for the 1999 exhibition “Sensation” in which then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to prevent the Brooklyn Museum of Art from showing his Holy Virgin Mary—a mixed media piece in which the gold-and-blue Madonna is rendered in paint, collaged pornographic images, and (most offensively to Giuliani and many Catholics) elephant dung.
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Dung is to Ofili what beds are to Tracey Emin or formaldehyde is to Damien Hirst. Arguably though, as with the best of the YBAs, for all the shock element, there’s a powerful poetry here too. Ofili was born in 1968 and brought up in Manchester: his work contains elements of Black British culture and history as well as the visual language of his parents’ native Nigeria. The vibrant clash—a riot of gangster rap vernacular, Pop colors, as well as religious references from the Bible and the voodoo of Nigerian legend—means that his work is richly decorative, but never simply decorous.
Despite the sacred and the profane being in such intimate juxtaposition, and for all the baroque flights of Blacksploitation, the usual afternoon crowd at the Tate was peering reverentially at the naughtier bits. Further in to this rich show, they were sitting in near religious awe at the enclosed chapel like space of the Upper Room. This is Ofili’s re-working of the Last Supper with all of the conventional participants replaced with simple monkeys.
For Ofili, flirting with sacrilege in the name of art steers perilously close to gimmickry (and being banned, some might say, is his desired end game). But for all the connection and communion with the African earth that the infamous blobs of dung literalize, their greatest effect is one not of 'shock! horror!', but of simple perspective. Rather than being mounted on the walls, many of Ofili’s works are propped up on neatly rounded balls of dung, which gives another dimension to the surfaces of the canvases. For instance, as a nipple in Holy Mary, or a bead on a woman’s necklace, These bold plump shapes add texture to the encrusted glittering layers of paint, dotted in an almost Aboriginal style, which are blistered all over the canvas. Beads, too, are his naïf equivalent to Old Masters slathering on their layers of expensive oils.
Of course, all this spectacular beauty can jar with Ofili’s often outrageous titles, particularly 7 Bitches Tossing their Pussies Before the Divine Dung, which makes you flinch until you stand before the sky blue paint and whirls of visual fantasy. If there’s a soundtrack to Ofili’s paintings, it’s the explosion of aggressive, sexualized rap in the early 1990s. Of Snoop Dogg, Ofili has spoken of this ‘incredibly smooth voice talking audaciously sometimes about disgusting aspects of life but in a way that made you want to be around it.' As a painter, too, Ofili exploits that contradictory feeling. Finding and using a language, and making it your own, is a key Ofili trope. (The 7 Bitches, as it happens, takes its cue from another visionary with an anarchic streak, William Blake, and his 24 Elders.)
For all his willingness to embrace the 'audacious', Ofili can render human experience with unadulterated sanctity too. The 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence, a young South Londoner who was killed at a bus stop by a gang of white thugs, inspired one of Ofili's most affecting works. No Woman No Cry, depicting Doreen Lawrence, weeping little aquamarine blue effigies of her dead son, the teardrops rolling down her cheeks, is still a work of beauty and raw emotiveness in equal measure.
In Ofili’s earlier work, there’s an angry young man, powerfully, sometimes even profoundly, attuned to the experience of black men and women in Britain. Ten years after Sensation, that first decade of Ofili’s work has lost none of its glittering power or unease. If his later years leave you hungering for the excesses of his earlier pieces, you cannot help but feel spoiled by that giddy experience.
Olivia Cole writes for the Spectator and the London Evening Standard. An award-winning poet, her first collection, Restricted View, will be published this fall.