'A good Ofili brings to mind Funkadelic album covers, William Blake, Zimbabwe rock painting, Sigmar Polke, Brazilian bead work, Op Art, carnival posters, Celestial Seasonings packages, Haitian voodoo figures, Australian aborigine 'dot paintings', and Post-Impressionistic Pointilism.'
The first black artist in history to be awarded the Turner Prize, Ofili was among the second wave of Young British Artists who broke onto the British art scene in the 1990s. Temporarily pigeonholed as the artist who once shocked the art world by using elephant dung in a painting titled The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), Ofili's practice has always merged the sacred with the profane, but is not merely 'sensational'. Dung is certainly not the defining feature of his practice. Rather he draws from a myriad of sources in both African, European and Trinidadian traditions, contemporary popular culture and art history.
The Weeping Magdalene
In 1998, Ofili painted No Woman, No Cry in tribute to Stephen Lawrence – the young black boy who was murdered by a group of white boys in 1993 while waiting for a bus in South East London. After the initial investigation, none of the culprits were arrested.
Taking its title from the 1974 Bob Marley song, the work highlighted the campaigning of Stephen's mother, Doreen Lawrence who fought to expose the Metropolitan Police's institutional racism. In Ofili's painting, she is portrayed as the weeping protagonist depicted in profile. Within each of Doreen's tears, there is a collaged image of her son. A barely visible inscription reads 'R.I.P. Stephen Lawrence 1974–1993'.
Drawing on Christian traditions of the weeping Virgin Mary in The Lamentation of Christ, or the weeping Mary Magdalene, Ofili commemorated Doreen by painting her on a dignified pedestal, one that powerfully alluded to her pain and grief, but also the injustice of Stephen's death.
In this compositionally similar sixteenth-century painting, the weeping Magdalen holds a jar of ointment once used to anoint Christ.
Zimbabwe cave paintings and Pointillism
In 1992, Ofili travelled to Zimbabwe on a British Council scholarship. While there, he visited the ancient Motapo Hills in the southwestern region of the country. The famous cave paintings found in this region are characterised by the application of thousands of tiny dots.
Speaking to Adrian Searle, he said: 'I imagined them painting this great wall of optical, shimmering dots to the rhythm of chants and drumbeats, all of which got condensed into each dot.'
Ofili's travels in Zimbabwe also led him to experiment with using elephant dung as an artistic material – one example is his 1993 Painting with Shit on It.
For Ofili, the material was a way to bring African landscape into painting, but also referred to the belief in some African societies that elephant dung is sacred.
According to the artist, the inclusion of elephant dung was about introducing a new physical and metaphorical dimension to his work: 'a feeling that they've come from the earth rather than simply being hung on a wall'.
The practice of using small dots at once connects to aboriginal methods of painting, but also early twentieth-century Post-Impressionist genre of Pointillism. Artists like Georges Seurat and Paul Signac devised this new technique whereby colours were separated into small dots.
Jazz, hip-hop and blaxploitation films
Ofili's practice has always investigated subjects pertaining to race, identity and the experience of being an artist of colour. He explores these themes by merging together 'low' forms of popular culture with European art historical conventions.
Popular black culture features prominently within his work – the traditions of blaxploitation films from the 1970s, the Civil Rights era, as well as the musical genres of jazz and hip-hop. In fact, Ofili once compared his collage-based work to the 'cut and paste' method of sampling found in hip-hop.
In 2000, he said: 'I always think of the work as coming out of hip-hop culture... look at things with no hierarchy... to bring something up out of the rubble that's pleasing to look at.'
Works such as this one allude to Ofili's interest in black comic strip stars. Luke Cage was a black superhero who first appeared in a comic in 1972 (and has recently featured in his own Marvel TV Netflix series). Parodying this genre and inventing his own black superhero, 'Captain Shit', Ofili created a tongue-in-cheek response to the popular portrayals of black masculinity found in both comic strips and blaxploitation films.
Ofili's work draws on the paintings and careers of many postwar and Postmodern artists, from Hans Hofmann to Jean-Michel Basquiat. His gestural yet abstracted style refers at once to Neo-Expressionism, post-modern assemblages and even Pop Art.
Artists like Georg Baselitz and Philip Guston are often credited for influencing Ofili, especially in the early years of his career. Bold experimentation with colour is what most clearly connects their practices.
To return to Jerry Saltz's assessment of Chris Ofili, what is clear is that the artist's practice is so multifaceted, so complex and so nuanced, that it is virtually impossible to define or categorise him.
Lydia Figes, Content Creator at Art UK