Shock and awe: The art of Chris Ofili

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A major retrospective of Chris Ofili's work opens at Tate Britain next week. Michael Glover explores the painter's evolution from shape-shifter and provocateur to raw, open talent, while Ekow Eshun talks to Ofili about his new-found 'sense of freedom'

Many artists and writers have made bold attempts to define the nature of modernity, and have rashly speculated on the possible date of its inception. The novelist Virginia Woolf, for example, once famously wrote that human character changed in 1911. Her statement was an apology for writers such as herself, of course, who were beginning to re-define the nature of the reality that they were experiencing by writing about it, in wholly unfamiliar ways, in fiction and poetry.

The painter Chris Ofili has had to rise to quite a different challenge. It too concerns the nature of modernity, and how he represents it now, but it is one that would never have occurred to the likes of Virginia Woolf, immured as she was in her white, middle-class, Bloomsbury fastness. Her notion of A Room of One's Own (the title of one of her greatest books) would probably not have encompassed the possibility of having the likes of Chris Ofili as her next-door neighbour.

As a black man born in Manchester and now living in Trinidad, half a world away from the endless machinations of the London art world and London's art dealers, how has Ofili defined his own experience of being alive, and succeeded in establishing his own black cultural identity through his art? These are the most important issues in Ofili's art, and they are ones which he has wrestled with from the very beginning. This major retrospective at Tate Britain will give us an opportunity to judge for ourselves to what extent he has succeeded in becoming anyone other than a stranger to himself.

First of all, let us ask a simple question: when did modern Brit art first begin? For the sake of argument, let's fix that date at 18 September 1997. That was the day on which the Sensation show opened at the Royal Academy in London. The exhibition caused near universal outrage. On display were works with which the names of the artists would forever be identified. There was Damien Hirst's shark, Tracey Emin's tent, Marcus Harvey's Myra Hindley and the Chapman Brothers' lurid, tasteless re-creation in three dimensions of a Goya etching of corpses draped over a blasted tree. And then, a little off to the side, almost unassumingly so, there was a glitzily colourful painting of a black Virgin Mary, leaning against a wall, and supported on little globs of elephant dung, by a young artist called Chris Ofili.

When the exhibition then travelled on to the Brooklyn Museum in New York, it was Ofili's work that was singled out for the most vehement condemnation. The Archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O'Connor, decided that it was probably an attack on religion itself. Could that really be true? The work, when you come to look at it now, seems too joyously decorative to be carelessly revelling too much in its own visual splendour, and to be grimly pigeon-holed as some godless man's act of wanton provocation. On the other hand, the devil is often in the detail, and when you examined it closely enough, it was very easy to spot the tiny illustrations of female genitalia clipped from porn mags.

Some of Ofili's most interesting early works had already been painted by the time the Sensations show opened. The first of his Captain Shit paintings, in which he introduced a character who looked like a crazed, sinister Lord of Misrule – part drug dealer, part savant, part reggae gangster – dates from 1996. In this series of paintings Ofili is already trying to seek out ways of defining his own identity as a young black artist from Manchester. The answer, then and for many years to come, was to present himself as a provocative shape-shifter, as an artist who both seemed to be defining notions of "Afro-Beauty", but also somewhat standing back from them. Playing with them and perhaps caricaturing them to a degree.

The question is this: how does an artist with Ofili's background avoid the feeling that he is somehow fated to define "the black experience" (whatever that is), and to be always regarded as "the Voodoo King, the Voodoo Queen, the witch doctor, the drug dealer, the magicien de la terre, the exotic", as he once put it? One way was to treat all human experience as a kind of great lumber room to be plundered, to let everything in willy nilly, the sacred hand in hand with the profane. The world is one giant, teeming department store asking to be looted. "I always think of the work as coming out of hip-hop culture, which is an approach to making and looking at things with no hierarchy. Everything just gets everything."

In 1998, Ofili snatched the Turner Prize. Outrage once again, with accusations of political correctness, sophisticated headlines from the red-tops such as "dung great", and random references to "damned dots and spots", mind-numbing triumphs of idiot industry, concentrated tedium, etc, etc..

By now, the Ofili style was becoming quite recognisable. It consisted of intensely worked and layered surfaces that made use of a variety of different materials – from glitter pins to paint and collaged images – and, within the intensive discipline of all that careful making, a spirit of almost riotous abandon, in the course of which Ofili seemed to be snatching images from all kinds of sources, and then gorgeously smothering all that image-making in layers of resin.

But that elephant dung was proving to be a problem. It was too silly and too memorable, in part, too easy a thing to be known and caricatured by. Ofili should have stopped using it years ago. It was too steamily redolent of what the white middle-class audience would pigeon-hole as symptomatic of the colourful – which, ultimately, means ridiculous – exoticism of the non-white.

Four years later, Ofili showed a room-sized installation called The Upper Room at the Victoria Miro Gallery in East London, which was later to be purchased by, and then installed at, Tate Britain to howls of controversy. Why? Because Ofili was by then an establishment man himself; in fact, he was a trustee of the very gallery which had bought his own work. Was that quite right and proper? Well, the work hasn't been shipped back to Wharf Road, and it will be on show at his Tate Britain retrospective later this month.

The Upper Room is a quasi-religious, sacred and profane spectacle, from first to last. Ranged down the sides of the rooms, as if in procession, are giant, glittering paintings of rhesus monkeys, winking, glittering back at you. They look – such is the cunning with which the light sources have been embedded – as if they are illuminated from within. And then, at the far end, there is a far more indistinct image, of yet another monkey. The sheer spectacle of it all, the spacing, the pacing, together with the enveloping darkness, instil a mood of reverence. But why are we feeling reverence? Because this room has all the trappings of religiosity. And if we don't see any Christian iconography here, what about the monkeys? Isn't the monkey god Hanuman sacred to the Hindus?

Once again, there is a strange ambivalence at work here. How does the artist expect us to respond to this piece? Is this an example of spirituality-lite – or not? Are we to take it seriously? Or is he off on some gorgeous decorative riff of his own? This may be a fatal weakness at the heart of much of Ofili's early work, that he didn't really know whether he should be taking himself and his work seriously, and he instilled this mood of uncertainty in his audiences. In short, he often came across as an artist who was playing vaudeville with his own identity.

The installation at the Tate was created by David Adjaye, the architect who also re-fashioned the interior of the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2003, the year that Ofili was Britain's official representative there – accolades were being heaped on accolades. Once again, things were very stagey. The fairly predictable, neo-classical interior was completely obliterated. Looking up at the ceiling, you saw strange and threatening jaggings of glass, which looked like weird references to exotic vegetation. You turned small and sharp corners, almost groping your way around a space that felt labyrinthine, hot and oppressive – and yet, thanks to the nature of the works on the walls, unexpectedly carnivalesque, too.

Where exactly where we? It didn't seem to matter all that much. The works themselves were from the Afro series. They showed beautiful black lovers against a flat, red ground, smooching in lush, paradisal settings. Some were naked, others got up for a night of hot squeezes at the cabaret. It felt a bit like a woozy Garden of Eden of the mind. A Garden of Eden fabricated in London, where Ofili was then living, we need to remind ourselves.

Once again, these works seemed to be at odds with themselves, and at odds with the environment within which they were being displayed. They were pretending to be both serious and unserious simultaneously. What was the truth behind all this extravagant posturing? Or was the extravagant posturing as much the truth as anyone could know – even the artist himself?

Now much of that has changed. Ofili decamped to Trinidad four years ago, and his paintings have changed too – both in their subject matter, and in their manner of making. We need to joke no longer about elephant dung because the elephant dung has gone. Thank god. (Thank Hanuman?) They are no longer so layered or so labour-intensive. Now, there are even moments when the canvases are left blank and unpainted. In the past, Ofili showed us paradisal gardens of the mind. He seemed to be swimming among images, snatching them from the air. They were in service to a gorgeous kind of pattern-making. Now things have changed. He is working in relative isolation at last, far from any clamouring metropolis. He is, in part, recording his own raw experience of the nature that surrounds him. Yes, that is the word for the tenor of some of these recent paintings: rawness.

A new openness. A new and more immediate receptivity. And a new rawness. In short, a new absence of superficial, pop-culture lumber.

What exactly are these recent paintings like? Many of them are starker and simpler than we have been accustomed to. They often use fewer colours. They are less elaborate in their making. They are not so fussy in their details. Colours don't jump and jive together to the same extent. They stand apart from each other, making their own individual marks...

In the past, there has always been the feeling, behind all the labour, and all that immaculate layering, that the work was perhaps just a little too mannered, a little too muffled in its dense detailing, even a little too facile. What exactly does facile mean in this context? It means that Ofili seemed to be working from the surface of himself: that, too closely watched by dealers, buyers and museums from too young an age, he had not had the time or the space to dig more deeply into himself, and discover exactly who he was, who he is, who exactly he will become. "It got to a point where I felt the work was really known in a public sense, that the division between public and private was like a thin membrane," he says in the interview on the next page. "And I didn't feel that gave me a greater sense of freedom. The public is not within my control, but the work is, and I wanted to make changes within the work. That couldn't happen in an arena that was familiar to me."

Yes, now that much of that bustle and bother has fallen away, we can see more clearly the nature and the extent of the talent he has been gifted with. Now, he can perhaps contemplate the nature of his own blackness without being regarded as a precious, token talent who can dance, at any hour, for the delectation of the art world.

'In order for the subject to have any gravity, I have to create a belief in it'

Ekow Eshun: We're in your studio in Trinidad, so what brought you here and what took you away from London?

Chris Ofili: I felt in some way things had closed down. London was an exciting place to work at one point, because socially it was very progressive – a catalyst. There were very interesting artists making all types of work, but it got to a point where the social aspect became claustrophobic. The fact it was all happening in London became counter-productive, and highlighted the fact that there's a big world out there, and places where there isn't so much vanity about the cultural scene. It also got to a point where I felt the work was really known in a public sense, that the division between public and private was like a thin membrane. And I didn't feel that gave me a greater sense of freedom. The public is not within my control, but the work is, and I wanted to make changes within the work. That couldn't happen in an arena that was familiar to me.

EE: There's a tradition of painters that go away to islands, for example Gauguin. But you're not working from outside as an observer: you're a participant and that's an interesting shift. And if one wants to look at it sociologically, you're on a non-white island, you're black and you have a place here that's very different to a white European artist coming away somewhere...

CO: I have a camouflage. Although I'm not from here, my skin can camouflage that fact, and allow me to be in places that perhaps would be more difficult if I didn't have this camouflage. The camouflage is disguising my gaze, and my excitement and enlightenment in seeing what I see here. The way I look may make it seem this is normal for me, but this is very far from normal, I didn't grow up in a rural environment at all. If I'm by a waterfall, things are running through my head at a million miles an hour, although it may look like I'm lounging.

EE: It seems to me that Trinidad arrives in the work in a number of different ways. Nature has become your secondary palette. The subject matter has shifted. What do you take from living here?

CO: I take a lot of what this place gives for free, which is a very particular mystery which I value and think might have a place in painting now. Essentially there's a joy I feed off, an excitement about being here and seeing things that have a sublime beauty about them, but an incredible rawness. It's very beautiful and visually very dynamic here. There's a lot to see, and it's never boring. As an artist it's an amazing place to have around you, but it can be overwhelming. The three-dimensionality of the place is full-on. You have to let what you see here soak in over a period of time, before you can really work with the full range of this place. For example, The Healer is a fairly simple painting in the way it's put together. The composition is clearly mapped out. But in order for the subject to have any real gravity, I have to create a belief in it. And that's through being around it, working through it, having areas of joy, areas of ambiguity, openness. Those areas might be quite subtle, but for me I know there are ways of painting in there that I would never have allowed to come out of the studio before. I was painting here on Lady Chancellor Hill during a full moon. A lot of what Trinidad is about is the feeling of the place, the atmosphere of the place, particularly at night, and the mystery of the forest. And I was trying to get that into the painting.

EE: Mystery has always been an important aspect of what you seek to explore in your work. For example, The Upper Room, 1999–2002, is a very powerful, intense work that would be impossible to make if you didn't surrender yourself completely to the story of the Last Supper, to the possibilities, mystery and drama of that moment.

CO: The story of the Upper Room is written down, but I've imagined it countless times, what it must have been like in that room. It is a very dynamic event in history. It's been painted a lot, and I started thinking about the elements of the story, that Jesus knew that Judas was playing a part in bringing things to an end. I didn't begin thinking, "Okay, I'm gonna make a version of the Upper Room." I just started working on a six-by-four painting and was interested in this motif of a monkey carrying a chalice, which I'd worked on in a previous painting, Monkey Magic: Sex, Money and Drugs, 1999. I took that idea into another canvas. I had one then I had three. And then eventually I thought I could run with it. I had six, all facing one direction, and I knew there was potential to go on to this "Upper Room". I really cannot remember at what point the monkeys became representations for the elements of the Last Supper. But they did.

EE: For me, the most powerful effect of The Upper Room is its absolute sincerity. We can contrast that with some of the earlier work, such as Painting with Shit on It, 1993, and Two Doo Voodoo, 1997, where you use titles that are provocative and playful. With The Upper Room, there's less of that.

CO: It was important for the space to feel akin to a space of worship. I wondered if that was possible, and whether paintings could enhance that feeling. I made some sketches for a room, but I didn't feel that I could design a space that would work well with the paintings, and allow for a viewer to have a total experience of looking at the paintings and revelling in that feeling, which is why I asked David [Adjaye] to help me.

EE: Why did you want to communicate that feeling?

CO: I value it. I place less value on spaces for art that have a lot of people just passing through, which you get in big exhibitions. I thought it would be a valuable experience to suddenly come across a place that was completely standing still, but that had a lot going on within it. The paintings operate in a slow fashion. The colour and activity within each one of the paintings has a power. And then the unity of all the paintings together has another level of power. I'd never had 13 big paintings in the studio, and never presented that many paintings all at once.

EE: Do you think of yourself as a painter that works with narrative?

CO: Of a sort, yeah. I don't really like that word, I don't really like the word "abstract" either, although in my head, when I'm working, I work with those words. And "narrative" sometimes spells "literal" and "didactic", which worries me. Sometimes though, I'm just blindingly obvious, an example being Afrodizzia, 1996. Like, bang, there it is. Afro head – celebration of Afrocentricity.

EE: The great theme that you've allowed to emerge through the work over the years is religion. Iscariot Blues, 2006, for example, is very powerful with its mix of the everyday and the extraordinary.

CO: Iscariot Blues was made here and came out of my observations and feelings of Trinidad. There are people playing instruments, enjoying an evening in a relative darkness. I can hear the sound of the wood creaking as the hanging figure swings. And I can't necessarily get that in the painting, that sound, but it was there when I was trying to paint the painting.

EE: How much of your work is a rediscovery or resuscitation of childhood experiences? How much is a lived exploration of those themes, ideas or emotions?

CO: I was an altar boy and heard the Bible being read out repeatedly. The stories have stayed with me, although they're completely remixed in my head. And often when I do further reading, I'm quite surprised by the difference between the real story and my memory of the story. I'm interested in that difference and how it's affected the way I think about making images. But I'm comfortable with that. I don't particularly want to be spot-on. I'm fortunate in that religion has played an important part in the history of painting. When I go on a trip to look at frescoes, some of my themes are up there on the wall. Death & the Roses came out of ideas about flagellation and guilt, and from looking at Piero della Francesca's the Flagellation of Christ. In my painting, the guy on the right with his white shirt comes from contemporary images of Trinidad stick-fighting. He's also dressed a little bit like how farmers and hunters dress in the forest. A lot of these ideas are based in reality, but are imagined, fictional occurrences. That's something I work with a little bit more now.

EE: You've made works that reference Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Annunciation, and other elements of the Bible you grew up with. What is it you find in the Bible now?

CO: Stories within the Bible still have a relevance to my life and contemporary life in general. I'm still interested in ideas of morality. Last night I was thinking about how Christianity has structured the way we live our lives now. We still have a clear idea of what's right and wrong, and that has some parallels with what's considered right and wrong in the Bible. The stories are so well put together that they evoke very powerful images.

EE: Are you having a public conversation in ways you were before? Are the works more private, more public or more revealing?

CO: I think there are more unknowns in the work for me now, in narrative. Previously, I would have needed to link my work to historical events, and be able to explain exactly what's going on. But now I'm more comfortable with not being able to pin down what's going on, and why. I'm at the beginning of something new. There's a newfound confidence in the way I'm working, that I wouldn't have been able to tolerate 10 years ago.

EE: Do you think you tried to do it all, in your earlier paintings? That collage effect?

CO: In the earlier work, there was less filtering – it was about doing the maximum. It all took place within the painting. It was a bit like throwing all the cast of characters on the stage – we may only speak or listen to a few at a particular time, but they all stay on stage. More recently I work through a painting by doing less and less. Now there's a slightly different approach, in that the characters that come on are only those that need to be there. There's more interest in the set, as well as the characters.

EE: In the context of your exhibition at Tate Britain, how does it feel, looking back through the work?

CO: I don't feel I'm looking back; I'm looking around the work. The exhibition in London is an opportunity to see what I can pull from different aspects of the work we're bringing together, to take me forwards again. We can only say looking back in terms of chronology. Ideas are recurring and do not only exist in the past. So I wouldn't want to relegate something to being an old idea, the date doesn't matter. You hear an amazing Thelonius Monk track, and the last thing that occurs to you is whether or not it was made at the beginning or at the end of his life. First thing that strikes you is that it's just a surprising arrangement of sounds. Of individual sounds to make a whole.

© Tate 2010. Extracted from "Ekow Eshun interviews Chris Ofili", edited by Helen Little in 'Chris Ofili' (Tate Publishing, 2010). Chris Ofili is at Tate Britain, London SW1 from 27 January to 16 May (Tate.org.uk)

Reader offer

The catalogue accompanying the exhibition at Tate Britain is available at a discounted price of £16.99 (RRP £19.99) for Independent readers from 020 7887 8869 or tgpl@tate.org.uk. Offer subject to availability, courtesy of Tate Publishing. Free p&p within the UK only. Delivery within 10 working days. Offer valid until 16 May 2010.

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