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Very few artists become targets of a public controversy or scandal over a work of art. But for those who do find themselves in such a predicament, it can have a lasting impact on their careers. In this media-dominated age, a public outcry over someone’s art usually becomes an identifying marker for that artist, if not of the artist’s own identity. And if the incident occurs in one’s formative years, then the artist faces an especially arduous task of ensuring that her or his work from then on is not defined by the controversy.
In 1999, Chris Ofili faced just such an outcry over his painting The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), which along with the work’s titular reference included elephant dung and photographic images of female genitalia. Then New York City mayor Rudi Giuliani fanned the controversy by alleging an offense to Catholic sentiments while the painting was on display in a group show at the Brooklyn Museum entitled Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection (October 2, 1999–January 9, 2000). Ofili’s recent retrospective, Chris Ofili: Night and Day at the New Museum, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari, and Margot Norton, asserted his ability to leave the scandal behind as he grew as an artist.
The two galleries on the museum’s second floor were occupied by Ofili’s large paintings from the 1990s until his move to Trinidad in 2005 (The Holy Virgin Mary is part of this body of work). The third and fourth floors contained paintings made since 2005: The Blue Rider (2005–7) series hung in the third-floor gallery, and selections from the most recent series, Metamorphoses (2007–12), on the fourth floor. The slightly asymmetrical verticality projected by the remarkable architecture of the New Museum when seen from the outside echoes in one’s experience inside the building. Thus, strolling through the exhibition, one was likely to have a noticeable feeling of ascent, moving up on the elevator several times (or descent, if one wanted to revisit floors below). This steadily vertical movement, which may initially have appeared inconvenient, even disruptive to the continuity of the visit, eventually lent itself to be read as a metaphor for one’s perusal through the several phases of Ofili’s two-decade career. In addition to the exhibits in the main galleries, the passageways around them on the second and third floors and the stairwell between the third and the fourth had a selection of his sculptures, drawings, and watercolors.
A close look at Ofili’s paintings reveals—across the various subjects, styles, techniques, and scales—a firm commitment to process and to the inquiry into the limits of the medium. The earliest series demonstrating Ofili’s involvement with process is Afromuses (1995–2005), a long line of over eighty watercolor portraits of fictional women and men, a section of which was on display. While their overall similarities are counterbalanced by subtle differences, they are interwoven by the conceptual thread of the act of painting each one in a single sitting, a strategy of execution integral to the significance of the entire series. In his larger paintings from the same period, process manifests in other ways. The intensely rich, psychedelic surfaces of the early images, painstakingly built up with oil, acrylic, and collages, combined with a range of nonconventional materials, such as polyester resin, glitter, map pins, and lacquered elephant dung, show his determination to push the conventional boundaries of painting to explore its gamut of possibilities. The opulence changes character between the colorful Afrodizzia (1996) and the somber palette of red, green, and black in Afronirvana (2002), but the corner-to-corner dense engagement with the surface in both images offers a contemporary relevance to the Greenbergian term “allover,” coined in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism.
Following Ofili’s move to Trinidad, this sense of exuberance and the bohemian adventure of a young artist give way to a more reductive, calculated pictorial strategy, albeit with the same investment in process. These are his paintings from The Blue Rider, in which he ties the act of painting to that of seeing. Hung in a dimly lit gallery and painted primarily with dark hues of blue, the images challenge the convention of beholding by forcing one to cope with the lack of illumination to discern the scenes (needless to say, they also resist reproduction). Then, on the fourth floor, color and pattern return in a somewhat drastic shift. Gone is the intensity of the pre-Trinidad years as well as the restrained palette of the “blue paintings.” Outlandish, decorative patterns occupy large canvases in Metamorphoses, employing art-historical tropes, while drawing their subjects from Ovid’s mythological narrative with the same title. Ofili shrewdly juxtaposes the literary myths of the ancients with the modernist myth of Primitivism—courting, if not precisely quoting, Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse—to offer a glimpse of his own hybrid otherness along with his resolute pursuit of a critical inquiry of painting.
Ofili’s engagement with process is not confined to the pictorial surface alone. He extends his exploration to challenge the neutrality of the gallery space differently on each floor. All the paintings on the second floor lean against the walls, instead of hanging on them. Each rests on two balls of elephant dung, just as they would be informally displayed in the artist’s studio, propped up on makeshift bases. The Blue Rider paintings, on the other hand, go back on the walls, ending the use of elephant dung. This change, however, is compensated by the paradoxical presence and absence of the darkened gallery, which actively mediates between the pictures and the viewer. Finally, for Metamorphoses, Ofili took yet another approach to this dialogic interplay between image, the gallery, and viewer: all four walls here were entirely engulfed by a landscape mural, painted in soft tints of blues and greens, a decision made in the final phase of curatorial planning. The bright pictures sharply contrasted with a dreamy, arcadia-like vignette of simulated nature. Drawing on several sources, such as the film Black Narcissus (1947), his collaborative installation with David Adjaye at the Venice Biennale of 2003, and the decor of Trinidadian nightclubs, this juxtaposition effectively broadens the horizon of painting, spilling it well beyond the canvas.
Beginning in the 1970s, the question of identity was central to art criticism for more than three decades. These days, however, it is seen by many as a red herring in the context of global contemporary art. Why, for instance, should artists from outside the dominant culture—that is, artists who are not heterosexual, white males—be routinely framed by the discourse of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc., which frequently essentializes their identities and undermines their creative enterprise? The argument has merit, not least because it implies that it is time to revisit the older dynamic of identity politics. But the problem is that such refusal to espouse stereotypes in the name of celebrating difference has, as an alternative, encouraged a trend that sidesteps difference with the naïve assumption that it is possible today to accommodate such artists in the global discourse of contemporary art exclusively on the basis of their creative merit. What this position fails to recognize is the power imbalance still influential in Western societies: an unraced, heterosexual, white patriarchy remains the arbiter of knowledge, while the rest is perceived via specific categories of identity. There is no question, for instance, that Ofili’s race and gender had a significant part in the public perception of his sale of elephant dung in London in 1993 as a facade for a drug trade. What is more, those who find the discussion of the identity of contemporary artists irrelevant are oblivious of the politics of inclusion in contemporary art discourse, whereby a nonwhite artist is “welcomed” and “accepted” by the art establishment on the basis of certain perceived affinities to major strands of modern and contemporary Western art. In other words, the master narrative of modernism—and ironically, that of postmodernism as well—co-opts these artists, thus seriously undermining any possibility of their art challenging those narratives. If this poses a dilemma for nonwhite—particularly diasporic—artists, it also makes their task all the more adventurous, to say the least. The task, it seems, is to be willing and ready to shift one’s position constantly between the two extremes: between seeking refuge behind an incommensurable difference in search of an authentic alterity, and erasing difference altogether with an uncritical approach to inclusivity. There is no reason to presume that despite his level of exposure, Ofili is not aware of society’s perception of him as a “black British artist,” in that order of emphasis, because his work over the years testifies to complex negotiations with the question of identity.
Sculpture had a marginal presence in the exhibition, more like punctuations at the entrances and exits of the galleries. Often echoing the formal properties of the paintings in Metamorphoses, they were no less promising than the paintings. But there were not enough of them to fulfill this promise. The most intriguing of the sculptures, however, was one from the early phase of Ofili’s career. Compared to those on biblical themes, it is almost a heretic one: a grotesque head made from a ball of elephant dung. Embellished with human teeth and the artist’s dreadlocks, the eyeless face is filled with a bizarre guffaw. Displayed in a vitrine located in a niche on the stairwell between the third and fourth floors, Shithead (1993) was missed by the majority of visitors, since most used the elevator. Yet in relation to the last two decades of Ofili’s career, this apparently puzzling curatorial decision proved provocative indeed. One might wonder if this literally disembodied, self-deprecating character is an allegory of alterity—that otherness inevitably imposed on the identity of a black diasporic artist. Is it a blind soothsayer, scoffing at society from an obscure location in the exhibition for doubting the artist’s commitment early in his career? Perhaps its boisterous laughter is a response to all the uproar caused by its presence in his work; and then, once it was no longer there, all the thoughtful critical evaluations of his art that followed, along with all the anticipation about what he is going to do next.
Sunanda K. Sanyal
Professor, Art History and Critical Studies, College of Art and Design, Lesley University, Cambridge, Massachusetts