Biography for Chris Ofili (Born 1968)
Chris Ofili is an English painter, who studied in London at Chelsea School of Art (1988-91) and the Royal College of Art (1991-3). In 1992 Chris Ofili was awarded a travelling scholarship to Zimbabwe, an experience that profoundly influenced his approach to painting, using references from African music, culture, religion and textiles, he began to experiment with unconventional techniques, materials (famously elephant dung) and subject matter. Chris Ofili's works are vibrant, technically complex and meticulously executed, consisting of layers of paint, resin, glitter and collage. Using heavily decorative and intricate patterns he explores widely diverse themes, including sacred ideals, identity, black history, high and low culture and self-awareness.
Chris Ofili's work often incorporates elephant dung, not straight out the elephant, but chemically treated to avoid putrefaction, odour and flies. Lumps are attached to the canvas directly or used to support the paintings when displayed in the gallery space. For Chris Ofili dung links the painting literally and psychologically to the earth. As Chris Ofili say's "Somehow it makes the painting feel more relaxed, instead of being pinned upon the wall like its being crucified."
Chris Ofili has placed dung in a paper bag for his instalment 'Bags of Shit' and in 1993, and held a 'Shit Sale' in Brick Lane Market in London. Chris Ofili has played with the street parlance of "Shit" as drugs, and the fact that some people have assumed he was selling drugs because of his dreadlocked hairstyle - hence his work 'Shithead', a piece of elephant dung, which resembles hashish, incorporating his own hair.
Chris Ofili is all too aware of ethnic categorizing in the art world, which expects a black artist to be naïve, tribal or shamanistic, as he declares about his six week trip to Zimbabwe: "It's a great country, but it's a foreign country for me and the idea of looking for your roots and stuff is ridiculous."
Chris Ofili's paintings are concerned with issues of black identity and experience and frequently employ racial stereotypes in order to challenge them. Thus in the painting 'Afrodizzia' (1996; London, Saatchi Gal.), the work makes reference to the stereotype of black sexual potency, and magazine cut-out faces are given 1970s Afro hairstyles, their names written in pinheads on lumps of dung. Chris Ofili draws on a wide range of cultural references; from the Bible to jazz and hip hop music, from Blake and Rodin to pornographic magazines.
This breadth of allusion is emphatic in the 'Captain Shit' series which features a black superhero inspired by 1970s comic books, surrounded by a band of black stars. The humorous aspect of the depiction of an ostensibly powerful but also vulnerable superhero is recurrent in Chris Ofili's early work.
In 1996 Chris Ofili's first set of etchings were published. Several confident editions of etching prints inspired by visits that he made to Barcelona, Berlin, New York and North Wales. They were in stark contrast to his large and vibrantly-coloured canvases. The four series of etchings, each consisting of ten prints reveal the sensitive, lyrical core of Chris Ofili's art. On each trip Chris Ofili took along a set of copper etching plates and, working methodically, used a different abstract pattern obliquely related to his impressions of the specific place. Calling his project "an odd kind of tourism," he used cross-hatching for the first series 'Barcelona' in 1992, followed by small dots for 'Berlin', concentric waves for 'New York' and diamond patterns for the 'North Wales'.
For the Barcelona set of etching prints called 'Sagrada Familia' Chris Ofili used a self-hallucinatory style of drawing. Ofili is portraying an essentially European city through a deliberately Afrocentric eye, causing us to reflect on the way European artists, such as J. F. Lewis and David Roberts, portrayed the 'Orient' in the 19th century. Although the images appear abstract at first, the lines resolve into patterns suggesting Baroque buildings, Renaissance sculpture and other forms as indicated in the individual titles. Also, influenced by his previous travels to Zimbabwe where he visited the Matapos Hills and saw cave paintings which had been made by an artist in a semi-hallucinatory state induced by drum rhythms. Chris Ofili attempted that same style in Barcelona, finding a different spot in the city every day and drawing without looking up or pausing until the plate was complete.
The Berlin set of etching prints inspired tiny dots. The New York set of etching prints inspired concentric waves. And the North Wales etching prints were each built up of a mass of diamond patterning. The North Wales set consist of; etching print 'Castell Harlech' signed bottom right Chris Ofili. Etching print 'Llanberis' signed bottom right Chris Ofili. Etching print 'Llandebr' signed bottom right Chris Ofili. Etching print 'Hwlcyn' signed bottom right Chris Ofili. Etching print 'Penrhyndeudraeth' signed bottom right Chris Ofili. Etching print 'Portmadog' signed bottom right Chris Ofili. Etching print 'Portmerion' signed bottom right Chris Ofili. Etching print 'Blaenau' signed bottom right Chris Ofili. Etching print 'Twynitywod Morfa Harlech' signed bottom right Chris Ofili. Etching print 'Snowdon' signed bottom right Chris Ofili. In the bottom left hand corner of each etching print is a written note stating the place and date it was created. The text is written onto the plate backwards (rather than double-reversing), giving the prints a pure, diary-like quality.
Chris Ofili also produced the etching print 'The Stutz Mappe Portfolio'. Edition size 50 and signed on reverse Chris Ofili.
Chris Ofili's next foray into print making was to create the strikingly beautiful screen print 'Celestial'. A larger edition this time of 320 and published in 1998. A wonderful experimentation with fluorescent ink, this screen print glows with as much exuberance as one of Chris Ofili's canvases. Signed in pencil bottom left Chris Ofili.
In 1998 Chris Ofili won the Turner prize, the first black artist to do so.
After the 'Sensation' show in 1999, Chris Ofili held a solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which held none of the controversy attached to his painting 'The Holy Virgin Mary' exhibited in the sensation show. Chris Ofili's painting of a black Madonna was vilified by New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and various religious groups, who objected to the Brooklyn Museum of Art showing Ofili's Virgin Mary; an undulating black female visage hovering in a dazzling field of enamel dots. Surrounded by cut-outs of female genitalia and other body parts, her glowing gown parted to reveal a black breast fashioned of elephant dung and ornamented with coloured pins.
In contrast, the Harlem exhibition, a solo show titled 'Afro Muses' was a tasteful collection of colourful, quietly celebratory portraits that included an exquisitely executed lithograph print 'Afro Harlem Muses'. A small addition of 60 prints and signed in pencil bottom right Chris Ofili. This highly collectable print displays the expansive, dramatic and romantic elements, woven with a linear grace that flows through Ofili's paintings.
In the late 1990's Chris Ofili worked on two other Portraiture prints. Published in 2000 they are the majestic etching and aquatint print 'From Cubitt Portfolio', edition of 100 and signed bottom right Chris Ofili. And the very regal lithograph print 'Regal', edition of 300 and signed bottom right Chris Ofili.
In 2005, following trips to Trinidad to visit his friend and artist Peter Doig, Chris Ofili officially made the Caribbean island his home. This move greatly influenced his work. While adopting a simplified colour palette and pared-down forms, the works continued to draw on diverse sources of inspiration, and are full of references to sensual and Biblical themes as well as exploring Trinidad's landscape and mythology.
This shift was evident in Berlin at Chris Ofili's solo exhibition 'The Blue Rider', subtle, almost monochromatic creations in black, dark blue and silver were "integral to his new direction as was the harmonizing of spirituality, music, high art and folk art," wrote Remi Abbas in Portrait of the Artist in Motion for Spread Artculture Magazine.
2006 saw the publication of 'Black Kiss' a Portfolio of 13 signed prints, gravures with chine collé, title page, and colophon on Somerset paper handtorn to size in a cloth-covered box with silver stamping.
In 2007 for his solo exhibition 'Devil's Pie' in New York, Chris Ofili moved into sculpture and replaced the decorative dots in his paintings with planes of matte color. In these works Chris Ofili recombines, and reassesses his subjects, ultimately reinforcing the multivalence of his imagery and the interconnectedness of its underlying themes; birth, death, seduction, and salvation, both religious and personal.
As well as working on sculpture, paintings and drawings for the show Chris Ofili's nimble drawing practice of 'afro heads' assume new significant in the context of 'Agony in the Garden' a portfolio set of 11 intaglio prints to accompany the exhibition. Each print depicts the same moment, when Judas betrayed Christ with a kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane, from the varying viewpoints of the eleven other disciples. A mainstay of his drawing practice, Chris Ofili employs his tiny "afro head" figures in the prints, leaving some as outlines while filling others in, to represent the eleven points of view amidst the throng of soldiers that accompanied Judas to capture Christ and ultimately sentence him to crucifixion. Through this gesture, Ofili reinforces the power of perspective, acknowledging that any story, even one of history's most frequently told, is simply one attempt at describing a situation's apparent truth. Each is an intaglio prints with spit bite aquatint, one color, on Sommerset paper. Portfolio of 11 intaglio prints with spit bite aquatint, one color, on Sommerset paper.
Chris Ofili says of his retreat to Trinidad. "I want to be somewhere where I can grow and make changes and not feel scrutinized," Ofili continues. "People here are interested in what you do but they don't suffocate you. I just feel I'm somewhere where I can exhale." As it happened, Chris Ofili had been thinking about islands, and journeys, and escapes-thoughts spurred in part by his own life and in part by, of all things, an illustration on a dry-cleaning bag. "It's a couple looking at each other, with a drawing of a palm tree and a sunset. I quite liked it, and I did a few drawings of it. It was around that time I first came to Trinidad. Two sparks came together, I got a little bit of a flame, and that became the guiding light."
The light illuminated a new series of paintings shown at the 2003 Venice Biennale, "Within Reach," an array of beautiful watercolours for which Ofili once again borrowed religious imagery, this time a black Adam and Eve navigating their way through paradise. Chris Ofili quotes "I've thought a lot about paradise, and paradise lost," he continues. "In one way, those paintings were a celebration of paradise-a beautiful place where you can relax and be yourself". Lovers in a tropical paradise celebrating a spirit of optimism. As suggested in his rich and lustrous silk screen prints 'Afro Lunar Lovers II, edition of 250 and signed in gold Chris Ofili bottom right. And 'Afro Lunar Lovers', edition of 350 and signed Chris Ofili, both prints are embossed with hand-applied gold leaf. Ofili continues "But they were also about the threats that can exist in paradise: Greed, envy, the poisonous elements, that are always just below the surface."
In 2008 he was invited to Crown Point Press where he created 17 color etching prints in a rainbow of colors. They are; Aquatint, etching and drypoint print 'Rainbow-Yellow Day' signed on reverse Chris Ofili. Aquatint, etching and drypoint print 'Rainbow-Turquoise Duo' signed on reverse Chris Ofili. Aquatint, etching and drypoint print 'Rainbow-Violet Narcissus' signed on reverse Chris Ofili. Aquatint, etching and drypoint print 'Rainbow-Purple Palms' signed on reverse Chris Ofili. Aquatint, etching and drypoint print 'Rainbow-Red Cave', signed on reverse Chris Ofili. Ofili. And aquatint, etching and drypoint print 'Rainbow-Pink Particles' signed on reverse Chris Ofili. Aquatint, etching and drypoint print 'Rainbow-Grey Seale', signed on reverse Chris Ofili. Aquatint, etching and drypoint print 'Rainbow-Blue Friends' signed on reverse Chris Ofili. Aquatint, etching and drypoint print 'Rainbow-Brown Bathers' signed on reverse Chris Ofili. Aquatint, etching and drypoint print 'Rainbow-Green Riann' signed on reverse Chris Ofili. Aquatint, etching and drypoint print 'Rainbow-Orange Ramo' signed on reverse Chris Ofili. These beautifully subtle, languid, liner prints are all of a small, elite edition of 10.
Another trio of small edition prints inspired by the laidback Caribbean island are; aquatint signed print 'Hablo Green'. Aquatint signed print 'Last Night. New Day'. And 'Sietsa of the Soul'
A waterfall on the north coast of Trinidad inspired the other set of prints published that same year. Chris Ofili continues to experiment with themes of nature and landscape to challenge his skills and to "re-learn" printmaking. Ofili uses photographs and videos he has taken as source material, combined with his own memories of hiking around Trinidad, to inspire his somewhat improvisational compositions. These set of prints comprise of; Etching, aquatint and drypoint print 'Rincon Falls-Black Leaf', signed on reverse Chris Ofili. Etching, aquatint and drypoint print 'Rincon Falls-Yellow Day' signed on reverse Chris Ofili. Etching, aquatint and drypoint print 'Rincon Falls-Green Locks' signed on reverse Chris Ofili. Etching, aquatint and drypoint print 'Rincon Falls-Grey Bathers' signed on reverse Chris Ofili. Etching, aquatint and drypoint print. This suite of etchings is of a small edition of 20 and each is signed on the reverse Chris Ofili.
Definite highlights in Chris Ofili's career so far include 'No Woman, No Cry', 1998, a tender portrait of a weeping female figure created in the aftermath of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. This work is a portrait of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence's mother Doreen and includes small photos of her son in the teardrops that spill down her face. It remains deeply poignant even today. And 'The Upper Room '1999-2002, a darkened, walnut-panelled room containing thirteen canvases depicting rhesus macaque monkeys. Each is differentiated in bold colours, and individually spot-lit. The rhesus monkey, as Chris Ofili points out is known to be more intelligent than man; In Ofili's paintings the central canvas depicts a monkey assuming a Buda like pose, while the other 12 suggest the apostles; the presentation in the hushed and low-lit space conjures a deliberately reverent atmosphere.
Chris Ofili's most recent exhibition was held at Tate Britain at the beginning of 2010. This major exhibition bought together over 45 paintings, as well as pencil drawings and watercolours from the mid 1990s to today. The first half of the show pops with Ofili's intensely coloured and intricately ornamented paintings which include glitter, map pins, cut-outs from porn mags, alongside the aforementioned balls of elephant dung - result in noisy, energetic paintings, which also buzz with the music of the hip hop stars that were influencing Ofili at that time.
The second half of the show brings together the Venice Biennale series, the room adorned with Ofili's elegant watercolours, which for a period he was making every day. Ten years worth of these watercolours were exhibited at the Studio Museum Harlem in 2005, along side the lithograph print 'Afro Harlem Muses'. Chris Ofili quotes "the show signaled the end of this process…..when I had that show at the Studio Museum in Harlem, that was the end of it, the celebration," Chris Ofili explains in an interview in the latest issue of Tate Magazine. "I kind of miss it though, and I would like to replace it with something else. For example, now I keep more sketchbooks and I make drawings of alternative ideas for images that I'm working on, which allows me to develop images with a more automatic, stream-of-consciousness approach. And I've been photographing a lot more here [in Trinidad]… I'm seeing so much here, I have to record it because I won't remember it, and things change so quickly - the light will be different, a tree will have fallen. The leaf that was significant because it was a bluish-green, might be a brownish-green the next time you go back."
The final two rooms of paintings at the Tate show works heavily influenced from his time in Trinidad. Nature, and especially the light in Trinidad, has taken over from the urban sprawl and hip hop references that played such a strong part in his early works. Consequently perhaps, Chris Ofili's more recent paintings are more pared back and subtle - while some retain the bright colours seen throughout his career, the layers of extra materials (including the elephant dung) have disappeared, replaced instead by an interest in the mythology of the island and a more intense investigation of spiritual ideas. "When you live somewhere like this," Ofili explains in the Tate Magazine interview, "you become aware of different types of energies. The place itself has an undeniable energy. The force of nature is overwhelming."
Chris Ofili's latest signed print 'Ritual and Desire', as the title suggests has a religious iconography - three bearded men are sitting below a tree, each swinging a twig and worshipping a figure in the tree, casting light down on the men. The lithograph is carried out in a traditional way using crayon, classical air-brush and ink to create large areas of beautiful washes. An edition of 60. Published 2009.
Chris Ofili's mid-career survey at Tate Britain reveals how much his work has evolved since he burst onto the contemporary art scene in the 1990s, and his most recent works hint at unpredictable and exciting developments yet to come.
Chris Ofili's work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Tate Gallery, London; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; the Saatchi Collection, London; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others. Chris Ofili currently lives and works in Trinidad.