Elephant Dung and Monkey Worship


There’s more to Chris Ofili at Tate Britain

Chris Ofili’s work at Tate Britain is displayed in seven separate rooms offering a conventional chronological look at the artist’s work. In the first room, large works from the 1990s are displayed. This is his work that I was most familiar with. Huge canvases measuring 6×7 feet surrounded the room. They were painted in really beautiful, lively colours and covered with the smallest dots that just vibrated with life. Even though the subject matter was pretty heavy in some cases I wasn’t turned off by looking at the paintings because they were crafted in such a mindful way and exuded such light and brilliance.

I found it interesting how immediately Ofili absorbed the influence of his travels to Zimbabwe that he made as a student. While there he saw ancient cave paintings which featured tiny dots in its composition, an aesthetic which he started to incorporate literally into his work. It reminded me of the aboriginal art of Australia I saw at the Seattle Art Museum last year. Swirls of little dots seem to pulsate with life — suggesting that these cultures had a very clear understanding of the inter-connectedness of life, either on a microscopic or a metaphorical level.

painting b chris ofili entitled Blossom

Each canvas stood on two huge balls of dried elephant dung which the artist explained helped to suggest that the paintings came from the earth. There was also a ball of dung on each painting which Ofili stuck coloured map pins in to form a letter or design correlating to the dots painted on the canvas. Dried dung – no smell!!

The vibrant glitter pasted canvases continued into the next room with huge works in red and green pulsating with energy. A specially built space by architect David Adjaye within the gallery, approached through a long, darkened¬†hallway,¬†was like walking into a church nave lined with stained glass monkey windows. The windows were, in fact, spot-lit paintings each of a nearly identical monkey inspired by Andy Warhol’s print of a monkey with a chalice.

“It was important for the space to feel akin to a space of worship and to experience the kind of feelings you get when you walk in to a place like that. I wondered if that was possible, and whether paintings could enhance that feeling.” Chris Ofili, in ‘Ekow Eshun interviews Chris Ofili’, Chris Ofili exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain 2010

The large dark blue canvases that follow are significantly different from his preceding work, if not in scale, than in material and subject matter. These monumental works were painted in tones so similar I found it difficult to distinguish the shapes in the composition. I was startled by one when I realized, having let my eyes adjust to the darkness, that I was looking at a hanged man. These works had a Rothko-like atmosphere to them, sombre, mysterious and powerful due to their sheer size. No vestige of the glitter-encrusted accoutrements of his early work.

Cover of pamphlet of the Chris Ofili show at Tate Britain
Cover of pamphlet of the Chris Ofili show at Tate Britain

I was glad to pass into the next and final room of his exhibit where his art is found conventionally hanging on the wall. Ofili continues with huge canvases painted in some really startling colour combinations, reminiscent of his earlier work in their energy. These semi-abstract figurative compositions I found more difficult to decipher apart from trying to experience them on an emotional level, something which is difficult to avoid, again, due to their enormous size. Ofili boldly uses his canvases, pushing the subject matter into corners, hanging it from the top, and stretching it from top to bottom as if to suggest it can barely be contained on the surface.

In contrast to all this monumentality, a number of small 24×15 cm watercolours are exhibited with some truly microscopic pencilled heads alongside. I don’t doubt the artist needs this dichotomy of scale to offer him some variety in his working methods.

I enjoy seeing how an artist’s work develops over a period of time, especially when there are such differences from one body of work to another. Ofili has moved in new directions, away from the work which first brought him fame and which apparently he no longer finds satisfactory. What I find so fascinating is how literally he seems to absorb and reflect influences from his environment: The dots of Tanzanian cave paintings; the porno-infused world of his 1990’s King’s Cross neighbourhood; hip-hop and pop culture images; and, now that he makes his home in Trinidad, the slinky black of Caribbean nights and the tropical fruit colours in his latest paintings.