Island Records: One of the "Sensation" Generation of Saatchi Artists, Chris Ofili Has Retreated from Scandal to Paint the Beauty of His Adopted Home-Trinidad
Adams, Tim, New Statesman (1996)
At the start of his day at his studio in Port of Spain, Trinidad, Chris Ofili habitually paints watercolours, to help get him into the frame of mind for larger-scale work. His ritual goes like this: he takes a sheet of paper divided into eight squares and deftly fills each with the head and shoulders of a figure--simple full faces of African women and profiles of bearded African men, dressed in brilliantly detailed, patterned shirts and frocks, in some of which the water-colour bleeds like batik.
He subsequently groups the figures into little families: "the suitors", or "the unkissed", or "the harem". In this way, with these quickly individuated characters ("Afromuses", he calls them), Ofili paints himself each day into his own vision--playful and generous, referencing everything from Nefertiti to P Diddy.
Some of these works on paper will be included in the retrospective of Ofili's work that opens at Tate Britain late this month, hanging next to his large-scale canvases, with their fabulously intricate veneers of paint and collage -an unmissable wow of colour for Sad sufferers everywhere. The exhibition will represent a homecoming of sorts for Ofili, who grew up in Manchester and came of age as a painter in London, but has lived for much of the past decade in the Caribbean. The prodigal son returns-bearing elephant dung.
Ofili is 41 now--it's a dozen years since he became the first painter of his generation to win the Turner Prize, and a decade since Rudy Giuliani became his unlikely PR agent when, as mayor of New York, he tried to withdraw $7m of city funding from the Brooklyn Museum of Art if it displayed Ofili's "horrible and disgusting" Holy Virgin Mary (depicted as a black African and adorned with a pagan halo of vaginas, cut out from porn magazines) during the New York transfer of "Sensation" in 1999. Ofili has never responded directly to that controversy beyond saying that it was encouraging for him to discover, in our pixelated age, that people still believed a painting might be something worth fighting over.
Nor has he been deflected from creating further incendiary mixes of the hallowed and the profane--after the New York show, he embarked on a spectacular Last Supper in which Jesus and the disciple become randy macaque monkeys. In 2006, Ofili was no doubt suitably amused to find himself, for the second time, making a bestselling list of "people who are screwing up America".
The Giuliani outrage itself was a diversion from understanding the most gifted and original of the "Sensation" group of Saatchi artists. It presented Ofili as an enfant terrible--shocking for shock's sake--and threatened to obscure for a while, in the public mind at least, the genuine wonder and eccentricity of his painting, with its excrement-encrusted insistence that nothing is sacred (or everything is).
The move to Trinidad has, among other things, allowed Ofili to retreat from his unanticipated notoriety and to work without media distraction. He first went to the island on a residency in 2000 with his friend and fellow painter Peter Doig; both of them now live there. When asked, "Why Trinidad?" Ofili often responds, "Why not?"--but the answer is vividly apparent in the autobiography of his work. Ofili had an inclination to paint personal versions of island paradises long before he lived in one. Early in his career, he was asked about his ambitions. "To get in contact with the beautiful," he replied.
The beautiful in his life, it has always seemed, was something he located in his Nigerian heritage--his parents spoke Yoruba as their first language, and Ofili always felt himself to be more sub-Saharan than Mancunian--but he was troubled by how to depict that dislocation honestly and with the verve he felt it deserved. His early paintings were all about identity, about how to bridge the gap between his vibrant sense of possibility and his somewhat colourless surroundings. …