A review by Jemma L. St. Lawrence-Martin
Chris Ofili, Lime Bar, 2014. Oil on linen. 122 1/8 x 78 ¾ in (310 x 200 cm) Private collection.
© Chris Ofili. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London.
Tuesday, October 28, 2014 was a bright, beautiful, sunny and gorgeous day to be in “the city”, as most New Yorkers would say. It was especially exhilarating to be there on a visit to the New Museum to view the Chris Ofili exhibit, “Night and Day”. On this day my mood was not heavy with a sometimes weighty New York life, but light-hearted and easy in travelling by subway to lower Manhattan, Bowery Street. Full of expectations and excitement from reading articles from the New Yorker Magazine among others, those insights and perspectives helped to create a build-up of expectation in me, exposing the background of a man who left his home country of England to live in the Caribbean in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. There, he seems to find inspiration, much fodder for thought and creativity, the mental and physical space needed to create more art with many new influences and certainly less inhibitions.
Realizing that my perspective comes from a strongly “Trini” point of view and as an artist as well, I have been fascinated with this artist and that this Brit (born in Manchester, England) has decided to make my home country of Trinidad and Tobago his own and raise his family there. Ofili’s two children with his wife were born on the island of Trinidad. Having visited there just recently in June after a long hiatus of 18 years, I became artistically and culturally “drunk”, heady and greatly affected with the scenery, the contrasting energies of the twin island country that I had missed, the local twang, the food and palette, the playful moods, the mysterious mountains and so many more aspects of this land I left behind some 40 odd years ago as a young girl. It was that place that provided me the foundation in my formative years filled with art and culture all around me. I recall a childhood of artistic, musical and cultural wonderment in this land of carnival, parang, limbo, calypso, steel drums and carnival mask making. The exposure to a different culture in this land must have affected Chris Ofili as well as an artist and as a person of African descent finding his way in the art world, speaking to him in his pursuit for idyllic creative inspiration.
Stepping off the second floor of the museum where the exhibit starts I am hit with Ofili’s “Afromuses”, and it was simply delicious. The sensation aroused in me was like seeing a huge laden July (pronounced Ju-lee) mango tree in season, full of large, ripe fruit to pick: juicy, colorful and inviting to the senses. I start from right to left examining each piece deciding which ones to “pick” into my favorites, but they are all so sweet looking. What a way to start viewing an exhibit! The design, shapes and patterning, as well as the subjects in these pieces were so very appealing on surface value, never mind the deeper meanings behind Ofili’s expressions here. Ofili’s unique personal African-ness and his worldly self are exposed in his work. The artist’s humanity projects as well. He gives himself full permission to artistically and poetically express and does so in a way an artist should. His intellect and curiosity displays prominently as well as his playful sensibilities.
The exhibit flows onto the third floor showing the “night” aspect of the theme under dim lighting where he explores dark colors, blues and greens and shadowy figures. One moves in mood from being in a bright orchard to a dark forest. Here the overall mood Ofili’s works displayed was mysterious. I recall stories of my childhood of Soucouyants, Douens, La Diablese and Papa Bois. In Trinidad and Tobago the mainly French creole and African inspired legends and folklore, along with traditional carnival cultural characters such as J’ouvert Jab-Jabs, Robbers and Devils with forks, leaves indelible memories on one’s mind and consciousness as a society that eats, breathes and sleeps culture and folklore in juxtaposition to religious ideology all year long.
My understanding of why Ofili was drawn to reside in Trinidad and Tobago is clearer; I do believe it was a most important discovery for him and is a good match to his sensibilities. In terms of the twin islands’ basic cultural mix of people of African, East Indian, Carib, Spanish, French, Chinese, Portuguese and Syrian descent over an adopted traditional British (anglicized) “way” that was imposed and ingrained within the culture from the 19th century, including the establishment of English as the main language, the overall appeal to Ofili must have instantly “clicked”. The city may be named after a “Port of Spain”, but streets named after a Queen, Edward, King and Lady Chancellor leaves a large statement of who was here last in colonial times. On the island of Trinidad Ofili, the artist, could blend in with his dark skin and African looks, be culturally and intellectually amused with some “British-like” speaking intellectuals and personalities or gurus from the local area, be curious about the native folklore and spirits, immerse in the Blue Devil cultural characters of Paramin, a town on the outskirts of Port-of-Spain that is known for menacing displays during carnival celebrations. He portrays the Blue Devils of Paramin in one of his pieces, 2006 and also in Blue Devils, 2014, a scathing reference to police in blue uniforms and police brutality. He also explores a land equally filled with diversity of culture as is the racial diversity of people who live there with its interesting, unrelenting but beautiful landscape all at the same time. These experiences further the journey of the artist who connects the irony and relativity of social and cultural issues and situations, juxtaposing, tackling them in ways that stretches the imagination and wittingly applies the resulting compositions to his art creations.
The rest of the exhibit shows Ofili’s whimsical side and in some cases mysterious and whimsical intertwined, as with the piece, “Belmont Guru”. Although I have many favorites, I am interested in “Bar Lime” inspired by time he spent working as a bartender in Port-of-Spain. The latter piece maintains a secretive nature with the characters displayed in an intimate though public setting, except for the bartender who looks on un-secretively and almost voyeur-like. “Ovid-Destiny”, one of my favorite pieces from the metamorphoses series displays his use of highly decorative motifs and material that is shown in many of his works.
I am not going to belabor the points of contention that were displayed when last he exhibited in New York in 1999. It mostly escaped me having taken up residence at the time in Florida and gladly so. The whole hullabaloo of that time seemed outrageous to me. In reviewing that historic commentary, I do agree with Reverend Daughtry that perhaps the most upsetting idea was that of a depicted black Madonna with full lips, surely that in itself is “blasphemous” (I’m being sarcastic). Additionally, a retired school teacher takes it upon himself to vandalize Ofili’s painting of a Madonna painted black with white paint! I think in retrospect the response was what one would expect of social and racial ideologies being challenged and Ofili proves his point. Absent of that experience I did not personally witness, my perception is open and free to view Ofili’s work and this exhibit, with a fresh pair of eyes.
I am left with the impression that Ofili’s work is inspiring and refreshing in ways that define art. He uses textures, layers of intent, complex ideas and juxtapositions, exploration of colors and contrast, strong design elements, curious questioning of ideas and ideals. The sculptural pieces displayed defy norms of thinking, particularly “The annunciation”. His playfulness and the influences in his art are not judged but simply acknowledged and conjured up for discussion while he does not shy away from challenging deeply rooted social subject matter. His art also says, “It’s not that serious”, and is refreshingly whimsical. That I believe is the true beauty of his work collectively. In Night and Day, it shows that Ofili has found his voice and embraces his comfort zones as a British artist of African descent who is as easy in varied worldly places such as London and Brooklyn as he is in a generally cosmopolitan but identifiably Caribbean city of Port-of-Spain hanging out with the locals. He is probably a bonafide “Trini” by now. There is a saying among Trinidadians that everywhere you go in the world you are bound to run into a Trini, and chances are as the saying goes, “it’s a Trini running the show”. Chris Ofili as a successful artist is certainly running his own show, consciously making his mark and seems to be having a blast doing it.
Jemma St. Lawrence-Martin is the Executive Director of the sales and acquisition and auction company St. Lawrence & Martin. You may find out more about the company on their official website.