Shock and awe: The art of Chris Ofili
A major retrospective of Chris Ofili’s work opens at Tate Britain next week. Ekow Eshun talks to Ofili about his new-found ‘sense of freedom’
Ekow Eshun: We’re in your studio in Trinidad, so what brought you here and what took you away from London?
Chris Ofili: I felt in some way things had closed down. London was an exciting place to work at one point, because socially it was very progressive – a catalyst. There were very interesting artists making all types of work, but it got to a point where the social aspect became claustrophobic. The fact it was all happening in London became counter-productive, and highlighted the fact that there’s a big world out there, and places where there isn’t so much vanity about the cultural scene. It also got to a point where I felt the work was really known in a public sense, that the division between public and private was like a thin membrane. And I didn’t feel that gave me a greater sense of freedom. The public is not within my control, but the work is, and I wanted to make changes within the work. That couldn’t happen in an arena that was familiar to me.
EE: There’s a tradition of painters that go away to islands, for example Gauguin. But you’re not working from outside as an observer: you’re a participant and that’s an interesting shift. And if one wants to look at it sociologically, you’re on a non-white island, you’re black and you have a place here that’s very different to a white European artist coming away somewhere…
CO: I have a camouflage. Although I’m not from here, my skin can camouflage that fact, and allow me to be in places that perhaps would be more difficult if I didn’t have this camouflage. The camouflage is disguising my gaze, and my excitement and enlightenment in seeing what I see here. The way I look may make it seem this is normal for me, but this is very far from normal, I didn’t grow up in a rural environment at all. If I’m by a waterfall, things are running through my head at a million miles an hour, although it may look like I’m lounging.
EE: It seems to me that Trinidad arrives in the work in a number of different ways. Nature has become your secondary palette. The subject matter has shifted. What do you take from living here?
CO: I take a lot of what this place gives for free, which is a very particular mystery which I value and think might have a place in painting now. Essentially there’s a joy I feed off, an excitement about being here and seeing things that have a sublime beauty about them, but an incredible rawness. It’s very beautiful and visually very dynamic here. There’s a lot to see, and it’s never boring. As an artist it’s an amazing place to have around you, but it can be overwhelming. The three-dimensionality of the place is full-on. You have to let what you see here soak in over a period of time, before you can really work with the full range of this place. For example, The Healer is a fairly simple painting in the way it’s put together. The composition is clearly mapped out. But in order for the subject to have any real gravity, I have to create a belief in it. And that’s through being around it, working through it, having areas of joy, areas of ambiguity, openness. Those areas might be quite subtle, but for me I know there are ways of painting in there that I would never have allowed to come out of the studio before. I was painting here on Lady Chancellor Hill during a full moon. A lot of what Trinidad is about is the feeling of the place, the atmosphere of the place, particularly at night, and the mystery of the forest. And I was trying to get that into the painting.
EE: Mystery has always been an important aspect of what you seek to explore in your work. For example, The Upper Room, 1999–2002, is a very powerful, intense work that would be impossible to make if you didn’t surrender yourself completely to the story of the Last Supper, to the possibilities, mystery and drama of that moment.
CO: The story of the Upper Room is written down, but I’ve imagined it countless times, what it must have been like in that room. It is a very dynamic event in history. It’s been painted a lot, and I started thinking about the elements of the story, that Jesus knew that Judas was playing a part in bringing things to an end. I didn’t begin thinking, “Okay, I’m gonna make a version of the Upper Room.” I just started working on a six-by-four painting and was interested in this motif of a monkey carrying a chalice, which I’d worked on in a previous painting, Monkey Magic: Sex, Money and Drugs, 1999. I took that idea into another canvas. I had one then I had three. And then eventually I thought I could run with it. I had six, all facing one direction, and I knew there was potential to go on to this “Upper Room”. I really cannot remember at what point the monkeys became representations for the elements of the Last Supper. But they did.
EE: For me, the most powerful effect of The Upper Room is its absolute sincerity. We can contrast that with some of the earlier work, such as Painting with Shit on It, 1993, and Two Doo Voodoo, 1997, where you use titles that are provocative and playful. With The Upper Room, there’s less of that.
CO: It was important for the space to feel akin to a space of worship. I wondered if that was possible, and whether paintings could enhance that feeling. I made some sketches for a room, but I didn’t feel that I could design a space that would work well with the paintings, and allow for a viewer to have a total experience of looking at the paintings and revelling in that feeling, which is why I asked David [Adjaye] to help me.
EE: Why did you want to communicate that feeling?
CO: I value it. I place less value on spaces for art that have a lot of people just passing through, which you get in big exhibitions. I thought it would be a valuable experience to suddenly come across a place that was completely standing still, but that had a lot going on within it. The paintings operate in a slow fashion. The colour and activity within each one of the paintings has a power. And then the unity of all the paintings together has another level of power. I’d never had 13 big paintings in the studio, and never presented that many paintings all at once.
EE: Do you think of yourself as a painter that works with narrative?
CO: Of a sort, yeah. I don’t really like that word, I don’t really like the word “abstract” either, although in my head, when I’m working, I work with those words. And “narrative” sometimes spells “literal” and “didactic”, which worries me. Sometimes though, I’m just blindingly obvious, an example being Afrodizzia, 1996. Like, bang, there it is. Afro head – celebration of Afrocentricity.
EE: The great theme that you’ve allowed to emerge through the work over the years is religion. Iscariot Blues, 2006, for example, is very powerful with its mix of the everyday and the extraordinary.
CO: Iscariot Blues was made here and came out of my observations and feelings of Trinidad. There are people playing instruments, enjoying an evening in a relative darkness. I can hear the sound of the wood creaking as the hanging figure swings. And I can’t necessarily get that in the painting, that sound, but it was there when I was trying to paint the painting.
EE: How much of your work is a rediscovery or resuscitation of childhood experiences? How much is a lived exploration of those themes, ideas or emotions?
CO: I was an altar boy and heard the Bible being read out repeatedly. The stories have stayed with me, although they’re completely remixed in my head. And often when I do further reading, I’m quite surprised by the difference between the real story and my memory of the story. I’m interested in that difference and how it’s affected the way I think about making images. But I’m comfortable with that. I don’t particularly want to be spot-on. I’m fortunate in that religion has played an important part in the history of painting. When I go on a trip to look at frescoes, some of my themes are up there on the wall. Death & the Roses came out of ideas about flagellation and guilt, and from looking at Piero della Francesca’s the Flagellation of Christ. In my painting, the guy on the right with his white shirt comes from contemporary images of Trinidad stick-fighting. He’s also dressed a little bit like how farmers and hunters dress in the forest. A lot of these ideas are based in reality, but are imagined, fictional occurrences. That’s something I work with a little bit more now.
EE: You’ve made works that reference Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Annunciation, and other elements of the Bible you grew up with. What is it you find in the Bible now?
CO: Stories within the Bible still have a relevance to my life and contemporary life in general. I’m still interested in ideas of morality. Last night I was thinking about how Christianity has structured the way we live our lives now. We still have a clear idea of what’s right and wrong, and that has some parallels with what’s considered right and wrong in the Bible. The stories are so well put together that they evoke very powerful images.
EE: Are you having a public conversation in ways you were before? Are the works more private, more public or more revealing?
CO: I think there are more unknowns in the work for me now, in narrative. Previously, I would have needed to link my work to historical events, and be able to explain exactly what’s going on. But now I’m more comfortable with not being able to pin down what’s going on, and why. I’m at the beginning of something new. There’s a newfound confidence in the way I’m working, that I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate 10 years ago.
EE: Do you think you tried to do it all, in your earlier paintings? That collage effect?
CO: In the earlier work, there was less filtering – it was about doing the maximum. It all took place within the painting. It was a bit like throwing all the cast of characters on the stage – we may only speak or listen to a few at a particular time, but they all stay on stage. More recently I work through a painting by doing less and less. Now there’s a slightly different approach, in that the characters that come on are only those that need to be there. There’s more interest in the set, as well as the characters.
EE: In the context of your exhibition at Tate Britain, how does it feel, looking back through the work?
CO: I don’t feel I’m looking back; I’m looking around the work. The exhibition in London is an opportunity to see what I can pull from different aspects of the work we’re bringing together, to take me forwards again. We can only say looking back in terms of chronology. Ideas are recurring and do not only exist in the past. So I wouldn’t want to relegate something to being an old idea, the date doesn’t matter. You hear an amazing Thelonius Monk track, and the last thing that occurs to you is whether or not it was made at the beginning or at the end of his life. First thing that strikes you is that it’s just a surprising arrangement of sounds. Of individual sounds to make a whole.
© Tate 2010. Extracted from “Ekow Eshun interviews Chris Ofili”, edited by Helen Little in ‘Chris Ofili’ (Tate Publishing, 2010). Chris Ofili is at Tate Britain, London SW1 from 27 January to 16 May (Tate.org.uk)