Chris Ofili: Art inspired by Trinidad

British painter Chris Ofili, the controversial artist of Nigerian heritage whose black dung-breasted Virgin Mary enraged New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, has a new exhibit at the Tate Britain, which opens tomorrow. The artists is now based in Trinidad.

Here are some excerpts from the review of the exhibit at the Guardian, in which he discusses the transformation that has come into his art after his move to Trinidad. The link to the complete article is below.

His recent work may, frankly, come as a shock. There is no dung and no glitter. There are no richly-collaged, jangling surfaces. Instead, in the last room in the exhibition, unexpected swathes of colour lash down the canvases: imperial purple dissonant against citrus orange, saffron squealing against sea green.

. . .

But it is in the final two rooms of the exhibition that audiences will see a different artist from the one whose last solo show in Britain was in 2002 (when the Victoria Miro gallery showed The Upper Room). These works reflect new surroundings. Ofili has left the crowded London art scene and, since 2005, has been working in Trinidad and Tobago, living in a cottage in the hills above Port of Spain. “I felt in some way things had closed down,” the Manchester-born artist says in the Tate exhibition catalogue. “London was an exciting place to work at one point, because socially it was very progressive – a catalyst… But it got to a point where the social aspect became claustrophobic … 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 penultimate room sees Ofili, like Picasso, going through a “blue period”. Giant canvases swirl with a dictionary-defying battery of midnight shades: ultramarine, indigo, smoke, bilberry. The colours are so deep and dark that images are hard to read. The only texture comes from the flat paint surface: sometimes velvety, sometimes reflective.

In one, Iscariot Blues, two men play musical instruments under a bridge while a hanged man dangles from a gibbet – all are enveloped in tendrils of lush foliage.

In these and the most recent paintings, the one recognisable aspect of the work is the mysterious figures that inhabit the paintings. Ofili has always created his own semi-mythological dramatis personae, whether the cartoonish, faux-superheroic character he called Captain Shit in the early work, or the simian saints of the Upper Room.

In a painting that has something of William Blake about it, a shower of egg-yolky, lemony blossoms is surrounded by an almost-black ground. On further inspection, the blackness resolves itself into a curious and possibly terrifying creature that appears to be devouring the flowers.

Ofili calls this figure The Healer, and imagines it gorging itself on the blossoms of the yellow poui tree, which flower in Trinidad with intense vividness and fall overnight. “I imagined that The Healer feasts on the poui flowers feverishly, and in the frenzy many of the flowers fall off,” he has said.

The Ofili who was once painting phalluses and porn stars in a King’s Cross studio is now painting en plein air – he began The Healer, he has said, outdoors during a lunar eclipse, inspired by “the forms in the clouds hovering over the hills that night”.

Where once he was bringing all the clamorous life of London into his exquisite paintings as a self-conscious visual analogy of gangsta rap (aggressive lyrics, sweetly sung), he is now more likely to spend his days kayaking or observing the beauty of a Trinidadian waterfall.

In other words, Ofili is still transforming what surrounds him into paint, but these days that’s the thick, fertile vegetation of the Caribbean rather than the urban jungle.

He has said of his new environment: “It has a mystical quality to it. The landscape is hilly, the vegetation is dense and you have the constant feeling that things are happening on the other side of the hill or deep in the forest.”

By moving to Trinidad he has also retreated from the public gaze. In 1999, the year after he was the first black artist to win the Turner prize, his work attracted controversy when the then mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, objected to the exhibiting of The Holy Virgin Mary at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The painting was touring as part of the Sensation! exhibition of works owned by Charles Saatchi.

For the complete article go to

Image: Ofili’s No Woman No Cry

2 thoughts on “Chris Ofili: Art inspired by Trinidad

  1. Interesting to retreat to Trinidad and Tobago, i will be interested to Review the exhibition, and see the new inspiring work.

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