We continue The Arty Bit this week with another contemporary artist. He studied at the Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College of Art, and is one of the ‘Young British Artists’ (think Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume). The fellow in question is Chris Ofili, and his work has been decribed by Wikipedia as ‘more controversial than Myra’, referring to the giant portrait of moors murderer Myra Hindley made out of children’s handprints by fellow YBA associate Marcus Harvey.
At this point you may be asking yourself what this man could have done that could be quite so controversial. Did he cut off his genitalia in front of a live audience, you may wonder? Perhaps he painted his own mother engaged in acts of that nature? In truth, the answer is far tamer, but in many people’s eyes also far more unforgivable. He painted Mary, mother of Jesus, probably the second most painted character in the history of Western painting (after her son of course). Nothing wrong with that, you might say, a good bit of old fashioned painting, perhaps a bit boring for the 1990s, but all good harmless fun. Until you find out he painted her as a black lady. At this point the Church began to get rather upset. Then they found out he painted her out of elephant shit. Now they were really mad. A lawsuit took place between the Mayor of New York City and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The fact that Mary was surrounded by images from ‘Blaxploitation’ movies and close-ups of female genitalia cut from porn mags only made the situation worse for Ofili. Or should I say better: he became front page news around the world, and as far as the art world was concerned, Ofili had well and truly ‘arrived’.
Therefore at this point, my wonderful audience may find themselves asking (as do I), is this all just a big stunt, or is there an actual reason and artistic motive behind this very intelligent, well educated artist painting in what is essentially crap? Well, apparently, yes. Ofili’s work often references 1970s black exploitation films, comic books and ‘Gangsta Rap’ (see The Sauce, with P-Unit) in order to question racial stereotypes in a humorous way. He often references aspects of his Nigerian background, and frequently and deliberately misquotes the traditional ritual significance of dung, in order to ‘broaden the viewer’s interpretation of this material beyond its cultural meaning.’ However, is this really relevant to a Western audience?
Last time you were sat on the toilet, for example, perhaps perusing the Telegraph, or reading your printout of Tea With Jonathan, did you look down upon your stools from your throne-like position and feel an irresistible urge to broaden your interpretation of poo beyond its cultural meaning? Perhaps not. Nevertheless, I must confess I really do quite like Chris Ofili’s work. Perhaps it is gimmicky, but there is a certain charm to his style – it makes me chortle boyishly, in the same way the Beano used to, and certainly possesses the aesthetic qualities lacking in Matthew Barney’s work. Furthermore it really does seem to say something quite important about equality, acceptance and understanding between people of different backgrounds, something that seems to be becoming more and more important in our ever changing multi-cultural society.
And how can you not respect someone who titles a painting ‘The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars’?