Chris Ofili is one of a groundbreaking generation of artists known as YBAs (Young British Artists) who emerged in London in the 1990s. Ofili’s work integrates pop references and diasporic aesthetics, and is characterized by a virtuosic handling of the medium of painting and his frequent use of a rather unexpected material: elephant dung. Ofili discovered the material on a formative trip to Zimbabwe in 1992, where he also found inspiration in the dotted abstract designs created by San rock painters. In his most infamous and controversial work, The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), for instance, a glittering background of gold paint and collaged pornographic fragments surrounds the Virgin, who is presented as a fecund black woman; she stares wide-eyed toward her beholder as her flowing blue gown falls open to reveal a lacquered ball of elephant dung in place of her breast.
Viewers who can look beyond the shock of Ofili’s creative use of animal droppings are rewarded with a dazzling revival of his chosen medium. His decorated surfaces, psychedelic compositions, and sophisticated grasp of color theory complement a range of subjects and figurative motifs. Alongside his playful and ironic appropriation of African art and hip-hop aesthetics, many of his works pay homage to international black icons, including the likenesses of James Brown, Miles Davis, Muhammad Ali, and Nelson Mandela that are emblazoned across his Afrodizzia series. Contemporary political themes are also manifest in such sobering works as No Woman No Cry (1998), which pays tribute to London teenager Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered in an act of racist violence in 1993, and to Stephen’s mother, Doreen Lawrence, who successfully lobbied for an inquiry into his failed murder investigation.
More recently, Ofili’s work has begun to engage with the history of Western painting through allusions to the work of Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, and Mark Rothko. His commissioned series for London’s National Gallery and Royal Opera House incorporates motifs inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, setting aside the dotted lines and dynamic patterning of his earlier work in favor of large washes of jewel-toned hues that lock into flat, illustrative compositions. A series of Ofili’s new paintings is on display at the Biennale di Venezia.