Ofili in Malick Sidibé’s studio, in Mali. Ofili used a Sidibé photograph from 1963 in several works that he made in recent years in Trinidad, where he now lives. Credit Photograph by Malick Sidibé
Chris Ofili paints in a dilapidated white cottage on Lady Chancellor Road, about ten minutes from downtown Port of Spain, in Trinidad. It has three rooms, each large enough to accommodate one or two of the strange, dreamlike paintings he is working on. Aside from taking out the kitchen, Ofili has done nothing to the cottage. Rickety windows on one side are propped open with sticks. No air-conditioner, no screens, no studio assistant. The house clings to a steep hillside, the floor slants downhill, and the floorboards sag and groan. Most of the recent paintings in Ofili’s first major New York retrospective, which opens at the New Museum on October 29th, were done in these rooms.
“I think I just resolved something about this one,” he said, somewhat conspiratorially. It was a morning in June, and we were looking at a dark nine-foot-tall vertical painting called “Lime Bar,” which he had been working on since April. A black man in a frilled white semi-transparent shirt stands behind a bar squeezing limes, and in the foreground a couple in shadow, a man and a woman, sit close together drinking. “When I leave the studio at night, I take a photo of the picture I’m working on,” Ofili continued. “This morning when I woke up, I looked at the photo and thought, I’ll change his shirt.” The barman’s shirt had originally been white, but Ofili had painted it black, to make the figure recede. “It looked ghastly,” he said. “So this morning I decided to make the shirt white again, but the black was still wet, and the paint wasn’t going on the way I wanted. I started to blot it with this”—he picked up an old green T-shirt to demonstrate—“and it left this amazing texture. I got lucky. Until that moment it was all panic and despair, because I thought I was going to lose it.”
That an artist of Chris Ofili’s stature could feel panic and despair over an unfinished painting somehow strains belief. He projects the inner confidence that his physical presence leads you to expect—at forty-five, he is well over six feet tall and powerfully built, and he dresses with casual elegance. Early success in London gave him the freedom to chart his own course in painting, at a time when painting was being dismissed as obsolete. He won the Turner Prize in 1998, when he was thirty, the first black artist to do so. Notoriety arrived a year later, in New York. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s moral and political sensitivities were so outraged by Ofili’s use of elephant dung in his painting of the Virgin Mary that he tried to cut off all municipal funding from the Brooklyn Museum, where it was part of a group exhibition from the Saatchi Collection. Ofili has been reluctant to exhibit his work in New York since then, but he has gone right on producing startlingly original paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures. Writing about the later paintings in Ofili’s 2010 retrospective at Tate Modern, Adrian Searle, a British critic who has followed his career with particular acumen, found them “uncompromisingly difficult.” “This is dangerous territory,” Searle went on to say. “Rather than living up to his reputation, he is now more concerned to push his art forward.”
Ofili’s art has changed profoundly since he moved from London to Trinidad, in 2005. In his latest paintings, whose fluid colors make me think of Matisse, the forms are elongated and enigmatic. Adjacent to the barman picture, on the side wall, another vertical canvas showed a tall man in a green tailcoat and striped pants, balancing a house of cards on a tray. Sinuous black lines issuing from his mouth turn into thicker, ropy shapes that coalesce into a dark cloud at the lower left of the canvas, where two men are playing cards. The players are about half the size of the man in the tailcoat, although they seem to be on the same plane. “They’re all breathing the same smoke, I think,” Ofili said. I asked about the difference in scale. “Oh, yeah. That really bothered me for a while,” he said. “But I didn’t feel it was my responsibility to change it. In a painting you can do anything, right? I’m making it all up. This thing is too big! But it’s just what it is. Not bad, not good, just too big.”
Ofili loves the moment in a painting’s development when he temporarily loses control. “Painting is a kind of pursuit, a hunt,” he told me, in a later conversation. “I think it’s more interesting when you can corral your subjects, instead of just going right to them. Enjoy and engage with the process—you want to keep going into the unknown, to the point where you don’t think about how long it’s going to take to get there. I’ve become more and more comfortable with the idea that you can construct a narrative and bring someone onstage, and you don’t have to tell them what to do. Once they arrive, they’ve activated their character.”
I asked him about his 2008 painting called “The Healer,” which made a strong impression on me when I saw it at the David Zwirner Gallery, in New York. Its central image, emerging from darkness, is a Gauguin-like deity, with long blue-black hair, who seems to be eating, or perhaps disgorging, a stream of radiant yellow blossoms. Ofili said, “Oh, God. I remember going on and on with that painting, trying to get him to lift off the canvas, almost to float in the room. What this healer does, he consumes light. To remain dark he has to consume light, and he sees light as being these flowers from the poui tree we have here, a tree that sheds its blossoms all at once, overnight. The painting was in the studio for more than a year. It didn’t really come to life in the second room, the painting room, so I moved it to the first room, which is the waiting room. That was like cutting the cord—then it could free itself, and I could see it in a new way. It’s really a Trinidad painting. I mean, they’re all made in Trinidad, but they’re not all Trinidad paintings.” Ofili visited Trinidad for the first time in 2000, when he was invited by an international art trust to attend a painting workshop in Port of Spain. He persuaded the sponsors to invite his friend Peter Doig, a Scottish painter who had lived on the island for five years when he was a child. “It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be,” Ofili told me. “There’s no real tourism here—it’s an industrial economy, oil and gas—and there’s a quiet dignity about the way people interact, a bare honesty that takes the airs and graces out of living.” In Trinidad, a former British colony with a polyglot population descended largely from African slaves and South Asian indentured workers, whites make up less than one per cent of the population. Doig told me that on their first night in Port of Spain they went out to get rotis, “a sort of curry wrap, quite delicious, and this guy on the street, a tramp or something, black but not as dark as Chris, said, ‘Hey, darkie, buy me a roti.’ I looked at Chris and we both started laughing. People there talk about color in a way you never hear in London.”
The only paintings they did on that trip were collaborations. Doig, who was becoming known for his paintings of forests and snow scenes in Canada, where he lived for thirteen years when he was growing up, had brought seven rolled-up canvases, which they worked on jointly, “him mocking my work and me mocking his,” as Doig put it. The rest of their three-week trip was spent exploring the island in rental cars and taking hundreds of photographs and videos. Before leaving, Doig bought a piece of land on the island’s north coast, and Ofili decided he, too, would be coming back.
He came back a dozen times or more during the next few years, and brought his future wife, Roba El-Essawy, a singer and songwriter in a London hip-hop band called Attica Blues. Music has always been a big part of Ofili’s life. When he was nominated for the Turner Prize, he asked Attica Blues to do the background music for the required documentary film on his work. El-Essawy left a vivid impression on him, and two years later, after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend, the German artist Tomma Abts, he called her. They went to the movies on their first date—Ofili told me they saw Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever,” but El-Essawy insists it was “Summer of Sam.” They got married at the end of 2002. El-Essawy, whose parents are Egyptian, had lived in London all her life, and her warmth, wit, and physical presence are as impressive as Ofili’s. She has degrees in biology and neuroscience. She began teaching reading skills when they moved to Trinidad, and recently she has started writing music again. For a long time, she was “hesitant,” as she put it, about the idea of living there. More than hesitant, Ofili recalls. “She said, ‘I can see why you want this, but it’s not happening.’ But then, one evening, I overheard her talking to a friend about a concert or something that was a few months off, and she said, ‘I’m not sure, because we might be going to Trinidad.’ ” They moved there in 2005, and their two children, a boy and a girl, were born on the island. Amel, the girl, is now seven, and Dalil is four.
Although the Ofilis feel that Trinidad is their home, and they are building two new houses there, both of them designed by the architect David Adjaye, Ofili’s closest friend, they have kept their London house in the East End, which they use in the summer and visit several times throughout the year. (Ofili also has a London studio and a small office to handle his business affairs.) They have a place in Brooklyn, too. They can afford all this real estate because Ofili’s new paintings—the large ones, four or five a year—are priced between four hundred thousand and six hundred thousand dollars apiece, and his dealers, Victoria Miro in London and David Zwirner in New York, have no trouble finding buyers.
Ofili picked me up in his dark-green Land Rover the next morning and we went to see one of the new houses, on a hillside overlooking Port of Spain. It’s a massive three-story concrete-and-glass structure, with large rooms and outdoor passageways. The house was supposed to be Ofili’s dream studio, but somewhere along the way he decided to turn it into a family house. (His joke name for it is Afrovilla.) When it’s finished—Ofili seemed certain that this would be in three months—the place they’ve been living in, beyond the white cottage on Lady Chancellor Road, will become his studio. Leaving the white cottage, cramped as it is, will be difficult for Ofili. When his first car, a 1973 Ford Capri, had to be replaced, he couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else driving it, so he had it crushed. I asked him if this would happen to the white cottage. “Maybe,” he said, laughing.
The next day, we drove for almost an hour to the north coast, climbing much of the way. We stopped to look at the hilltop house that Peter Doig had built in 2005. Doig wasn’t there. Henry Pearson, his Guyanese caretaker, took us through and then came with us in the Land Rover, down the steep, twisting unpaved road (washed out in a few places) that leads to Adjaye’s second building for Ofili, which he calls his beach house, although it’s in a tropical jungle and the beach is a five-hundred-step walk (he’s counted) farther down. The house is made of concrete and local bluestone, and its clear, powerful forms and open perspectives—even more open than they are in the family house—makes it look like a minimalist sculpture. “To build here, you have to see what the land is doing and not fight against it,” Ofili said. He had brought a cooler filled with ice, lemon soda, and fresh limes, which he passed around. The whole family comes here on weekends, often with friends; they cook outdoors and sleep in hammocks. “Daddy, can we leave the house like this, unfinished?” Amel asked recently.
On the way back to town, we stopped at Maracas Beach, the main public bathing area, and had shark sandwiches and soursop ice cream at Vilma’s Bake and Shark stand. As we were leaving, Ofili bought some pomeracs (like a small red pear) from a toothless man on the road, who had recognized the Land Rover and waved him down; they chatted for a while, holding up traffic. We drove back through the mountain village of Paramin, which is known for its “blue devils”—men who paint their faces and bodies blue and intimidate townspeople during carnival week. Ofili gets continuing pleasure from the pace and texture of life here. For the first time, nature became prominent in his life and his work. He goes on long hikes with friends, swims in a waterfall deep in the forest, runs for an hour when he leaves the studio in the late afternoon. “Trinidad is warm and friendly, but it’s quite secretive, and the countryside is very mysterious,” he said. “There’s always more to see, and the more is not like what you’ve seen.” A few years ago, he took over the bartender’s job at the film club that Peter Doig had started in his Port of Spain studio. On film nights, he turned up in a white shirt, a black bow tie, black pants, and a long white apron. “It was a bit like being invisible, but you get to see people differently,” Ofili told me. It also led to the “Lime Bar” painting. “Chris is the most private person I have ever met,” his wife told me. “I’m pretty sure that to this day most people here don’t know what he does for a living. He’s the man with the green car that looks like an army car.” (In London, he drives a BMW 7 series, the largest made. Before that, and after the Ford Capri, he had a Jaguar XJ.) I asked Ofili if he ever worried about being cut off from the art worlds in London and New York. “I do get mild anxiety,” he said. “Some people say you have to be on the track to be in the race. But I feel that by coming here we created more life options and more mental space. I want the kids to have a wonderful life. And the art stuff piggybacks on life, not the other way round.” I quoted a saying that I’d heard attributed to Fernand Léger: “Either a good life and lousy art or good art and a lousy life.” “Why not both?” Ofili said. “It can all be good.”
May and Michael Ofili left Nigeria in 1965 and settled in Manchester, England, where Chris was born three years later. He was their second child, after Anthony and before Francis and Josephine. Both parents worked for McVitie’s, which has been manufacturing biscuits and sweets since 1830, May for thirty years. When Chris was eleven, his father left the family and moved back to Nigeria. May worked harder after that, putting in as much overtime as she could get, so that all four children could go to college. Chris never saw his father again. “His leaving was not a big shock,” he told me. “It was a deteriorating relationship. He had another family—I got to learn that later—and then he went on to have still another family in Nigeria. It sounds really bad, but I’m comfortable with it. My mother held the family together amazingly, with a lot of dignity and strength, and my uncle Festus”—his father’s brother, who lived nearby and worked for British Telecom—“was always a central part of our lives.” Ofili has visited several African countries, and a recent trip to Mali made him think about going to Nigeria, where he’s never been. Would he try to see his father there? “Part of me says yes and part of me doesn’t know,” he said. “I don’t want to make assumptions from afar.”
The children attended Catholic schools, and both Anthony and Chris were altar boys. “It was a little like being on the football team,” Chris recalls. “We sort of had our own thing, and there were a lot of jokes. When people were taking Communion, we’d go round with metal trays that were supposed to catch any stray drops, and if the recipient was a friend of yours you’d hold the tray against his neck when he said ‘Amen’ so he’d go ‘Aargh’ instead.” Ofili sometimes thought about becoming a priest: “It seemed like a good life, and you were guaranteed a good end.” In secondary school he stopped going to church, and concentrated on getting good grades and playing soccer—he was a left-wing striker on the school team. Art didn’t register in his thinking—he had never been to a museum—but as graduation approached he decided he might like to study furniture design. He was told he should first take a one-year art foundation course, where he would be exposed to many different disciplines. He applied to Tameside College, on the outskirts of Manchester, and was accepted.
“We had two weeks of everything at Tameside,” he said. “There was a painting teacher, Bill Clark, who had a completely different approach from the others. At the start of the class, he’d have all of us lie down and meditate, listen to our thoughts. The other guys were teaching technique. If you’re going to make a print, this is the way you do it.” Clark liked to confuse his students by telling them to divide what they were working on into four parts, chuck three of them away, and enlarge the scale of the piece remaining. “Chris not only embraced this—he took it on, as though he understood what I was trying to do,” Clark told me. “Of course, he came with a completely clean slate. I didn’t have to delete past experience, which is what I’m doing with most of my teaching. What comes over with Chris is sheer intelligence.” Ofili found Clark’s teaching immensely liberating. In art, he realized, there was no right and wrong. Halfway through the foundation year, he decided to specialize in painting.
He started with portraits and self-portraits. Although the first oil painting he sold was a portrait of Bill Clark’s wife and child—Clark bought it—most of his paintings were of himself or of imaginary characters, usually black figures. At the end of the year, he enrolled in a three-year course at the Chelsea College of Arts, in London. His mother didn’t see how he could make a living as an artist, so he told her that he would eventually study design. (His older brother, Anthony, studied history in college and found a good job with an insurance firm. Francis, his younger brother, runs a children’s clothing shop and designs Web sites, and Josephine left her job with the National Health Service to stay home and raise her four children.) “I knew I didn’t want to study design and that I wanted to carry on painting,” Ofili said. “Luckily, it didn’t cost anything, because in those days it was all supported by the state.” In his first year, one of his self-portraits won a prize at a student exhibition in Manchester. His work was heavily influenced by Jean-Michel Basquiat, America’s black wunderkind, whose grafitti-style primitivism surfaces in some of Ofili’s student portraits; he also looked closely at Georg Baselitz, Philip Guston, and George Condo.
Peter Doig was doing graduate work at the Chelsea College of Arts when Ofili was an undergraduate, and they soon became friends. “I’m nine years older than him, but I never felt like his mentor,” Doig told me. “Chris always seemed the older one. I don’t think he ever lacked self-confidence, in his work or in himself.” Their paintings had certain similarities, such as the tendency to combine figurative and abstract elements, but they didn’t influence each other, and their careers have had different trajectories: recognition came earlier for Ofili, but in the past few years Doig’s work has brought much higher prices at auction—seventeen million dollars in 2014 versus Ofili’s current auction record of two million eight hundred thousand. Neither of them felt any connection to the Young British Artists (or Y.B.A.s), who started getting a lot of attention in 1988. To Ofili, the Y.B.A.s’ talent for self-promotion and their use of non-art materials—such as Damien Hirst’s tiger shark in formaldehyde and Tracey Emin’s “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995,” a tent emblazoned with names—seemed unrelated to what he was doing. Elephant dung, coated with resin and incorporated into an oil painting, was an art material to Ofili.
Ofili graduated from Chelsea in 1991, and in September he entered the Royal College of Art, where he studied for a master’s degree and experimented with larger paintings. The rules there were less flexible than they had been at Chelsea, though, and he was eager for new experiences. That summer, he attended a three-week international art workshop in Zimbabwe, and then spent three more weeks travelling around the country. Although he finds it insulting when people assume he was “connecting with his roots,” he did feel an internal resonance. “It was my first time in Africa. I was twenty-three. I’d go on these little safaris on horseback.” One of the safaris was to Matobo National Park, where he saw prehistoric cave paintings. He was particularly struck by a cave wall, six feet high and about twenty feet long, covered entirely with red and yellow dots. “To me, it looked like markmaking that would have taken an eternity,” he said. “It made me think about time—making art in relation to time.” He saw a lot of animals, but no elephants—a drought had dried up their watering places. He did see elephant droppings, and was impressed by their size and their round shape. “I brought some of them home in my suitcase, in a cardboard box, along with my clothes,” he said.Ofili’s “Lime Bar” and, at right, “House of Cards,” new works in his Trinidad studio. Chris Ofili, “Lime Bar” (2014) / Courtesy David Zwirner
In the fall of 1992, he got a one-year exchange scholarship to an art school in Berlin, where the atmosphere was much freer and livelier than in London. “They allowed twenty-four-hour access to the school, and there was a night club in a bombed-out basement in Potsdamer Platz with amazing hip-hop music,” he said. “Music was the battery, fully charged. I wanted to paint things that would feel like that music.” Ofili had been experimenting with the elephant dung he had brought back in his suitcase, gluing pieces of it to paintings. He turned three jumbo droppings into “Shitheads,” one of them accessorized with his own cut-off dreadlocks and a set of baby teeth. (When he ran out of the Zimbabwe product, he arranged for a renewable supply from the London Zoo.) At a street fair in Berlin, he spread a Laura Ashley fabric on the sidewalk and placed several dung balls on it, without explanation. (A little later, he heard that in 1983 the African-American artist David Hammons had offered snowballs for sale on the street; to his chagrin, he also learned that Hammons had used elephant dung in his art.) Ofili said, “People would look at the dung, look at me, and ask what it was. I actually sold some, which was hilarious.” Later that spring, he did the same thing on Brick Lane, in London’s East End, where a number of people assumed he must have been selling drugs. He posted stickers around town reading “Elephant Shit,” and placed an ad with the same words (and nothing else) in a new British art magazine called frieze. These activities drew scant attention, but then a respected art writer, Stuart Morgan, who had seen Ofili’s work when he came to the Royal College as a visiting critic, put him in a three-artist group show he was organizing at the Cubitt Gallery, in 1993. Morgan followed up a year later with a longish article about him in frieze, called “The Elephant Man.” “That article was a big deal,” Ofili said. “It set me off from other young artists and gave me my first taste of a type of fame, which I didn’t know how to handle. It left me with a slight feeling of guilt.”
Ofili graduated from the Royal College in 1993. He found a studio space in Fulham, where a group of former students had rented the unused second floor of a gas-company building. He had a part-time job with an off-license wine-and-liquor store on weekends, and once or twice a month he earned serious money de-installing commercial exhibitions at night—tearing down and carting away temporary walls and partitions. Since visiting Zimbabwe, his paintings had become more abstract. “Painting with Shit on it,” which had been in Stuart Morgan’s show, was a maze of interlocking concentric circles composed of meticulously painted dots, hundreds of them, with an explosion of black paint and elephant dung near the center. Instead of hanging on the wall, the canvas rested on two highly varnished dung balls on the floor—a practice Ofili followed with all his paintings for the next decade. Peter Doig swapped one of his own pictures for one of Ofili’s dung paintings, which he still owns.
Figuration returned two years later, in the paintings that Ofili produced in the mid-nineties. Brash, funny, and bursting with energy, a mixture of bad-ass subject matter and virtuoso craftsmanship, they show a young artist coming into exuberant possession of an original voice. Against abstract backgrounds of spiralling dot patterns in glowing colors, the painted or collaged images (often cut from black porn magazines) are drawn from sources that range from art history and the Bible to black popular culture of the preceding three decades. “Satan” and “7 Bitches Tossing their Pussies before the Divine Dung,” both dated 1995, took a hip-hop approach to William Blake, whose luminous watercolors, including “Satan in his Original Glory” and “The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne,” Ofili had spent many hours studying at the Tate. The two versions of “Afrodizzia” (1996), in which dozens of cut-out photographs of black faces (Miles Davis, Diana Ross, James Brown, Cassius Clay) float in a sea of subtly shifting colors, pay homage to the renaissance of black creativity that Ofili believes hip-hop helped to create. His heroes at the time included Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, L’il Kim, and Wu-Tang Clan. “It was like revisiting the idea of black power in the seventies, but through a more celebratory lens—not fighting for power but celebrating a newfound power,” he said. As he told an interviewer in 2010, “A lot of black art that came before was set up to critique the system. I thought that was boring . . . I wanted to be sincere and outrageous and friendly and rude and experimental and conventional.”
Ofili had started a series of small watercolor drawings of stylized, exotically clothed black women and black men that he called “Afromuses”—painted in ten or fifteen minutes every morning, as a sort of warm-up exercise—and another series of abstract black-and-white pencil drawings of linked black heads under Afros. (Years later, Thelma Golden, the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, caught a glimpse of the “Afromuses” when she was interviewing Ofili in his London studio and persuaded him to let her show a hundred and eighty-one of them at her museum.) By 1995, he was selling enough work to quit his other jobs. He had joined Victoria Miro’s gallery in London, and shortly before his first one-man show there, in 1996, Gavin Brown, a British-born artist and dealer, gave him his first solo show in New York. “One of the brighter points of light in the starry London art scene is Chris Ofili . . . whose paintings are at once suave, obnoxious, and naïve, on purpose,” Roberta Smith wrote in her Times review of the show. That same year, the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, included him in its “ ‘Brilliant!’ New Art from London” survey. That show was a mixed blessing, because it made people link him with the Y.B.A.s. Nobody in London or New York was making art like Ofili’s. “It was all mine, and it was the greatest feeling,” he told me. “This was the music I liked, this was the work I was doing, and it was all tied in.”Toward the end of 1996, Ofili had to find a new studio space, and he moved to a much rougher neighborhood, in Kings Cross, near the railroad station. “There was a parking lot next door, and at night I could look out the window and see street prostitution linked with drugs, pimps getting paid off, people sleeping in doorways,” he said. His new surroundings were reflected in “Foxy Roxy,” “Blossom,” “She,” “Pimpin’ ain’t easy,” and other big (eight-by-six-foot), loud, sexy paintings that played with the stereotypes of black street life. He was “kind of jokin’ around” with the way black pimps and their “hos” were treated in gangsta rap, as he said—the central image in “Pimpin’ ain’t easy” is a tower in the shape of an upright phallus, with eyes, nose, and a sappy grin. Many of these works appeared in the first big show of Ofili’s work, which opened at the Southampton City Art Gallery in 1998, moved to the Serpentine Gallery, in London, and went on to the Whitworth Art Gallery, at the University of Manchester. The critical reaction was profuse and generally positive. Paintings like “Pimpin’ ain’t easy” were “too erudite, too funny, too seductive for any kind of single-minded reading,” Adrian Searle advised in the Guardian, a warning that eluded the Times’ reliably outrageable Waldemar Januszczak. He called the work “sexist, crude, misjudged . . . Madonna-bashing, woman-denigrating, posturing, pretentious, dumb paintings.” After watching several American “blaxploitation” films from the seventies at B.F.I. Southbank, Ofili introduced his own black action antihero, Captain Shit, whose swashbuckling he chronicled in half a dozen paintings. “He didn’t have much power,” Ofili explained, laughing. “He could make the space around him glow—that was his power.”
The survey show earned him a nomination for the Turner Prize. The other nominees that year were Tacita Dean, Sam Taylor-Wood, and Cathy de Monchaux, each of whom was asked to present work for the Turner Prize exhibition at the Tate. Ofili decided to come up with an image that would resonate beyond the art world. “No Woman, No Cry”—the title comes from a Bob Marley anthem—is a portrait of a black woman named Doreen Lawrence, whose teen-age son, Stephen, had been stabbed to death in South London while waiting for a bus. “It was an issue that was still bubbling, bubbling,” he said. “This kid had been killed by white racists. The police had fucked up the investigation, and the image that stuck in my mind was not just his mother but sorrow—deep sorrow for someone who will never come back.” He painted the mother in profile, weeping large tears, with a tiny image of Stephen inside each of them. “I nailed it with that one,” he said, very quietly. “I remember finishing the painting and covering it up, because it was just too strong.”
Ofili’s solo show was still open in Manchester when he found out he’d won the Turner Prize. “They had record attendance at the Whitworth Art Gallery the day after,” he said. The gallery staff found his family’s number in the phone book and called his mother, and that, he said, “gave me the license to not have to study design.” Winning the prize brought him national attention and twenty thousand pounds, which went into the town house that he and David Adjaye were renovating in London’s East End. Adjaye, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, had studied architecture at the Royal College when Ofili was there. They reconnected one day in 1997, when Adjaye saw Ofili driving his lime-green Ford Capri on Brick Lane. (The car had been rusting away in a parking lot behind Ofili’s studio in Fulham; he fell in love with it—his uncle Festus used to have a yellow one—tracked down the owner, bought it, restored it, and taught himself to drive, right there in the lot.) Adjaye had just opened an architectural office in the East End, a long-distressed area that was starting to revive, and Ofili, who had bought a derelict house nearby on Fashion Street, took him to see it. Adjaye became Ofili’s architect that day. “It wasn’t like having a client,” Adjaye told me. “It was this fantastic dialogue, a kind of sharing”—and it developed into a lasting friendship. Ofili was the best man at Adjaye’s wedding, this year, at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the two figures sitting together in the “Lime Bar” painting are Adjaye and his bride, Ashley Shaw-Scott. The Fashion Street house, with a magnificent studio in back, was finished in 1999, and it became a refuge from the media storm that broke later that year over Ofili’s painting “The Holy Virgin Mary.”
The picture had set off no alarm bells when the exhibition it was in, called “Sensation,” appeared at the Royal Academy in London, and then at the Hamburger Bahnhof, in Berlin. Ofili, the former altar boy, has said that the painting was an attempt to deal with his own childhood questions about race and virgin mothers—“a hip-hop version of the story.” His Africanized Virgin’s exposed right breast is made of lacquered elephant dung, and her robed, beautifully painted form is surrounded by what look like flying angels until you realize that they are female buttocks cut from porn magazines. Sixteen days before “Sensation” opened at its next stop, the Brooklyn Museum, the Daily News headlined a story about the museum’s “Gallery of Horror,” and described the Virgin as being “splattered with elephant dung.” Other papers, including the Times, picked up the story. Mayor Giuliani, a Catholic, ignoring multiple invitations to view the painting, issued a statement calling it “sick stuff,” cut off city funds to the museum, and demanded it be removed from the show. (The museum’s funds were eventually restored, following an out-of-court settlement.) The media circus lasted for more than a week, and Ofili, who had stayed in London, stopped answering the telephone. Tasha Amini, his first (and last) studio assistant, tried to protect him from reporters and photographers who came to the door, but, as he remembers, “this was a massive thing coming at you at high speed. It changed everything, messed everything up. I just had to shut down, go inwards. I decided to do fewer exhibitions and no interviews. Luckily, I was making paintings, so I had something to focus on.”
During the next two years, holed up in his new studio, Ofili completed the most ambitious series of paintings he had done to date. It started with a painting of a long-tailed rhesus monkey holding a cup, or chalice, an image he borrowed from a 1957 Andy Warhol collage that he found in a book. (The psychiatrist and art collector César Reyes, who owns work by both Ofili and Peter Doig, had recently taken Ofili to an island off the coast of Puerto Rico that was populated entirely by rhesus monkeys, and this experience had “just stayed in my mind,” Ofili said.) One monkey painting led to another, and then to a third, each with a single dominant color but permeated by many other colors in the lushly decorative backgrounds. Ofili kept going, and eventually there were thirteen paintings. “I really cannot remember at what point the monkeys became representations of elements of the Last Supper,” Ofili told an interviewer. When I asked him whether the religious theme had been in his mind all along, though, he said, “Absolutely—but calling it ‘The Last Supper’ would have kind of closed it down.”
He didn’t expect the paintings to stay together as a single work—“Who would want to buy thirteen paintings on the same theme?” he said—but he wanted them to be shown together, and he and David Adjaye spent several weeks transforming a room on the second floor of Victoria Miro’s new gallery into a chapel-like environment. The installation, which opened in June, 2002, as part of a larger Ofili exhibition, was called “The Upper Room,” after the room in Jerusalem where the disciples gathered for the Last Supper. Ofili had said he wanted to slow down the viewing experience, and he succeeded. Viewers waited in long lines to climb a steep flight of stairs, then groped their way down a narrow corridor before coming into a dramatically lit oblong space with six gorgeous paintings on each side and a larger gold one at the end. The walls, the ceiling, and the floor were clad in walnut veneer, which gave off an aromatic scent. Spotlights on each painting spilled pools of reflected color on the floor. Sir Nicholas Serota, the Tate’s director, saw the show and began lining up support on his board to acquire it, intact. Miro had already accepted reserves on several of the paintings, but she was able to persuade the buyers to release them, and the Tate eventually paid six hundred thousand pounds for the complete ensemble, which it puts on view periodically. Serota had to defend the purchase against conflict-of-interest charges, because Ofili was one of the Tate’s artist-trustees; the museum had previously bought works by sitting artist-trustees, however, and “The Upper Room,” Serota felt, was too important to lose.
Ofili and Adjaye worked together a year later, in Venice, on the installation of a new series of large red-green-and-black paintings that Ofili had done for the British pavilion at the 2003 Biennale. The subject was an idealized narrative of a man and woman in an African Eden, a paradise of tropical foliage and romantic ardor. The germ of this idea came from an image on the paper triangle of a dry cleaner’s hanger, but the real sources were Trinidad and Ofili’s feelings for Roba El-Essawy. Limiting himself to three colors was a nod to Marcus Garvey’s pan-African flag, in which red symbolizes the blood of martyrs, black the color of their skin, and green the land of Africa. Adjaye’s installation turned the classical proportions of the British pavilion into a fever dream of color and light. Some spectators during the Biennale’s opening week, which coincided with the worst heat wave in Venetian memory, found it overwhelming. What few people realized at the time was that Ofili, at the pinnacle of his early success, was striking out in new directions. The Venice paintings were the last to include or rest on elephant dung and the last to use exfoliating patterns of colored dots. He had already stopped mining popular culture for his subject matter, and for two years after his Venice show he stopped making oil paintings—like many artists in search of a new aesthetic, he could experiment more freely with drawings and watercolors. His art was changing radically, but the full extent of the changes did not emerge for three years.
“I felt ready for the change to happen, and I knew it was happening inside me,” he said, straining to be clear. “It’s hard to go away from something that’s very enjoyable, and a domain where I felt supremely confident. Before, I was focussing on high impact, and what I wanted to find was a way of working that was less complex and maybe less visible.” He found it in Trinidad. On his many visits to the island, he had been fascinated by its haunted landscape and mysterious light—especially the slow transition from day into night, an extended period when forms are still visible but their shapes become indistinct. Trying to capture that experience in paint opened up a whole new way of working. “I felt I was tapping into a process of looking that was slower,” he said.
Alone in the white cottage in Trinidad, he began experimenting with blue, a color he had always shied away from, because of its tendency to dominate other colors. “I’d seen the blue devils, and the power of dark blue, and I realized it was more than a color—it had a strength other than color strength,” he said. When he was still living in London, he had done a number of blue-and-silver paintings, the “Blue Rider” series, which he showed at Berlin Contemporary Fine Arts in 2005. In Trinidad, he began a new series of darker-blue paintings. “I had found that if you put silver underneath blue, the blue sits back, like night, or glows like moonlight,” he told me. He began building up the blue in darker and darker layers, with shadings of purple, indigo, and black. The images in the blue paintings are from his imagination, from the Bible, and from life in Trinidad. Two parang musicians are on a bridge in “Iscariot Blues,” seemingly oblivious of a hanged man nearby. “After Judas tried to give away the thirty pieces of silver and hung himself, nobody wanted to cut him down,” Ofili explained. “I made the association because of what appeared to me a sort of nonchalance about death here. When somebody dies in a car accident, the body is not immediately covered up by the medics, as it would be in the U.S. or the U.K. People just carry on with their daily life.”
A few of the blue paintings are so dark that you have to look for some time before the forms emerge. Other paintings, done in that period and later, are full of color, with sinuous semi-abstract human forms flowing into each other and into nature. A photograph taken in 1963 by the great Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, whose work Ofili had seen in a book, recurs in seven Ofili paintings, in many drawings, and in a sculptural frieze he’s carved into a wall of his new family house. It shows a young couple dancing, bodies separate but heads nearly touching. The photograph is called “Christmas Eve,” and Ofili found out that the couple were brother and sister. In his painting “Douen’s Dance,” their heads touch. “Douens here are spirits of children who died before they were baptized, so they never get to move on,” he said.
His first sculptures were cast in 2005, a pair of squatting figures, male and female, under whose bared posteriors lie neat coils of excrement. They are based on the folk-art caganers (defecators) in Catalonian Nativity scenes, which he had seen on a trip to Barcelona when he was at the Royal College. Two monumental Annunciations came next. After going to a Fra Angelico exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in 2006, Ofili made the clay model for a seven-foot bronze sculpture in which the Virgin has thrown herself so violently against the black-winged angel that her feet have pierced his thighs; in a second version, the two of them appear to be copulating. Ofili’s eroticizing of religious themes brought out the Giuliani in some viewers. When the two Annunciations and other Ofili sculptures were shown at Zwirner in 2007, they struck one critic as “hideous” and another as “so over the top it feels fatuous,” but Ofili brushes this sort of thing aside. To him, the sculptures represent another kind of “experimentation and discovery” in his work, a way to “be out in the open ocean—which is better than an aquarium or, worse still, a fishbowl.” No sculptures were included in his 2010 retrospective at the Tate, because Ofili and the Tate curators had decided to focus exclusively on his paintings. When “Night and Day,” his exhibition at the New Museum, goes on view this month, it will include several sculptures, along with a selection of other recent works, a floor devoted to his first decade, and a specially constructed space for nine of the blue paintings, only a few of which have been exhibited in this country. “The blue paintings will challenge your expectations about Ofili,” Massimiliano Gioni, the museum’s artistic director and chief curator, said last month. “There’s no trace of the carnivalesque element that’s so strong in his nineties work. You can really get lost in them.” Ofili brought his family to New York in mid-July. He had to make some decisions with Gioni about the hanging of his show, which will occupy the whole museum. Amel took dance classes at the Joffrey Ballet School, and Dalil went to a sports camp at Chelsea Piers. They stayed for nearly three weeks before going on to London, where Ofili was doing the costumes for a new dance by the Royal Ballet. Four years earlier, the Royal Ballet had commissioned him to paint the set and design the costumes for a ballet called “Diana and Actaeon,” part of a hugely ambitious production based on three Titian paintings that deal with Ovid’s telling of the Diana myth. The new dance, whose protagonist is a combination of Prometheus and Agni, an Indian god, opened the first weekend in September, and before each of its three performances Ofili was given two hours to paint his designs directly on the dancers—on their leotards and their bodies.
Before he left for London, I suggested he meet me at the Museum of Modern Art to see the Gauguin print show. Ofili admitted that he doesn’t think about Gauguin very much, but he liked the “sense of imperfection” in the woodcuts that Gauguin printed himself. Compared with the beauty and finish of his paintings, “the prints are more like open letters,” he said. “There’s sound in them, the sound of fire, or of water, but not the impression of people speaking.” Ofili was struck by the parallels between Gauguin’s Tahiti and Trinidad, especially the “nonvisible energies” of the night scenes. He found it hard to look at Gauguin’s ceramic sculpture of a savage goddess killing a wolf cub. “I think the night spirits are more playful in Trinidad,” he said. “They’re mischievous rather than menacing.”
The museum was also showing a new body of work by Jasper Johns, which interested him much more than the Gauguins. It was a small show, called “Regrets”—two paintings, ten drawings, and two prints, all of which had come out of a creased and damaged photograph of Lucian Freud, sitting on a bed and clutching his forehead. The photograph had belonged to Francis Bacon. Johns had seen it reproduced in a Christie’s auction catalogue, and what he did with it electrified Ofili. He moved from one image to another, his eyes shining with excitement. “The initial impulse is quite simple, like a heartbeat, and then it becomes . . . symphonic,” he said. “What’s wonderful is that you get glimpses of how he works. You can see all of Jasper Johns here.” After walking through the show a second time, he said, “Last night, I wasn’t sure I needed to go to the Gauguin—I didn’t tell you I had already seen it—but this is the reason why. This is just chilling.” He kept talking about it in the taxi afterward. He said, “Gauguin is like a drug-infused sleep, a tortured dream with wonderful moments. But you don’t get a full night’s sleep with Jasper. You’re never settled. He’s certainly one of the great painters. This is what museums are for, right?” I’ve known Johns since the nineteen-sixties, and a few days later my wife and I took Ofili to his house in Connecticut. Both artists seemed to welcome the meeting. Johns, at eighty-four, is more genial than he was thirty years ago, when he used to fend off questions with other questions, such as “Why do you ask that?” After lunch, Johns took us to a converted barn on his property that he uses as a private gallery for his own work and works by other artists. In the main room were paintings, prints, and drawings by Johns from various periods: new works related to the “Regrets” series; three or four older paintings, including one from his flagstone series; two drawings of kitsch hula dancers, from a bandanna that someone had given him; several images in various media of a man slumped on a bench with his head turned to the wall. Ofili told Johns he thought the last seemed related to the Freud photograph, and Johns said, “I do, too.” None of us spoke much, but at one point I saw Ofili go over to Johns and say something that made Johns throw back his head and laugh. In the car returning to New York, I asked him what that was about. “I said, ‘You’re a happy man,’ ” Ofili replied. “He said he didn’t know what I meant, but he knew exactly. I’m really happy for him. His work is so full of life. He’s like a bloodhound that’s got the scent, and just goes for it. He’s in heaven right now—and he’s sharing the joy of it.”