London, Serpentine Gallery; Southampton, City Art Gallery, Chris Ofili, 1998, pl. 2, illustrated in colour
"I'm trying to make paintings that make you hear them, rather than see them. So actually, you're looking at music. So it will teach your eyes to hear, and your ears to see." The artist cited in: Paul Miller, 'Deep Shit', Parkett, no. 58, 2000, pp. 171-76
Affectionately titled after two elephants from Berlin's Circus Crone, Chris Ofili's tantalizing Rara and Mala is one of the original works displaying his ingenious use of elephant dung, today a trademark of his very best work. Ofili first displayed his canvases resting on two lumps of dung at an exhibition at Atlantis in London in 1993, and this canvas from 1994 was a centrepiece for his breakthrough solo exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, London in 1998, the same year he was awarded the prestigious Turner Prize.
The elaborate patterning and jewel-like colours of Rara and Mala recall an array of cultural sources, ranging from Aboriginal dream paintings and the intricately patterned textiles of West Africa to the dot patterned surfaces of the ancient Matapos cave paintings in Zimbabwe which Ofili experienced on a formative grant-funded trip in 1992, a turning point in his career. The swirling and meditative abstract arabesques created from tiny beads of vibrant colour and bleeding pools of resin epitomize Ofili's layered absorption of cultural and historical influences, fearlessly taking on questions of the sacred juxtaposed with the profane, the humorous with the sublime, and the bold with the mysterious. As the artist has stated, "There are so many layers of meaning...So many contradictions...It's about beauty. It's about caricature. And it's about just being confused. But at the same time, it's about not being uncomfortable with that (confused) state of mind." (interview with the artist and Paul Miller, 'Deep Shit', Parkett, no. 58, 2000, pp. 171-176 ).
The most immediately apparent – although arguably the most complex – cultural referent are the elephant dung balls which raise the canvas off the floor and are affixed to the lower left of the composition. Ofili began using dung after his trip to Zimbabwe. While on the one hand providing a witty and caustic taunt to the critics who condemn all contemporary art as shit, the dung balls are also a device for exhibiting the works: "It's a way of raising the paintings off the ground and giving them a feeling that they've come from the earth rather than simply being hung on the wall" (The artist cited in: Carol Vogel, 'British Art Holds Fast to his Inspiration', The New York Times, 28 September 1999). Highlighting the exoticism of the African continent and his ancestry, the dung works as a potent, uniquely African, unifying element, providing a material link to a world of cultural implications that hint at the cycles of life and nature.
Parallel to this cultural referent, however, there is also an art historical precedent which Ofili acknowledges in the psychedelic impact of such Op artists as Bridget Riley and finally the rhythmic beat in Jazz music, "because when dots are made, there is this constant tapping noise...That comes out of just being in the studio and listening to music" (Paul Miller, 'Deep Shit', Parkett, no. 58, 2000, pp. 171-176) Graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1993 in a prevailing artistic climate that predicted the demise of painting, Ofili has been a stalwart champion of the primacy of formal concerns in painting among a group of Young British Artists who have more often privileged idea or concept based art. The present work, with its emphasis on pattern and harmony, its mesmerising, hypnotic composition and psychedelic forms, enshrines Ofili's unashamed belief in craftsmanship and aesthetic beauty.
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