Ofili first began creating the Within Reach paintings in 2000; the genesis of which can be traced back to a postcard that Ofili took home from his first trip to Trinidad during the same year. Depicting lovers embracing under a palm tree, this clichéd trope of a tropical holiday romance became a springboard for the series’ utopian love story. In the present work, Ofili’s trademark surface decoration – canvases layered with paint, map pins, glitter and resin propped up on elephant dung feet – broadcasts a tessellating red, black and green composition. Set underneath a many-pointed star, or sun, and framed within a fecund setting of tropical flora, Ofili’s painting tells the tale of the first man and woman; in Christian terms, the plight of Adam and Eve and the path into temptation. Across the series, which comprises roughly eight major paintings, Ofili explores notions of black love and liberation in works that bear titles such as Afro Sunshine (2002-03), The Kiss (2002), Afro Love and Unity (2002), Afronirvana (2002), and, in the case of the present work, Afro Love and Envy.
The colour palette of these paintings – the Black Nationalist tricolour – explicitly underlines Ofili’s art historical address of black African subjectivity. With its origins in the Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.) founded by the Jamaican-born Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey during the 1920s, this tricolour forms the tripartite chromatic register of the Pan-African flag. Symbolising the blood, skin and land of the African people, the flag speaks to Garvey’s early activism and its later importance for the Black Power Movement, specifically the more radical Black Panther Party, in its address to the African diaspora for which it proposed a radical new solidarity between all peoples of African descent. With each painting styled in a manner that plays upon tropes familiar to black popular culture, particularly those gleaned from Blaxploitation films, the funk and soul movement of the 1970s, and more recently, hip-hop culture, Ofili empowers and inserts black subjectivity into an elaborate creationist myth that plays on the idealism of Garveyism and Pan-African philosophy. “Marcus Garvey’s idea was of going back to Africa not so much as a place but somewhere mentally where you can be happy,” Ofili has explained; “That is why my lovers are in a beautiful place that we can all recognise from the cheapest magazines to the most classic of films. It’s a state of mind, a place which as the title of the [series], Within Reach, kind of says is something that is graspable at certain moments in life” (Chris Ofili cited in: Fiachra Gibbons, ‘Artist's bold display of black power takes Venice by storm’, The Guardian, 13 June 2003, p. 3).
Prior to creating the Within Reach corpus, Ofili took up the Pan-African palette in his 1997 painting, Black Paranoia. In this work, the flag’s division of red, black and green horizontal stripes is turned onto its side, superimposed over which is a floating head that contains other smaller heads. This painting was the first of Ofili’s to confront the canon of Modernism from the point of view of black subjectivity, namely its absence and the need for social redress. As curator Okwui Enwezor has explained: “Modernism and modernity for Ofili refer to two paradigms of an exclusivist canon, the sites where the black subject disappears. For a figurative painter of African descent, the allegorical implications of modernist ambivalence towards the black subject, except as a figure of excess and the improper, hinges on several historical and conceptual issues: the articulation of the proper, the naming of the unnameable, the bringing of the invisible to visibility and the seeking of social redress” (Okwui Enwezor, ‘Shattering the Mirror of Tradition: Chris Ofili’s Triumph of Painting at the 50th Venice Biennale’ in: David Adjaye et al., Chris Ofili, New York 2009, p. 154). Beginning three years later, Within Reach put forth a utopian allegory that projected black culture, front and centre, into the exclusivist canon of Western art history.
The public debut of Ofili’s series could not have been more powerful. As the UK's representative for the 2003 Venice Biennale, Ofili staged Within Reach as a gesamtkunstwerk that brought issues of cultural identity to the fore from within perhaps the most nationalistic of environments: the Giardini. Following the very first Biennale in 1895, the foreign Pavilions were built at the beginning of the Twentieth Century to reflect a contemporaneous taste for national pride. As a black artist commissioned to produce work for an environment heavily loaded with British patriotism and its colonial history, Ofili used this opportunity to address the subjugation of black identity within the established discourse. In collaboration with the Ghanian-British architect David Adjaye, Ofili transformed the British Pavilion beyond recognition. Inside the exhibition space, carpet was laid on the floors, and the walls were painted in deep shades of red, black and green. On the ceiling, a similarly tinted Murano glass sculpture, Afro Kaleidoscope, crowned the central chamber – where the present work was proudly installed – into which red and green Venetian light streamed through a central skylight. Outside the Pavilion, Ofili chose to fly his own version of the Union Jack in which the national colours of red, white and blue were replaced for those of Pan-Africanism. Titled Union Black and jointly inspired by David Hammons’ similarly doctored Star Spangled Banner, U.N.I.A. Flag (1990, The Museum of Modern Art, New York), and British historian Paul Gilroy’s influential book, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1987), Ofili’s flag combined with the wider Biennale showing, confronted and unpacked issues surrounding national identity, post-colonial history, and ideological/geographical boundaries.
Described by Enwezor as “one of the most complete artistic projects in the history of the Venice Biennale”, Within Reach, offered a glorious opportunity for Ofili to conclude the admixture of Pop culture, racial stereotype, humour and art historical archetype that had brought him international prominence during the mid-1990s (Ibid., p. 152). After this astounding series, Ofili relinquished his elephant dung and map pins to focus on a more stripped-back approach to the canvas. The subject of fervent critical acclaim, Ofili’s British Pavilion was intoxicating; a veritable cornucopia of saturated colour that overloaded the senses. It became a crescendo, not only for this series of works, but for Ofili’s career to date and encapsulated the very apotheosis of a dramatic ascent, spanning a time period of less than ten years, from art student to internationally lauded contemporary artist.
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