The swirling and meditative abstract arabesques of Afro Daze which derive from the iconic black Afro hairstyles popular throughout the 1970s, aptly demonstrate Chris Ofili’s stated aim of “getting in contact with the beautiful” (Chris Ofili quoted by Stuart Morgan, ‘The Elephant Man’ in Frieze, no. 15, 1994) while concomitantly incorporating the multi-layered references to race, identity and ethnicity that permeate his entire oeuvre.
Graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1993 in a prevailing artistic climate that predicted the demise of painting, Chris 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 drawing, with its emphasis on pattern and harmony, its mesmerising, hypnotic composition and psychedelic forms, enshrines Ofili’s unashamed belief in craftsmanship and aesthetic, decorative beauty. The intricacy and delicacy of his technique is palpable in these tiny heads that emerge from serpentine lines that ebb and flow across the sheet. As in his large scale paintings that incorporate patterns made of dots, here the artist privileges craft, absorbing into his work the intricately patterned textiles of West Africa and the dot patterned surfaces of ancient Metapos cave paintings in Zimbabwe that he experienced on a formative trip to Africa.
The present work shares something of the primitivism and otherness of African cave paintings, combined with much more contemporary influences borrowed from the Black music tradition, particularly Jazz and Hip Hop. While several of Ofili’s paintings cite Black music legends directly, in Afro Daze the influence is more subtle, yet nonetheless clearly discernible in the sophisticated repertoire of tempo and rhythm reminiscent of the improvisational characteristics of Modern Jazz artists such as Miles Davis.
In Ofili’s work serious formal concerns always co-exist alongside content and the decorative aesthetic never exists as an end in itself. In Afro Daze, the Afro heads raise simple but important questions about clichéd and hackneyed stereotypes that have been continuously applied since the very origins of the colonial age. As is often the case, Ofili deliberately allies himself with the most facile view of black culture, choosing the most obvious signifiers of black nationhood – in this case the Afro haircut - to demonstrate the very absurdity of making work about identity. Suggestive rather than dogmatic in its delivery, Ofili’s work centrally situates Black culture while avoiding making a direct statement of uncompromising intent. In Afro Daze, notions of ethnicity are delivered through a form of pictorial invention that eschews political sloganism.
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