Acquired from the above by David Teiger in 2002
Chris Ofili, in conversation with Thelma Golden, Exh. Cat., Venice, British Pavilion, 50th Venice Biennale, Chris Ofili: Within Reach, 2003, n.p.
Created in 2002, Afromantics belongs to Chris Ofili’s seminal Within Reach series, a group of paintings rendered in the colours of Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African flag: red, black and green. Exquisitely executed in layers of resin, acrylic paint, and glitter, punctuated by roundels of elephant dung decorated with map pins, the present work possesses the idiosyncratic aesthetic that brought Ofili international recognition during the mid-late 1990s. Building upon the dialogue that won him the Turner prize in 1998 – a body of work that included the astonishing painting No Woman No Cry which depicted the mother of Stephen Lawrence, a London teenager who died at the hands of a racially motivated attack in London on 22nd April 1993 – Afromantics telescopes the theme of black love and liberation whilst furthering important issues concerning black subjectivity within the canon of Western art history. In April this year, Ofili’s seminal and controversial The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York for their permanent collection (gift of Stephen and Alexandra Cohen); indeed, following a steady stream of important institutional survey exhibitions including the New Museum’s lauded 2015 retrospective Chris Ofili: Night and Day, Ofili’s position as “an artist whose paintings are among the best of his generation” is today firmly established worldwide (Ann Temkin, Chief Curator, MoMA, quoted in: Eileen Kinsella, ‘The Dung-Adorned Madonna That Giuliani Once Tried to Ban Has Been Donated to MoMA by Steve Cohen’, artnet news, 18 April 2018, online).
Ofili first began creating the Within Reach paintings in 2000. For these works he adopted the black nationalist tricolour of red, black and green as a means to directly channel an 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.
Prior to creating Afromantics and 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). For Within Reach, Ofili positioned black subjectivity at the front and centre of an elaborate creationist myth that plays up 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 quoted in: Fiachra Gibbons, ‘Artist's bold display of black power takes Venice by storm’, The Guardian, 13 June 2003, p. 3).
The genesis of this series can be traced back to a postcard that Ofili took home from his first trip to Trinidad in 2000. Depicting lovers embracing under a palm tree, this clichéd trope of a tropical holiday romance became the 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 in which a man and woman stare romantically into one another’s eyes. Set underneath a many-pointed star or sun and framed within a fecund setting of tropical flora, Ofili’s painting tells a tale of primordial man and woman; in Christian terms, Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Across the series, which comprises roughly eight major paintings, Ofili explores the concept 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, Afromantics. Each painting in the series is 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. By employing popular and empowering expressions of blackness and inserting them into the biblical myth of creation, Ofili puts forth a utopian allegory that casts black subjectivity as the protagonist within the exclusivist canon of Western art history.
To mark the culmination of this body of work, in 2003 Ofili collaborated with Ghanian-British architect David Adjaye for the project’s extraordinary conclusion: an installation for the British Pavillion at the 50th Venice Biennale. Previously, Adjaye had been the architect behind Ofili’s critically acclaimed installation, The Upper Room, at Victoria Miro Gallery in 2002 (now in the Tate Collection), in which a procession of thirteen jewel-like paintings, each depicting a rhesus macaque monkey and dominated by a different colour, were lined-up and spot-lit along an enclosed and narrow wood panelled room. Evoking the Hindi god Hanuman and the Christian tale of the Last Supper, Ofili melded references to multiple faiths to engender a spiritual atmosphere of sacred worshipfulness. One year later, Ofili would once again take up the immersive and sacred portent of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total artwork, for his series of Edenic Within Reach paintings. With Adjaye’s help, 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 into which red and green Venetian light streamed through central skylight. While outside the Pavilion, Ofili chose to fly his own version of the Union Jack in which the national colours of red, white and blue are 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, MoMA), and British historian Paul Gilroy’s influential book, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1987), Ofili’s work similarly unpacks issues surrounding national identity, post-colonial history and ideological/geographical boundaries. At the crux of Ofili’s ambitious tricolour installation, however, was the sequence of paintings to which the present work belongs.
Exhibited to the public as a representation of the United Kingdom during the Venice Biennale, Within Reach provided a compelling disruption of established national identity from within perhaps the most nationalistic of environments, the Giardini. Founded by Napoleon at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, the Giardini is the most historic site of the Venice Biennale. 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. Okwui Enwezor illuminates this point in his essay ‘Shattering the Mirror of Tradition’: “Ofili’s reconfiguration of the British Pavilion in Venice and its presentation as a new and imagined community contains two distinct lessons. The first takes the exhibition space as the metaphoric place-making zone in which a story of origin can be unfolded. The second, by making the African male and female the focal point of the narrative of a painting cycle, situates blackness within the canon of European art” (Okwui Enwezor, ‘Shattering the Mirror of Tradition: Chris Ofili’s Triumph of Painting at the 50th Venice Biennale’, op. cit., p. 152). Further described by Enwezor as “one of the most complete artistic projects in the history of the Venice Biennale”, Within Reach, offered a final glorious opportunity for Ofili to explore the admixture of pop culture, racial stereotype, humour and art historical archetype that had brought him international prominence during the mid-1990s; 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.
Above all, the great power of Ofili’s narrative project is in equal balance to the painterly brilliance with which each work in the series has been composed and painstakingly created. In this sense Afromantics is a work of sheer opulence; from its patterns of kaleidoscopic dots, exquisite layers of medium and form, through to the surprising and vivid chromatic variegation, Ofili demands a sustained and absorptive act of contemplation. Existing somewhere between painting and sculpture, experience and presence, established tradition and shattered histories, the present work is a true tour de force of contemporary art making.
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