With his vividly coloured, densely patterned paintings built up from layers of translucent resin and resting on varnished balls of elephant dung, Chris Ofili quickly established himself as one of Britain’s most inventive young painters of the 1990s. The Manchester-born artist also attracted a wave of unwelcome publicity in 1999 (the year after he won the Turner Prize) when New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani took exception to his Holy Virgin Mary, a painting depicting a black Madonna baring an elephant-dung breast amidst a shower of female genitals snipped from pornographic magazines, which was shown at the Brooklyn Museum as part of the “Sensation” exhibition of Charles Saatchi’s collection. But Ofili has always been at pains to extend his practice and confound expectations: when he represented England at the 2003 Venice Biennale with his architect friend David Adjaye, he transformed the British Pavilion into a symphony of red, green and black (the colours chosen for a pan-African flag) topped with a cupola of glass shards and filled with paintings of lovers in a tropical paradise. Since then he has produced paintings in blue and silver and also branched out into bronze sculpture. In 2004 he moved to Trinidad, where he now lives and works.
The Art Newspaper: Tate Britain is opening your first retrospective this month—how does it feel to bring together works that have never been seen together?
Chris Ofili: Some works were made with other works in mind but I don’t think I have ever planned for all the works to be seen together in the way they will be seen at the Tate. But I’ve been making paintings for at least 20 years so I think it’s a fair amount of time to think about looking back and having some kind of assessment—I don’t mean that in terms of deciding whether it’s good or bad, but just having a look.
TAN: You used to work in a studio in King’s Cross with prostitutes on the doorstep. Now you are in a studio on a hilltop surrounded by thick tropical forest overlooking Port of Spain in Trinidad. What inspired you to make this dramatic change?
CO: I first visited in 2000 and I was asked three times to stay, and the third time it seemed like a good idea and the timing was right. I found it utterly different to London in many ways but not to the depth that I understand it now: it just seemed like a very different option that I couldn’t really comprehend in its entirety, and that’s probably what made it attractive to me. It was at a time when I felt that the art world was becoming quite claustrophobic and within my own work I was also looking for ways to make changes and to open things out. I kept coming back and felt that [Trinidad] was influencing my work, which began to be reflected in the paintings I showed in Venice. Shortly after this I decided to shift the emphasis from living in London and travelling to Trinidad, to basing myself here and travelling elsewhere. It has proved to be a challenging move in terms of how it has made me rethink my approach to making images and also just for me as a person.
TAN: How has it made you rethink the way you make your work?
CO: When I was based in London I was taking ideas away and experimenting with those ideas remotely, whereas now I live here the ideas are all around me and I have less distance from them. Before, I could isolate things and be much more controlled about switching Trinidad on and off; now it’s almost like a deluge of ideas. It’s quite difficult to describe but when I’m here and experiencing it as an artist, it can be very, very overwhelming: the nature is overwhelming and the colours and the light can be extreme and stark and can lack a certain type of subtlety. Even in terms of the feeling when you are in the forest here; the depth of the forest and the sound and the colours and the way the light moves through the trees, the feeling of spirits and other life forces that have passed and are not visible. It’s just a very inspiring place, but also one that doesn’t allow you to produce or translate those ideas into paintings immediately, in a obvious way. It takes more time for them to soak in.
TAN: Shortly after you settled in Trinidad you made the “Blue Rider” series in blue and silver—was this an attempt to let colour work in different ways?
CO: The blue works were really a way of trying to work with the dominance of the night here: it’s a very even distribution of night and day here, all year round. We are close to the equator so you experience the dark a lot more and in the forest in particular it has a strong presence that, being an urbanite, I wasn’t really aware of before. The closest I could get to this was not even a half-light, but just a blue-y silvery light that allows you still to see forms but also tricks you as to what those forms actually represent. So my imagination was constantly sparked. At first I resisted it, but once I found a way that I felt comfortable with to translate this into painting, then I could let the work become darker and allow some of those forms to disappear.
TAN: Since you’ve been in Trinidad there seems to be a much more potent, ritualistic, sexy feel to your work.
CO: Maybe the surroundings bring that out more in me. One of the big worries when I moved here was whether or not I’d be able to work and whether or not a lot of what I did was to do with being in London and being in an environment where there were lots of other artists making things and where there were museums and galleries and a very strong infrastructure. Here I spend a lot more time in…isolation in the studio and my ideas feel more as if they are coming from me rather than the contemporary scene.
TAN: Many of your very earliest works were self-portraits. Self exploration seems to be a continuing concern.
CO: Well, in the end, there isn’t very much else, is there? You can work through ideas and some ideas you can borrow from outside but ultimately you are left with who you are and what you are prepared to accept.
TAN: With the “Blue Rider” series you stopped using elephant dung. Did you feel that it had become too much of a trademark?
CO: I felt that I had explored its potential and [although] there were probably more things to be said, other things came in that I felt opened new opportunities to challenge myself as an artist.
TAN: It was at this point that you started making sculpture.
CO: The paintings had become very specialised in the way that they were made and the subjects that I was working on, and the sculpture just came in to try and completely blow things wide open and open things out.
TAN: Are there sculptures in the Tate show?
CO: No. I wanted just to focus on painting…and to leave the sculptures for another opportunity and to look at them in a different ways.
TAN: Your recent painting The Healer is disconcerting—it reminds me of that terrifying black painting of Saturn by Goya. The most recent works you’ve been describing seem very dark and scary.
CO: For a while I did feel that the work was getting darker and I resisted it because I associated it with a kind of negativity. But more recently I’ve become more comfortable with making work that comes from being [in Trinidad] and the feeling when you are here, and this has allowed me to experiment more. The Healer is an invented character who feeds off light and consumes light to be more powerful. The yellow in the painting represents the Poui tree which has very bright yellow blossoms but then at certain times they shed all their flowers very quickly and I put this down to the Healer who sees them as light and feasts on them.
TAN: Will you be staying in Trinidad?
CO: There are huge benefits to being here and it’s a really inspiring place. Trinidad is very close to New York in terms of the time zone so if I want to get an injection of great art then I can go there and go to the Met or MoMA or the Frick. At the same time I am able to be feel very private with the work, which I’ve always tried to maintain, but here it is possible to be even more so. It’s also been really interesting to be outside artistic centres like London and New York but still be able to contribute to some kind of discussion, so for now I really can’t see any reason not to be here.