In the process of making art the mind wanders and gives way to instinct, which feeds off areas the intellect doesn’t. The process is one of distillation to the point where it’s just essence, just itself.
Chris Ofili was born in 1968 in Manchester, England and studied at London’s Chelsea School of Art from 1988 to 1991. He completed a Master’s degree in painting at the Royal College of Art in 1993. Ofili’s paintings refer to aspects of his Nigerian background and tackle themes of love, gender, religion, death and race. In recent works he blends spirituality, music, and folk art into his diverse subject matter.
Ofili’s first solo exhibition was in 1991 at Kepler Gallery in London. The following year he was awarded a British Council travel scholarship to Zimbabwe where he studied ancient cave paintings composed of decorative dots. Influenced by these images, he began to combine richly colored patterning with collage and three-dimensional elements in his paintings.
In 1997, Ofili was included in the controversial group exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. This exhibition traveled to the Brooklyn Museum where Ofili’s painting, The Holy Virgin Mary, was the object of criticism by mayor Rudy Giuliani. Roberta Smith wrote in the New York Times, “These works mix art, craft and witchcraft, along with references to popular culture and non-Western traditions, into a kind of global vernacular. His paintings confound peaceful resolution by pitting the decorative against the political, the pure against the profane, the celebratory and humorous against the caustic and dark.”
In 2002, Ofili’s exhibition titled The Upper Room at the Victoria Miro Gallery in London showed 13 dramatically lit portraits of rhesus monkeys with the central monkey assuming a Buddha-like pose, while the other 12 suggested the apostles. A year later, Ofili was selected to represent Britain at the 50th Venice Biennial. That installation, Within Reach, of lovers in a tropical paradise, celebrated a spirit of optimism.
In 2005 Ofili left England and settled in Trinidad. That same year, a shift occurred with The Blue Rider, a solo exhibition at Berlin’s Contemporary Fine Arts. Subtle, almost monochromatic creations in black, dark blue and silver were “integral to his new direction as was the harmonizing of spirituality, music, high art and folk art,” wrote Remi Abbas in Portrait of the Artist in Motion for Spread Art Culture Magazine. In 2007 in his solo exhibition Devil’s Pie at David Zwirner in New York, Ofili moved into sculpture and replaced the decorative dots in his paintings with planes of matte color. In 2008 he was invited to Crown Point Press where he created 17 color etchings in a rainbow of colors.
Ofili has had solo exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (2017-2019); The National Gallery, London (2017); The Arts Club of Chicago (2010); The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2005); and Serpentine Gallery, London (1998), among others. A group of Ofili’s paintings was included in the 56th Venice Biennale. Chris Ofili: Night and Day, the first major museum solo exhibition of his work in the United States, was organized by the New Museum in New York, where it was first presented, in 2014, and traveled to the Aspen Art Museum in 2015. His work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Tate Gallery, London; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; the Saatchi Collection, London; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others. He was awarded the Turner Prize for painting in 1998. In 2017, he was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) at Buckingham Palace. Chris Ofili lives and works in Trinidad and is represented by David Zwirner, New York, and Victoria Miro, London.
Chris Ofili at Crown Point Press, 2008 (4 minutes)
Artist Chris Ofili describes working at Crown Point Press in San Francisco, 2008.