While Chris Ofili is best known for his elaborate figurative paintings, he has consistently produced drawings, as well as prints and watercolours, as parallel activities to his painting practice. Ofili’s colouful paintings (such as No Woman No Cry 1998, Tate T07502) are typically glossy with layers of resin, and often embellished with glitter and collaged elements, including, notoriously, lumps of elephant dung (as in Double Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars 1997, Tate T07345)). With his drawings, Ofili develops his decorative patois with far simpler tools. Often monochromatic, as in afro, his drawings rely on intricate and juxtaposed areas of patterning for their decorative effect.
This work is dominated by the single word ‘afro’, inscribed in lowercase cursive script. Closer inspection reveals that the letters are formed by a chain of tiny portraits. Each of these heads sports a distinctive afro hairstyle, defined by a dark smudge of soft pencil. Concentric circles loop out from each head forming an intricately detailed pattern.
The decorative aspects of his work are underpinned by wit and an engagement with issues of racial prejudice and cultural stereotypes. The afro is a motif Ofili uses as an ironic symbol of power and pride. The simple portraits that make up the word ‘afro’ are all subtly different, but Ofili’s use of them as a repeated decorative element or pattern plays on the cliché that all black (or other ethnic) people look alike to someone outside their racial group.
Chris Ofili, within reach, exhibition catalogue, British Pavilion, 50th Venice Biennale, Victoria Miro Gallery, London, 2003.
Chris Ofili, exhibition catalogue, Southampton City Art Gallery, 1998.
Laura Hoptman, Drawing now: eight propositions, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002.