Double Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars is a large painting by the British artist Chris Ofili that depicts Captain Shit, a black superhero invented by the artist. The figure of Captain Shit appears twice in this painting in identical overlapping representations. Both figures are presented frontally and stare out towards the viewer, and the figure at the front stands with his left hand on his hip. The two Captains are composed of very small dots of red and yellow paint and they wear skin-tight yellow suits and red capes, belts and boots. The suits are parted from the neck down to the waist, so that skin on the figures’ chests and stomachs is visible. The belts they wear have buckles made from lumps of elephant dung with the letters ‘CS’, standing for Captain Shit, written on them in red and yellow paint. There are two further balls of elephant dung in the upper part of the painting, positioned either side of the figures’ heads, and another two are placed under the bottom left and right corners of the painting. Surrounding the figures and visible behind the patches of red and yellow dots are a large number of black star shapes that are overlaid with photographs of eyes clipped from magazines. The background is creamy white in colour and much of the painting’s surface is covered with glitter, pins and resin.
Ofili produced this work in London in 1997. He had first begun to use elephant dung in his work following a research trip to Zimbabwe in 1992, when he became interested in the way that dung was used to trace the behaviour of wild animals. Ofili stated in 1999 that the inclusion of the dung was ‘a way of raising the paintings up from the ground and giving them a feeling that they’ve come from the earth rather than simply being hung on a wall’ (quoted in Carol Vogel, ‘Chris Ofili: British Artist Holds Fast to His Inspiration’, New York Times, 28 September 1999, http://partners.nytimes.com/library/arts/092899ofili-brooklyn-museum.html, accessed 24 October 2014). On that same trip to Zimbabwe the artist visited the Matobo Hills and saw ancient San cave paintings featuring small dots of paint on their surfaces, a technique that Ofili adopted thereafter and used in works such as Double Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars.
The title of the work is reminiscent of the names of comic books, suggesting an adventure involving Captain Shit and the ‘black stars’ shown in the image. However, the word ‘legend’ and the phrase ‘black stars’ is also a reference to the achievements of real-life black people who were by that time celebrated as ‘superstars’. The curator Tanya Barson has described the stars in the painting as symbolic representations of ‘the many untold stories of fame in black history’ (Barson and Gorschlüter (eds.) 2010, p.22).
The character of Captain Shit was partly inspired by the Marvel Comics superhero Luke Cage, who first appeared in a comic in 1972. Cage was one of the earliest black superheros in American comic books and was the first to feature in a series bearing his own name. For Ofili, Cage was a symbol of the caricatured representations of black masculinity in popular culture during the 1970s, most notably in ‘blaxploitation’ films and funk and soul music. In 2009 the curator Okwui Enwezor stated that the iconography of the Captain Shit series ‘explores the black male as a kind of comic superhero, but one whose armours of masculinity and powers of persuasion lie in the ambivalent iconographies of the seventies funk music scene’ (Adjaye, Golden, Enwezor and others 2009, p.152).
Captain Shit has appeared in a number of Ofili’s paintings since 1996 and these are part of the artist’s ongoing exploration of the representation and reception of black culture across the world. For instance, in the 1998 work The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars (Third Version) (Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburg), the superhero appears on a stage, surrounded again by ‘black stars’, and is being mobbed by adoring white fans who reach up to grab him. As the curator Judith Nesbitt has argued, in Ofili’s Captain Shit works ‘the paradox of contemporary black culture being avidly consumed by a white audience is wryly noted by Ofili and played back to his own audience’ (Nesbitt, Enwezor, Eshun and others 2010, p.15). Yet the Captain Shit paintings are also deliberately humorous, according to Ofili:
My project is not a PC [politically correct] project. That’s my direct link to blaxploitation. I’m trying to make things you can laugh at. It allows you to laugh about issues that are potentially serious.
(Quoted in Nesbitt, Enwezor, Eshun and others 2010, p.15.)
David Adjaye, Thelma Golden, Okwui Enwezor and others, Chris Ofili, New York 2009, reproduced pp.95–7.
Tanya Barson and Peter Gorschlüter (eds.), Afro-Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic, London 2010, p.22, reproduced p.164.
Judith Nesbitt, Okwui Enwezor, Ekow Eshun and others, Chris Ofili, London 2010.
Supported by Christie’s.