This print is one of twenty works produced by contemporary artists for the Cubitt Print Box in 2000. Cubitt is an artist-run gallery and studio complex in north London. In 2001 the complex moved from King’s Cross to Islington and the prints were commissioned as part of a drive to raise funds to help finance the move, and to support future exhibitions and events at the new gallery space. All the artists who contributed to the project had previously taken part in Cubitt’s programme. The portfolio was produced in an edition of 100 with twenty artists’ proofs; Tate’s copy is number sixty-six in the series.
Ofili’s print, executed in orange-red ink on porous, cream-coloured paper, is a stylised image of a woman’s head and shoulders. Her face and hair are denoted with broad patches of saturated colour broken only to define her narrow, slightly slanted eyes and a tiara-like head piece which sets off her forehead from the rounded forms of her elaborately styled afro. Her mouth is a casual smudge where ink has been wiped away. Her ornately dressed coiffure recalls the traditional split peach hairstyle of a geisha, although the stiff beaded pigtails at the nape of her neck and arching hair pieces on the top of her head suggest the hair of a contemporary black woman rather than an Oriental courtesan. Her shoulders and breasts are suggested with abstracted arabesques made with the same broad brushstrokes as the face. Visible behind and beneath these marks are finer etched lines of flowering foliage in the same orange-red colour. The layering of two different types of mark-making gives the print a dynamic textural quality.
The harmonious composition and unapologetic celebration of beauty in this print are typical of Ofili’s work. He is best known for elaborate decorative paintings which incorporate layers of resin and beaded paint, glitter, collaged elements including cuttings from celebrity and porn magazines and, famously, elephant dung (see Double Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars, 1997, Tate T07345). This print is one of many images of attractive black women that the artist has made (see also Untitled, 1998, Tate T07503). His subjects are often sourced from images in the mass media that reinforce stereotypical views of black people. Ofili’s re-interpretations of these images question and undermine the original representations while simultaneously celebrating the clichéd aspects of black culture they present. The afro hairstyle, with its connotations of both the Black Pride movement and the blaxploitation films of the 1970s, has been used by the artist repeatedly. He has said, ‘People normally come up to the paintings and go “Oh right, who can I recognise, yeah, got that”, but in a way the Afro is supposed to suck all that recognition out really and give them all this same hairstyle, this one Afro. It’s not about identifying faces, it’s about dissolving faces’ (quoted in Kodwo Eshun, ‘Plug into Ofili’, Chris Ofili, p.82). The woman in the print is not an individual but a type. Curator Lisa Corrin has highlighted Ofili’s self-conscious use of motifs like the afro, saying, ‘his use of the most obvious kinds of signifiers of “blackness” demonstrates the absurdity of even making work about identity’ (Corrin, ‘Confounding the Stereotype’, Chris Ofili, p.13).
Godfrey Worsdale, Lisa G. Corrin and Kodwo Eshun, Chris Ofili, exhibition catalogue, Southampton City Art Gallery and Serpentine Gallery, London, 1998.
Virginia Button, The Turner Prize: Twenty Years, London, 2003, pp.144-6.
Terry R. Myers, ‘Chris Ofili: Power Man’, Art/Text, no.58, August-October 1997, pp.36-9.