No Woman, No Cry is a very large, densely layered painting that depicts a crying woman set among various abstract patterns. The woman, who has dark hair and black skin and is shown in profile, is formed from a thin brown painted outline that is filled with many small dark brown circles. She wears blue eye shadow, red lipstick, a string of coloured beads that sits just below her hairline and a thin black necklace. Forming the pendant of her necklace is a lump of elephant dung containing map pins, and the woman’s chest bears an area of vibrant red and orange paint, with flame-like yellow forks across its top edge. A series of pale blue tears descends from each of her eyes, all of which feature at their centre a very small collaged photograph of a boy’s face. The background is painted with a mixture of pale green and bright yellow, criss-crossed by conjoined sequences of circles that each contain concentric rings and are gathered to form the rough outlines of diamond shapes. Layered among these are dotted lines punctuated by black heart shapes that appear at the centre of each of the diamonds. Running in three horizontal lines across the canvas, the words ‘RIP Stephen Lawrence 19/4/1998’ appear faintly underneath its top layer. When exhibited, the painting rests on two large lumps of elephant dung that are placed on the floor, while its upper edge leans against the gallery wall.
This painting was made by the British artist Chris Ofili in 1998 when he was living and working in London. It is painted on a coarse linen canvas that was bought pre-primed. Ofili added several further layers of acrylic gesso primer and then covered the entire canvas with phosphorescent light green acrylic paint. He then drew lines over it in pencil, before adding the collaged circles that make up the diamond pattern, which are cut from a reproduction of a work by the British abstract artist Bridget Riley. Ofili then applied the heart shapes in black oil paint and the black dots using rub-on transfers. Following this, he used more phosphorescent paint to write the text across the painting, before fixing the dung pendant onto the canvas with a glue gun. A polyester resin mixed with orange and black pigments and glitter was then poured onto the work while it was positioned horizontally, and the canvas was tipped up before drying, producing runs of resin that are visible around its edges. Finally, oil paint thinned with turpentine was applied to depict the woman and unthinned oils were used for the beads and the colours on her chest.
The title of this work is also the name of a 1974 song by the Jamaican reggae musician Bob Marley that entreats a female listener not to be sad. The phosphorescent inscription in the painting indicates that the crying woman depicted is Doreen Lawrence (now Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon OBE), the mother of Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered as a teenage boy in a racist attack in London in 1993, and the photographs inside the tears in this work are all images of Stephen. Curator Judith Nesbitt has written that ‘Ofili was deeply moved by the way in which Doreen Lawrence’s overwhelming silent grief at her son’s tragic death had been transformed with each successive interview as she became even stronger in spirit and emboldened to speak with great dignity’ (Judith Nesbitt, ‘Beginnings’, in Tate Britain 2010, p.16).
This work was made during a period of Ofili’s practice, beginning in 1996, in which he shifted from making predominantly abstract paintings with scattered representative elements to pictures that primarily focus on large individual figures. More specifically, it is one of a number of paintings he made in 1998 and 1999 that depict black women from the chest upwards (see also Dreams 1998). While these works share many traits with his other large paintings of the 1990s, including the use of elephant dung, dots and multiple layers, their tender tone is notably different from the cartoonish, grotesque and even pornographic manner in which black figures are represented in many of his works from slightly earlier in the decade, such as Rodin…The Thinker 1997–8.
The dense layering of materials is common in Ofili’s paintings from the 1990s (see, for instance, Third Eye Vision 1999, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis). In 2009 Ofili stated that this stemmed from his tendency in the late 1980s to proceed by ‘painting and then scraping down and working on [the canvas] again ... often in the end a finished painting would be constructed from lots of other paintings underneath … I tried to think of a way of working where all of those layers could coexist without cancelling each other out ... All of what comes before is just as important as the statement on top. This was a way of trying to make paintings that has no hierarchical statements within them, despite the fact that a motif often appears to dominate these paintings’ (Thelma Golden and Chris Ofili, ‘Conversation’, in Doig, Becker, Adjaye and others 2009, p.235).
Chris Ofili, exhibition catalogue, Southampton Art Gallery, Southampton 1998.
Peter Doig, Carol Becker, David Adjaye and others, Chris Ofili, New York 2009, reproduced p.102.
Chris Ofili, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2010, p.16, reproduced pp.16, 45.
Supported by Christie’s.