Chris Ofili’s large, vibrantly colored, and meticulously executed canvases incorporate tiny mosaiclike dots of paint and glitter, as well as small cut-outs from pornographic magazines and, most notoriously, lumps of elephant dung. A 1992 trip to Zimbabwe was a seminal experience for the artist, a British-born son of Nigerian parents, inspiring him to apply these unusual techniques and materials to motifs drawn from jazz and hip-hop, comic books, racial stereotypes, Catholicism (Ofili is a practicing Catholic), and African textiles. While some compositions are deliberately abstract, with patterns assuming a dazzling Op-art opulence, others show these patterns swarming around and within an iconic black figure. The combination of decorative style and social content is part of a deceptively playful exploration of issues related to black identity.
The four series of etchings Ofili has made to date reveal the sensitive, lyrical core of his art. Each series consists of ten prints inspired by a particular trip. On each trip, Ofili took along a set of copper etching plates and, working methodically, used a different abstract pattern obliquely related to his impressions of the specific place. Calling his project “an odd kind of tourism,” he used cross-hatching for the first series, Barcelona, in 1992, followed by small dots for Berlin, concentric waves for New York, and diamond patterns for the North Wales prints. The specific sites he visited there are noted at the bottom left of each plate.
Describing his work on these plates as “nourishing,” Ofili has said: “It can take me to places within myself that are unfamiliar.” While his obsessively drawn, allover patterns are clearly analogous to the decorative fields in his paintings, the small format and spare, repetitive black markings suggest a process that is more private and introspective.
Publication excerpt from an essay by Starr Figura, in Deborah Wye, Artists and Prints: Masterworks from The Museum of Modern Art, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2004, p. 258.