Chris Ofili’s The Blue
Rider Extended Remix
Kestner Gesellschaft in Hanover, London-based artist Chris Ofili conjures
up Modernist utopias and German Expressionism – in brilliantly beautiful
blue paintings. The Deutsche
Bank Collection has loaned one of its latest acquisitions from the
series to the show. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf met with the star of
the "Young British Artists" and spoke to him about Kandinsky, Biblical
sinners, African art, and Led Zeppelin.
Courtesy Chris Ofili - Afroco & Contemporary Fine
"Black Madonnas" decorated with elephant dung not only brought him the
Prize in 1998, but also a real-life scandal. In 1999, mayor of New
Giuliani was so incensed by Chris Ofili’s painting Virgin
Mary, which combined collaged images from Blaxploitation
films with female genitals, that he cut funding to the Brooklyn
Museum, where the painting was presented in the legendary group show Sensation.
Since that time, the British artist of Nigerian descent has had countless
exhibitions; in 2003, he was celebrated for his spectacular installation Within
Reach at the Venice
This summer, the Kestner
Gesellschaft in Hanover is showing Chris Ofili’s first institutional
exhibition in Germany. The
Blue Rider Extended Remix awakens traditions of European
Modernism; its luminous blue paintings read like a contemporary homage to
Rider artists and their ideas of unity. Ofili’s paintings reflect
the synthesis of all art forms that Wassily
Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter,
Marc demanded at the beginning of the 20th century – ranging from high
to folk art and including figuration, abstraction, Expressionism,
Spiritualism, painting, music, and theater. At the same time, the works in
exclusively blue and silver hues, reminiscent of a dark, nocturnal ocean
blue and a phosphorescent tropical moonlight, bring to mind Ofili’s new
home in Trinidad
and Tobago. Yet his melancholically beautiful paradises are populated
by saints, Biblical sinners, and seductive goddesses – and are every bit
as questionable as the idealizing, exotic yearning for the faraway to be
found in European Expressionism.
©George Ikonomopoulos /TO
Oliver Koerner von Gustorf:
Your exhibition Blue Rider Extended Remix seems to address a whole
bunch of modernist myths: the interest of Expressionist artists in
"primitive" art and "non-Western" art forms, the desire to discover an
unspoiled paradise hidden within the "uncivilized" world, the idea of
producing art in some kind of vanguard community far away from the art
scene in the big cities. While these notions still seem to be tempting in
a very romantic way, we are aware of the problematic nature of European
"primitivism." How does your work deal with this antagonism?
Moon", 2005 / "Silver Moon", 2005
Chris Ofili - Afroco & Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin
What I’m investigating right now is European painting. You see, a lot of
commentary on my work has been about African tradition in painting,
whereas I’ve always had a strong interest in European painting. Being of
African descent, people still focus on me – where my origins and interests
might lie. I felt that this would be the opportunity to be quite explicit
about what my interests are – it is a group of European painters, very
European individuals. I wanted to use them as a springboard for my
interest in spiritualism, abstraction, funny kinds of figurations. I also
have a kind of relationship to Germany as well, to German traditions. The Blue
Rider artists made some unbelievable paintings – kind of otherworldly.
What I like is that in some ways these artists were marginalized – as a
group, people really didn’t pay that much interest to them. In a way, art
attracts so much attention nowadays. I live in Trinidad, away from the
center. That allows me to operate in a way that is individual. I think
that’s what is needed these days. There is so much attention, and
information travels so quickly…
But you are not a new
[Laughs] No, those days are over.
usually talk more about the content in your paintings and less about how
they’re made. The thing that stands out most about your Blue
Rider series are the blue parts. How do you achieve this degree of
Some of the very blue ones are quite dark, but they
are actually painted on a silver ground. The first color is silver. So you
always get this very strong kind of light coming out from behind the blue
– almost like moonlight, a silvery moonlight. Many of the old masters
began very dark paintings with a light background, and then gradually made
them darker. It’s that same approach of building darkness from light. So
my painting starts off very, very pale and then proceeds towards darkness.
In the end, you get the feeling that the light is coming from within. I
paint the canvas with silver water-based paint and then I work on top of
that with oil paint, ordinary, good-quality materials. I paint with a
brush, and sometimes I spray turpentine on the wet paint to give it more
fluidity. On Thirty Pieces of Silver, you’ve got this top corner
with that blue "Starry Night-Effect."
"Thirty Pieces of Silver", 2005
Chris Ofili- Afroco & Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin
Is it possible that your Blue Rider series looks
back to German Expressionism in the same "exotic" way as the
Expressionists were looking at non-Western Art?
yes, if you’re talking about looking in an art history book and saying
hey, I like this, or this means this and this means that. Yes, in a kind
of pedestrian and touristy way. I hope I am not doing the same harm the
Do you make sketches or construct the
painting? Or do you paint directly onto the canvas?
pretty much directly, just throwing it right onto the canvas. But with Thirty
Pieces of Silver, I also worked from a live model. Sometimes the more
classical, traditional things get lost in contemporary art. I thought this
would be a good opportunity to bring that back in and see if that can
still be interesting today, working directly from the model. I think I
Where does the orchestra in Thirty Pieces of
Silver actually come from? It looks Moroccan somehow.
it actually comes from a postcard that my wife sent me when she was in
Morocco. But the painting is essentially a depiction of the last days of Judas.
In the Bible, he hangs himself after betraying Christ with a kiss. But in
this painting he goes to a strip club. The stripper is Salome,
and the band is a very high-class, classical Moroccan band. That’s him
giving away his thirty pieces of silver. So in a way the painting is about
relinquishing your guilt and your riches.
At the same time, the
painting has a very rhythmical, almost musical aura. The encounter with Arnold
Schoenberg’s compositions was a crucial experience for Kandinsky
and led him to his ideas concerning a non-representational art that purely
visualizes music and emotions. In articles and interviews, you’ve
mentioned that music plays a major role in your painting.
Fine Arts, Berlin
am really trying to expand my understanding of music right now. I was
listening to Led Zeppelin
last night with my galerist Bruno
Brunet and it was absolutely fantastic! I’m really into Hip Hop. It
completely opens you up when you say you’re not going to focus only on one
type of music, but on anything you think is good. I think this happened
with this body of work. I don’t want to focus only on this one type of art
anymore, I want to be much more open in my interests. And hearing Led
Zeppelin last night was like a funny kind of rebirth. You see, normally I
would have said I am absolutely not interested in Led Zeppelin – that’s
not my culture.
Hello! You grew up in England. Haven’t you’ve
been forced to listen to Led Zeppelin?
No. You see those guys
in Led Zeppelin gear and you say to yourself: this is not my taste. But
when you hear it, when you actually just engage in what it is, regardless
of the culture that it represents, it’s quite liberating. I see music as a
pure form of expression similar to painting, which is a pure, mystical
form of expression. The two fuel each other. The ways the ears and the
eyes are organized in the brain are very close together; they can also
momentarily get dislodged. There’s this painting over there called The
Blue Riders’ Feedback, and it almost enters your eyes, where you
get this harsh light, this harsh reflection – a feedback.
Ofili- Afroco & Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin
So you listen to music while
Yeah, I’ve been listening to Nina
Simone’s Album Four Women while working on my latest
paintings. It is a collection of four albums and it is absolutely amazing
– worth spending the money on. You get the real range of what she is
about, the soul, the blues, almost to the point of poetry – and her
incredible command of the piano. It gave me a lot of spirit and influenced
the outcome of the new paintings. The paintings are not illustrating
Nina’s music, that’s impossible. It was more about just having that
"company" in the studio.