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Modern Art and Postmodernism: Chriss Ofili

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Contemporary Art and its Representation in Art 21 Video Series

Contemporary art is an incredible part of human history. It allows us to study the ideas of the artists who live in the same era as we do: see what they see and hear, experience what they feel and touch. However, their creative minds produce splendid variety of contemporary art works using up-to-date techniques and materials. Moreover, in this paper we will understand how contemporary artists work and what are their goals; we will study the background of one of the contemporary artists and his famous works.

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One of the most exciting things about contemporary art is that you feel yourself the part of it. As it reflects modern culture and society offering its learners rich variety of options – to think over contemporary ideas and compare with the old ones. Furthermore, contemporary art works are indeed different as they are usually made of extraordinary materials; artists use various technological devices to express their ideas, and often large-room installations astonish and surprise at once by their scale and representation. All in all, such art challenges traditional norms and rules; it creates new boundaries and targets further goals. Finally, contemporary art needs the participation of the observer as the artists often allow the audience to construct its meaning.

Educational resource Art 21 Season 2 widens the understanding of contemporary art and allows us to perceive it not only from museums or art galleries, but also through personalities and their ideas. This incredible series on art get acquainted us with 16 contemporary artists working in the USA. The artist is no longer isolated, he or she speaks about his experience and desires, goals and ambitions, past and future. Season 2 opens the doors to the intimate process of considering and making art. The viewers study the methods and materials, the ways artist’s inspiration turns into reality. Artists’ stories are autobiographical or fictional. Some of them tell the stories of life and death, for example Kiki Smith who reflected on her past experience. Others were speaking of their favorite games like chess and billiards, and baseball. Finally, a group of artists spoke of the themes which are connected to their culture and history. This is the theme I became interested in.

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Season 2 and the Theme of Culture and History

One of the artists from Art 21 that appealed the most was Do Ho Suh. This man is known for his specific understanding of space in general and personal space, in particular. His large-scale installations are magnificent and, apart from author’s meaning let the observers gain their own. His understanding of art is similar to Foster Hal’s explanation in Commodity Art1. According to the author, contemporary artists also worked in frames of space design and created free of tension installation art. Moreover, such art represented the usage of different furniture, textiles and decorative elements. So, the commodification of art occurred and the same line is visible in Do Ho Suh’s art.

In all his art works the line of cultural background and history is clearly visible. Some of his works express homesickness, memories and experience of the past. Floor installation is about personal space. There is a difference in perceptions according to Do Ho Suh as he did not use to mention lack of personal space when he lived in Korea. The population is so dense there that personal space has no value. However, he felt the dissimilarity when he moved to the USA. When you step on that Floor, you may not seem any difference from the ordinary one. But, if you look closer, you will notice hundreds of people asking not to smash or push them.

What is more, another Do Ho Suh’s incredible installations are the houses. These art works represent the theme of identity, knowing who and where you are from. Despite the fact, that many people travel around the world or leave their homeland, Do Ho Suh managed to create something that saves the perception of native home. In his Seoul Home installation he represented the part of his home using specific fabrics. Finally, the theme of culture and history continues in his Some/One installation. It is a representation of militaristic structure society in Korea or a jacket resembling emperor outwear. This artwork can be interpreted in multiple meanings, but, it proves, undoubtedly that cultural background of the artist is inevitable here.

Kara Walker is another artist from the series Art 21 Season that inspired me. The themes here are connected to the ones described above. Her works speak of the history, culture and literature as well. Thus, the character of her works differs from Do Ho Suh. Her images and silhouetted figures tell the stories that interest the author the most: physical and sexual, historical and racial struggles, in particular. In addition, her figures live on the walls and play their roles with the help of colored light and shadows. Kara is concerned with the issues of racial discrimination in the past and expresses her position. At the same time there appear the figures that tell the story of love. So, Kara’s works are both with cultural and historical background and of fictional character.

Chris Ofili: A Contemporary Artist

The theme of culture and history in art I also found in the works of a contemporary artist Chris Ofili. This is an English artist who received education in London. Later he was awarded a travelling scholarship to Zimbabwe and this experience changed his attitude to art completely. He addressed African culture and religion, fabrics and unconventional methods in his art. His art works are very vigorous and complex. They are complicated by several paint layers, glitter or resin creating rich and impressive decorations. What is more, the themes of his works are very diverse: identity, history of the blacks and sacred things. Furthermore, Chris Ofili often uses elephant dung as the material for his art works. It is chemically treated to devoid it of any odors. Thus, the main idea of it is that it is connected to earth, natural resource. The artist adds that “…it makes the painting feel more relaxed, instead of being pinned upon the wall like its being crucified.” 

Chris Ofili, similar to Kara Walker, is concerned with racial stereotypes. So, in some art works he challenges them and gives many references. Special recognition received Chris’s series of etchings. During his travelling he took several etching plates from every place he visited and used them to create a new project “odd kind odd tourism”3. So, various series appeared called Barcelona, New York or Berlin.

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The Theme of Culture in Chris Ofili’s Art Works

The artist continued his experiments with materials and techniques in his art. So, in 1998 he was awarded the Turner prize and was the first Afro-American artist who did so.


Figure 1. The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili.

Source: Irvine Martin. Cultural Semiotics: The Case of Black Madonna Icons.

However, one of the most controversial works of Chris Ofili was The Holy Virgin Mary, shown in his solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem. It was a sensation as the work was criticized by New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and various religious groups. They objected to showing such work in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) by Chris Ofili is a provocative artwork which represents a black woman on the yellow background. It is not a classical Madonna holding her child, but a woman dressed in a blue robe exposing her naked breast. Thus, this breast is not a traditional one, but represented by the elephant dung decorated with glitter and attached to the linen. Looking closer, one may see dense layers of paint complemented with small cuts of female genitalia photos. By such emphasis the artist might have wanted to accentuate the fertility function of Madonna. Moreover, even elephant dung was used here not only for decoration, but as symbol of regeneration as in some areas of Africa. The combination of gold and the Virgin facing the observer link the art piece to the Medieval icons.

Here the theme of cultural background appears as the artist makes his Virgin black; it is more folkloric. It is not a caricature as many may say. Big mouth represents typical African mouth and the same with exaggerated African face traits which address racial stereotypes and insults. Ofili just offers us the ability of Virgin’s blackness. Many critics acknowledge that The Holy Mary does not cause such debates and controversy today. It is often exhibited with other canvases and triggers demure reaction. Maybe, the time has passed or the conscious of people has changed.

The theme of cultural background and racial stereotypes continues in No Woman No Cry. A black woman is crying over her son murdered in a racist attack. She expresses her deepest grief in tears. The painting is a reaction of the artist to the racism affects, and the murder of a teenage in 1993. Chris Ofili admired the bravery of Stephen’s mother who was not afraid of anything and exposed the truth about police corruption and the faults of contemporary society.


Figure 2. “No Woman No Cry” by Chris Ofili

Source: Irvine, Martin. “Cultural Semiotics: The Case of Black Madonna Icons”

If you look closer in the picture, you will see that the tears are Stephen’s collaged photos. Moreover, the brightness of the picture may have different aims. Firstly, it is made on purpose to emphasize the problem and catch observers’ attention. On the other hand, these bright colors may be a fallacy as the background is dirty, which may denote sorrow and offense. Moreover, yellowish palette over black skin may accentuate the race of a woman and that she is proud of her origin as well. Finally, this art work is unique as it should not be viewed superficially. These tiny dots, colors and shadows, collaged photos express the original aim of the artist.

Chris Ofili’s art changed when he moved to the Caribbean island. Such change affected his work as new colors and forms were accepted. Afterwards, the art works exploring Trinidad mythology and landscapes appeared. However, in 2007 the artist came into sculpture. He used matte color planes and reevaluated his subjects and materials. In general, Chris Ofili was an experimentator as he looked for new techniques. Nature and landscapes became an important part of his art.

Contemporary art is very complicated and strange in its understanding. This paper shows how versatile its representations are. Large-scale installations, wall figures or paintings of contemporary artists are very vivid and meaningful. It proves again that the more knowledge and experience you have, the more meaningful it appears to you. Chris Ofili appeared a discovery to me. My attitude changed from misunderstanding to deep analysis and cognition of his works. He is the artist of a new generation that appeared in 1990s and always caused heated debates. I haven’t decided yet if I want contemporary art to be controversial and shocking or not. Thus, I like Chris Ofili’s art works. So, it is for you to decide whether he is famous or infamous. For me, he is famous and unique.

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