The annual TIME Magazine Top 100 list of the world’s most influential people has been published, and among the usual collection of world leaders, politicians, human rights crusaders and business innovators, the usual list of ‘creatives’ appear, including musicians, actors, and filmmakers. But this year there is a lone visual artist in the group, the Turner Prize-winning artist Chris Ofili, who recently had a solo exhibition at New York’s New Museum.
For each of the ‘chosen’ there is a paragraph written by a close friend or collaborator to justify their place on the list. For Ofili there is Ghanaian-British Architect David Adjaye, who collaborated on The Upper Room of the New Museum with Ofili, and goes on to praise the artist’s ability to “speak about contemporary issues through the romance of painting.”
The artist’s work has come under attack for its provocative use of materials, for example elephant dung in a depiction of a black Virgin Mary. Adjaye defends the work by saying that Ofili “positioned himself as an artist who could redefine art practice by affirming the relevance of painting for the 21st century.”
The mixture of the sacred (Virgin Mary) and the profane (excrement and pornography) became a cause of controversy when the Sensation exhibition moved to New York in 1999. The City of New York and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani brought a court case against the Brooklyn Museum, with Giuliani describing the exhibition of Ofili’s work as “sick” and “disgusting”. Giuliani attempted to withdraw the annual $7 million City Hall grant from the museum, and then threatened it with eviction. The museum resisted Giuliani’s demands, and its director, Arnold L. Lehman, filed a federal lawsuit against Giuliani for a breach of the First Amendment. The museum eventually won the court case.
Adjaye concludes: “With works like No Woman, No Cry and The Holy Virgin Mary, both breathtaking and controversial in equal measure, he positioned himself as an artist who could redefine art practice by affirming the relevance of painting for the 21st century. Since moving to Trinidad, he has drawn inspiration from the island, its natural beauty and its distinct cultural tropes. Incredibly, he has re-emerged with an equally powerful relevance.”