Chris Ofili: Understanding His Uncommon Materials and Influences

KatherineArtist Spotlight, Contemporary / Modern ArtLeave a Comment

At the heart of Chris Ofili’s works is the expression of identity.  Ofili draws from numerous sources for inspiration. Jazz music, William Blake, hip hop, the Bible, and Zimbabwean cave drawings all mingle in Ofili’s paintings. He also employs racial stereotypes as commentary. Blaxploitation films and other such imagery are used as a way to explore black identity and culture. Multiple influences coupled with the intricacies of Ofili’s technique make for unique and intriguing art.

Chris OfiliChris Ofili was born in Manchester, England in 1968. While studying at the Royal College of Art, Ofili received a scholarship to travel to Zimbabwe. This trip to Africa had a profound influence, which manifested through the appearance of aspects of African culture in his paintings. This influence continued as he started to look at more unconventional materials.

Ofili’s striking work is as thought provoking as it is visually stimulating. No Woman, No Cry, in the Tate collection, represents a common thread seen in most of his works. The painting is an expression of loss and grief. Ofili was inspired by the tragic death of Stephen Lawrence and the controversial handling of the investigation. The murder was the highest profile racial killing in British history and the London police were accused of institutional racism. What stayed with Ofili was the image of Lawrence’s mother crying. Her despair over the loss of her son and the events set in motion by his death were powerful. In the painting are tears which contain photographs of Lawrence. Beneath several layers of paint are the words “RIP Stephen Lawrence.”

How No Woman, No Cry was made is as layered as the subject matter. The painting is propped by actual elephant dung. Chris Ofili favors elephant dung in his works to give his works a more earthy quality. He has remarked that the idea of his paintings simply hanging on a wall is unappealing, too lifeless. As with many of Ofili’s works, uncommon materials are incorporated. Glitter and map pins populate the canvas. Several layers of paint were added, the first layer of paint is glow in the dark, which gives it a striking quality. Polyester resin was added which keep the pieces of elephant dung from putrefying and hold the glitter in place.  Each step was carefully controlled and each element was added with precision.

In recent years, Ofili’s works have become more subdued, but continue to be rich and bold. It is very exciting to consider what next he will explore. Chris Ofili’s thoughtfulness and ability to bring together diverse elements will lead to new and intriguing things.


Kenny Ackerman is an Art Dealer in New York, specializing in Fine Art Paintings from 19th-21st century Europe and America. To buy or sell original paintings by artists we represent, contact Ackerman’s Fine Art Gallery.

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