Festooned with shimmering glitter, iridescent veils of lacquer and colored arabesques, Untitled Diptych is a rare and extraordinary diptych created at the height of Chris Ofili's investigations into black British cultural identity. Ofili here depicts a resplendent voodoo king and queen, closely related to his Princess of the Posse (1999) and Prince Amongst Thieves (1999) held in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Museum of Modern Art, New York collections respectively. In Untitled Diptych, Ofili unites this royal couple for the first time to provide a mystical and exotic projection of Ofili's imaginary. The voodoo queen faces the audience with softly curved pink lips, her eyes shadowed in purple and blue whilst her hair remains free to mingle with the embellishments of the canvas. The abundance and unharnessed volume of her Afro is created with a series of black dots that radiate in a series of gentle waves, adorned by a multi-colored crown. The voodoo king looks to her smiling, his long black beard pointing to the floor, counterposing the dark brown cloud of hair that encircles his head. Ofili's painting is reverential in its attention to detail, each small section of the canvas attended to with precision and devotion, integrating collage, resin, glitter and paint in multiple layers. The queen is surrounded by a wealth of deep magentas and Afro-Caribbean tones, whilst the king stands ennobled by a background of aquamarine and bright white striations. The two canvases are accented by a dense concentration of Ofili's most renowned medium, elephant dung, hanging about his characters' necks like royal decorations. These necklaces, bedecked with colored map pins form a focal point at the center of the composition, becoming objects of unusual yet striking beauty. On the floor lay four further balls of elephant dung, each supporting the diptych a few inches from the ground. One of the great talents of the Young British Art generation, Ofili received the Turner Prize in 1998 for his outstanding contributions to contemporary art. Created under a year later, Untitled Diptych offers a striking example of the novel, intricately detailed and invigorated painting Ofili is celebrated for internationally.
Born in 1968 to Nigerian parents, Ofili has spent the majority of his life living and working in Britain, attending both the Chelsea College of Arts and Royal College of Art. It was only in 1992 following the award of travel funds from the British Council that he made his first visit to Africa, a trip that would so influence and inform his work. Ofili took part in the Pachipamwe International Artists' Workshop collaborating with native artists in Zimbabwe, and was immediately struck by the incongruence of his formal approach and the raw energy of the natural landscape. He applied some dried elephant dung to one of his canvases in an improvised attempt at introducing the environment into his work. It proved a productive marriage that inspired his first exhibited piece, entitled Painting with Shit on it (1993). The painting created a vast impact on the art viewing public, radically reinvigorating the traditions of painting so long imbued with Western European cultural conventions. Ofili distanced himself from the legacy of modernism, yet the formal decorative and aesthetic appeal of the work was not impaired. Rather, the elephant dung became an integral element to the work, equally alluring and desirable with its glossed resin finish and colored detail. As Ofili once said, it is all about "getting in contact with the beautiful" (C. Ofili quoted in S. Morgan, 'The Elephant Man', Frieze, no. 15 March-April 1994: 40-43).
In Untitled Diptych, Ofili complements his use of elephant dung with a careful layering and elaborate detailing of the canvas. In a novel technique, Ofili intersperses the multiple applications of paint with generous coats of resin. Each glossy film incorporates an additional seam of glitter or paper collage, creating the impression of depth and texture that changes with the incidence of light. Ofili paints on top of the resin, developing myriads of small dots that proliferate across the canvas in a kind of pointillism, informed by the dot-patterned surfaces of ancient Matopos cave paintings. These dots animate the characters in Untitled Diptych, filling in their silhouettes in a manner similar to Princess of the Posse (1999) and Prince Amongst Thieves (1999). In all of these works, Ofili boldly extends his Afromuses (1995-2000) project from paper to canvas, exploring the 1960s "black is beautiful" countercultural moment on a large, Technicolor scale. In Princess of the Posse (1999) and Prince Amongst Thieves (1999), Ofili explicitly refers to the genre of Blaxploitation film that emerged in the 1970s, affixing the images of famous black personalities onto the surface of the canvas. In Untitled Diptych, the reference is less explicit, replacing the collaged photographs with colored jewels and employing a color palette and geometric patterning reminiscent of both Bridget Riley's Blaze series as well as West African textiles.
Through this improvisational layering of media onto the surface of the canvas, Ofili enters a dialogue that engages both his African antecedents and the legacy of Western painting. In particular his propensity for layering multiple dimensions as realized in both panels of Untitled Diptych, recalls the sensations that Francis Picabia achieved in his Monster and Transparency paintings of the mid-1920s. From an early stage, Ofili kept a postcard of Picabia's late work Le Rêve de Suzanne (1949) on the wall of his studio. Here, many images occupy the composition in a manner strikingly akin to Ofili's voodoo queen. As Ofili has said, "Picabia laid it out. He's been a long time inspiration actually. I've been looking at him like crazy. He laid out all the possibilities. I think people are still working through him. He just had this ability to slip through and just present so many possibilities for painting. For painters it's great source material" (Chris Ofili interview with K. Eshun in 'Plug into Ofili' Chris Ofili, ed. L.G. Corrin, London, 1998, n.p.). In Untitled Diptych, Ofili's creative rhythm also draws parallels with the spontaneous lyricism of modern jazz or to the sampling of contemporary hip-hop. Both are traditions that Ofili feels close to, having been initiated into American culture through the dominant exports of glossy magazines, television shows, and music from a young age.
Ofili grew up in Britain during the 1980s and 90s when the concept of "Multiculturalism" was at its height. This philosophy entailed a concerted effort to integrate marginalized communities into society, but as time passed it rapidly mutated into a muted, institutionalized project of political correctness. Emerging as an artist in 1991, Ofili offered a radical and pioneering response in painting. He drew upon the energy of 1970s feminists such as Miriam Schapiro in the Pattern and Decoration movement, as well as the legacies of renowned black artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat. Ofili translated the complex narrative of Basquiat into a British context, using similar devices of irony, parody and the breaking of social taboos to inform his compositions. As Ofili has often described, his art tackles straight-on the most dogmatic preconceptions of black culture or "blackness": "the Voodoo king, the Voodoo queen, the witch doctor, the drug dealer, the Alagicien de la terre, the exotic"(Chris Ofili interviewed by Marcelo Spinelli London 23 March 1995 excerpted in Brilliant! New Art from London, exh. cat. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1995, p.67). In producing deliberately exaggerated stereotypes such as the voodoo king and queen in Untitled Diptych, Ofili undermines any attempt at facile categorizations, while simultaneously offering the viewer a visually luxurious and humorous work of art. As he has suggested: "My project is not a p.c. project I'm trying to make things you can laugh at. It allows you to laugh about issues that are potentially serious" (C. Ofili interviewed by K. Eshun in 'Plug into Ofili' Chris Ofili ed. L Corrin et. al., London, 1998, p. 13).