‘Ofili does not treat black culture as if it is something innately his, but something to be borrowed and toyed with – everything in his work is a found object of black culture, from the Matapos Hill dots to the stereotype figures and the elephant dung’ (N. Ratnam, quoted in J. Stallabrass, High Art Lite: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art, London 2006, p. 112).
Adorned with infinite dots, glitter and lakes of translucent resin which sparkle and fade like twinkling stars on a crimson ground, Chris Ofili’s Popcorn Tits is a historically important example of the artist’s early investigations into Multiculturalism. The term ‘popcorn culture’ speaks of the sugary sweet, artificial, throwaway images of consumer society and its inclusion in the title of the present work with the slang word ‘tits’ points to a light-hearted critique of contemporary culture. The scintillating, tactile veneer of Popcorn Tits uncovers the artist’s rigorous comprehension and manipulation of his materials. Borrowing freely in the manner of the early Modernists, Ofili enlists cultural, historical and sexual references including elephant dung and clippings from pornographic magazines to explore the tension between medium and subject matter, imbuing Popcorn Tits with a glamorous exoticism tainted by its ambiguous power. Executed in 1995, the present work was included in the epoch-making exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, 1997, at the Royal Academy, alongside the artist’s polemic piece The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996. The latter would come to be seen as a figurehead for the exhibition and a source of much controversy when the show travelled to New York in 1999. As many critics have argued, the artist’s inclusion in Sensation propelled Ofili into the public domain and the following year, just six years out of art school, Ofili was the first black artist to be awarded the Turner Prize and had his own solo exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery where the present work was also shown.
Profoundly influenced by rhythm and sound, Ofili’s painting practice can be seen to echo the discordant sampling and rap of contemporary urban music. Inspired by the San cave paintings in the Matapos Hills on a trip to Zimbabwe in 1992, Ofili recounts: ‘I imagined them painting this great wall of optical, shimmering dots to the rhythm of chants and drumbeats, all of which got condensed into each dot’ (C. Ofili, quoted in A. Searle, ‘Going through the motions’, The Independent, 27 December 1994). It was on this same visit that the artist became preoccupied by the potent material relationship between animals and their world prompting an exploration of the physical remnants life leaves behind. Applying this logic to art, Ofili observed that artists, like animals, are judged by what they leave behind, their droppings, or, as Stuart Morgan suggests, ‘their drippings’ (S. Morgan, ‘The Elephant Man,’ in Frieze, no. 15, March - April 1994, p. 41). Translating these emphatically visceral experiences onto the canvas of Popcorn Tits, Ofili deploys his media in multiple layers to create an impression of extraordinary depth and to impress on the viewer the power of the work’s substantiality. Attesting to the artist’s ingenuity, he yokes together low culture pornographic images of breasts with elephant dung, to create a dazzling, jewellike work, as though excavating a diamond from the rough. Mining a wealth of art historical references, the great arabesques of colour that swirl across the canvas are redolent of the work of Edvard Munch and Gustav Klimt, while the immersive all over effect echoes Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Through Ofili’s unique technique that conflates the complexity that comes of making and unmaking the layers of different media, Popcorn Tits symphonises the artist’s African heritage in concert with the great legacy of western painting.
Jacques Lacan reminds us excrement is the first medium of artistic expression and has an illustrious trajectory traced from the ‘dirt painters’ or ‘rhyparographers’ of the ancient world to Piero Manzoni’s iconic series the Artist’s Shit, 1961 (J. Lacan, quoted in J.-A. Miller (ed.), Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, New York 1981, p. 104). Whilst the use of excrement in art itself is not novel, the dung is used by Ofili as a black artist, providing Popcorn Tits with its unique political edge. Ofili’s aesthetic makes manifest a key moment in the 1990s when black culture came to the forefront of modern society. It was his status as a black artist in this context that permitted him to challenge postmodern scepticism surrounding painting; he invited discussion about the status of a painting as an object by forming his own iconography that dealt with ethnicity and popcorn culture. In the same way that only a female artist such as Cecily Brown could reprise the fragmented women of Willem de Kooning, only Ofili could embrace black stereotype to playfully expose the racism inherent in society. As the artist states, ‘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, quoted in K. Eshun, ‘Plug into Ofili’ in Chris Ofili, exh. cat., Southampton, Southampton City Art Gallery and Serpentine Gallery, 1998, p. 13).