The recent retrospective of Chris Ofili at Tate Britain featured at its heart a room of works on paper which for the first time showed the central part these works play in his practice. This was particularly true in the mid 1990s when Ofili produced The Chosen Ones amongst an extraordinary and very rare suite of similar works, some of which were housed on one wall of the room at Tate. These works all took the Afro head as their starting device and used it in sequence to create highly subtle and intricate compositions, composed with a dedication to detail which bordered on the obsessive. These works would come to have a direct impact on his paintings, some of the greatest of which were produced around this time, when he premiered an exciting group of larger than life, yet highly intricate compositions which reflected these drawings in an exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery in London. Works such No Woman, No Cry, She and Afrodizzia are structured around fundamental compositional elements which first appeared in these drawings.
It is clear from looking at his paintings, that drawing is incredibly important to Ofili. Having been included in the prestigious BP portrait award early in his career, Ofili always prized draughtsmanship at a time when it was very unfashionable to do so. The Chosen Ones creates a dense network of these heads wound into a web of spirals which themselves spiral around a centrifugal force becoming progressively smaller as they move closer to its heart. This compositional device would appear to have its origins in Spaceshit from 1995 which was formerly in the Saatchi collection.
The incredible delicacy and fragility of this composition disappears into the centre of the paper in a dizzying swath of complexity. The small graphite drawings are an intoxicating mix of doodles, caricatures and musings - some are incredibly detailed, some are less developed but all are created with Ofili's characteristic eye for intricate beauty. One can see shades of Basquiat's 'stream of consciousness' style here as Ofili moves his hand and pencil across the paper, drawing with a semi-automatic, semi-freestyle approach, creating beating rhythm from nothing. Drawn in rapid succession, the minute characters of
The Chosen Ones are a direct representation of Ofili's thought process. This highly individual work contains all of the elements for which his larger canvases are known - the intricate detailing and highly sophisticated sense of patterning - but on a much more intimate scale. Every mark of graphite on the paper reveals Ofili's imagination at work.