‘Chris Ofili makes paintings that will not let us be. For more than two decades, the work of this British artist has dazzled and discomfited, seduced and unsettled, gliding effortlessly between high and low, among cultures, ricocheting off different racial stereotypes and religious beliefs. His paintings mesmerize, whether with their opulent dotted surfaces or bawdy eroticism, their perfumed colors or their riffs on established masterpieces… Ofili never loses touch with his belief in painting as, foremost, a sensual, accessible experience meant to engross the eye before doing much with the mind. Sometimes he challenges the basic act of seeing’ (R. Smith, ‘Medium and Message, Both Unsettling: Chris Ofili: Night and Day, a Survey at the New Museum’, The New York Times, 30 October 2014).
‘I think some of the most serious and weighty subjects should be presented sometimes in a light, glittery, glistening way to lure you in and then, slowly as you become accustomed to that, other layers start to reveal, to unfold. The paintings are layered. My surfaces are always about seduction’ (C. Ofili, interview with T. Golden, ‘A Conversation’, in Chris Ofili: Within Reach, British Pavilion 50th Venice Biennale, 2003, n.p.).
‘When you are in a paradise situation or a comfortable frame of mind, or blissful times, you are in a sense more vulnerable. You’ve opened yourself up to possibilities of threat. In a sense you’ve lowered your guard. So, the couple now are still very happy, but into the frame have come possibilities of threat. In this case they’re in a web, a red web. I was thinking about being a fly caught in a web, and ultimately if you see a web there is a spider around and the chance of getting bitten is present. In this painting, the woman is the passive one, she is less aware of the situation, whereas he is either part of the web or he is the predator’ (C. Ofili, interview with T. Golden, ‘A Conversation’, in Chris Ofili: Within Reach, British Pavilion 50th Venice Biennale, 2003, n.p.).
Initially realised as a monumental centerpiece for Ofili’s acclaimed exhibition, Within Reach at the British Pavilion for the Venice Biennale 2003, Afro Red Web is an exquisite, intricately rendered painting, uniting Ofili’s most iconic image; that of the Afro couple. Here they are clenched in a passionate embrace under the heady haze of an African paradise, invoking the biblical Garden of Eden. Surrounded by a wealth of foliage, its composition is ‘rich, lush, forever proliferating with a painted abstraction of fullness and ripeness and teeming life, a tropical memory, an artificial paradise, a glittery, spangled, over-ripe floor-show fantasy Eden’ (A. Searle, ‘A Fine Romance’ in Chris Ofili: Within Reach, British Pavilion 50th Venice Biennale, 2003, n.p.). One of only five large-scale canvases created for the Biennale, Afro Red Web was showcased to great effect within its own monochrome green room, adjacent to its partner work Afro Jezebel; a powerful meditation on the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus’s betrayal at the hands of Judas. Geometric patterns proliferate the scene of Afro Red Web, radiating from the woman’s kiss in the energetic lines of a red spider’s web. The composition is awash with painted dots, the artist’s unique brand of pointillism, and multiple veils of resin lacquer, capturing the iridescence of glitter and showcasing the luminous properties of its surface. In the upper left hand corner, a bright sun or star created out of Ofili’s infamous elephant dung radiates panoplies of red, green and black, in homage to Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African U.N.I.A fag. Garvey had envisioned a political movement in the 1920s, by which African-American and Afro-Caribbean communities would form a mass return to the African continent and establish a modern pan-African national community. This ambition was never realised, but was later immortalised in David Hammons’s star spangled banner African-American Flag (1990). Ofili draws influence from this political moment, as well as the 1960s ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement but his aesthetic is more about revisiting their mood rather than their activity. He uses the red, green and black palette as a sign of unity, projecting his own sense of hybrid British culture, infused with African antecedents.
Ofili’s installation at the Venice Biennale perfectly captured this sentiment. It was envisioned as an opportunity for the artist, who now lives full-time in Trinidad, to assert his own cultural nomadism, presenting his African roots on a British platform to an international audience. For the project, Ofili worked in collaboration with close friend and British architect David Adjaye, co-creator of Ofili’s celebrated walnut paneled, The Upper Room at London’s Tate Britain. Ofili and Adjaye conceived of Afro Kaleidoscope, a skylight within the pavilion roof to create a space saturated with red, green and black. As Ofili suggested, ‘it might be like being inside a kaleidoscope or like being in a painting. It’s about trying to get inside a painting’ (C. Ofili, interview with T. Golden, ‘A Conversation’, in Chris Ofili: Within Reach, British Pavilion 50th Venice Biennale, 2003 n.p.).
As Ofili’s recent, highly-acclaimed retrospective at the New Museum, New York, so eloquently demonstrated, his paintings are defined by their unique sense of narrative, expressed in a single pictorial plane. In Afro Red Web, Ofili engages the viewer in a story of the biblical Garden of Eden, mired by the spectre of temptation. Instead of the serpent and the enticement of an apple however, the painting introduces peril in the form of a spider’s web. The sensuous woman, reminiscent of Ofili’s Triple Beam Dreamer (2001-2002), with her full, curvaceous contours and plump lips, kisses the man on the cheek, ignorant to the glare of his blazing red eyes or the clasped dagger in his clenched fist. He appears like a ‘“wicked”, satanic, black devil-figure some conjuror, ju-ju man or Anansi spider figure’, yet he is perhaps nothing more than a reincarnation of Ofili’s oft depicted, Super-Fly and hip-hop ‘bad boys’ (S. Hall, ‘Chris Ofili in Paradise: Dreaming In Afro’ in Chris Ofili: Within Reach, British Pavilion 50th Venice Biennale, 2003, n.p.).
The woman’s kiss, apparently innocent, also recalls the Garden of Gethsemane and the ultimate betrayal of Jesus by his disillusioned disciple Judas Iscariot; a subject, fully elaborated in Afro Red Web’s ‘partner’ painting, Afro Jezebel. As the artist explained, ‘this one is a partner to the one that’s going to go in the green room [Afro Red Web]. In this picture the man is more engrossed in the embrace, and she’s still got this double vision, looking at him and looking out with two faces’ (C. Ofili, interview with T. Golden, ‘A Conversation’, in Chris Ofili: Within Reach, British Pavilion 50th Venice Biennale, 2003, n.p.). Ofili invokes all of these Christian biblical references with fluency, yet his commentary extrapolates from their religious foundations. His message is equally about the inevitable limits to joy and the fallibility of every paradise.
Chris Ofili has always had an affinity with painting. His canvases are unique in their devotion to detail: the surface built up with numerous sequential layers of paint and resin, which embody the growing chapters of cultural history. Finally, he painstakingly adds an intense and evenly rendered sequence of hand-applied dots of thick paint, which sit atop and below veils of lacquer, iridescent with light. In Afro Red Web, these perfect dots complement geometric configurations, created through the discreet lines of the artist’s overlaid spider’s web. The black of the composition takes on two tones, glossy and matt, transforming perpetually with the incidence of light. The figures of the man and woman are awash with tiny points, carefully applied by the artist’s hand to highlight and give texture to their dark silken skin. The depth of the lush forest is suggested by the painting’s pitch-black background, covered in lacquer and glitter, shining like fireflies alight at dusk. Ofili is an artist acutely aware of his antecedents in art history. His influences have ranged throughout the eras, from the transparency paintings of Francis Picabia, to the rigorous expression in Jean Michel Basquiat’s 1980s works, to the early Baselitz, Philip Guston and Sigmar Polke. As the artist himself has professed, ‘I’ve got a deep interest in painting. Not only in trying to work in a particular way - it’s about trying to explore the possibilities of painting and to push painting and the categories within painting, but also to push paint as a material and see what it can do and still be relevant or expressive. In terms of technique, I don’t know anybody else who was working in this way - I was just trying to push what I was doing and I suppose Within Reach was a natural saturation point’ (C. Ofili, interview with T. Golden, ‘Conversation’, in Chris Ofili, New York 2009, p. 237).