Bathed in rich golden glitter and droplets of paint in a rainbow of colours, Chris Ofili's Orgena is a glorious celebration of African Womanhood. With her almost symmetrical head and torso, wide-open eyes and large scarlet red lips, she is beauty personified. Executed in 1998 for his Turner Prize winning exhibition at the Tate, Orgena was a central part of the exhibition, which included No Woman No Cry now in the Tate collection, and which was a benchmark in British art. This was not only the first time since 1985 that a painter had won the Turner Prize, but Chris Ofili also became the first black person to be decorated with this honour. He was nominated for his retrospective exhibition which had toured Britain the previous year and the work he had showed in Sensation, the major exhibition of Young British Art at the Royal Academy the previous year. Critics noted the totally new approach to painting that he was taking with the extraordinary layering of surfaces incorporating mixed media of paint, resin, paper collage, glitter, map pins and, of course, elephant dung to express new ideas about the possibilities of paint, but also to use these mediums to directly confront complex political issues. The notoriety and fame he had achieved as a result of these exhibitions brought greater exposure and analysis of his work in the press and he felt that the exhibition at the Tate gave him an opportunity to directly confront issues of Blackness, head on.
Orgena means 'A Negro' backwards and the exhibition of this with No Woman No Cry touched on some of the major issues which were and still are touching a raw nerve in Britain. The strong symbolism, both physically and metaphorically, of tears shed after the death of the teenager Stephen Lawrence, stabbed to death by a racist gang of white youths in a south London street in 1993, which famously feature heavily in No Woman No Cry, is also present in Orgena. The rich colours, the ornate African dress, the complex patterning that fills the canvas all celebrate the richness of Ofili's cultural background and attest to the fact that Ofili's ideas about art had begun to shift and develop in a different direction.
The two works also share the usage of sequential cut-out photocopies of Blaze 1 or Primitive Blaze by Bridget Riley. Peppered throughout the background to create a constellation of forms around the head of Orgena, Ofili has here adapted tiny versions of the painting to create a geometric tempo to the composition. The use of her works could also be significant in that she was a trailblazer herself. The first woman artist to win the grand prize at Venice in 1968, she laid the ground for many female artists who have come since. These works are amongst her most iconic works and typically adopt her renowned form of 'Op Art' to bedazzling effect, mesmerizing the viewer with the simplicity of their circular optical effect. In her seminal 1984 essay 'The Pleasures of Sight' Riley describes the sense of visual excitement she is trying to capture in her work, an essence which so perfectly applies to Ofili's work too. 'The pleasures of sight have one characteristic in common - they take you by surprise. They are sudden, swift and unexpected. If ones tries to prolong them, recapture them or bring them about willfully they are lost.' (B. Riley quoted by P. Moorhouse, 'A Dialogue with Sensation: The Art of Bridget Riley', Bridget Riley, London 2003, p. 11). Orgena is abundant with these 'pleasures of sight'. Vibrant colours, exquisite detail and a cornucopia of hidden elements which only reveal themselves to you as a reward for close inspection combine to create a work of infinite possibilities and bountiful beauty.
Orgena pulsates with energy and acoustic rhythm; the curvaceous outline of the woman's head and body, the high notes of her cherry red lips and sapphire blue shadowed eyes combine with the psychedelic waves of colour that sing from the surface of the canvas. The importance of rhythm in Ofili's study trip he made to Zimbabwe in 1992. During his stay he paid a visit to see the prehistoric San cave paintings in the Matobo Hills. He noticed that in addition to the representational paintings of figures and animals the walls were marked by areas covered with dots. The explanation he was given was that it was believed to have been done by someone who did not go out on the hunt but stayed behind and worked in the cave, '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 as quoted by A Searle, 'Going through the motions', The Independent, 27th December 1994).
Orgena fits in the pantheon of Ofili's greatest female portraits, alongside Blossom Foxy Roxy and No Woman, No Cry, these works all share luscious and curvaceous shapes, lovingly traced with Ofili's deft hand. They also share an extraordinary build-up of media, as is beautifully exemplified here. Close attention to the surface, shows an extraordinary underlayer of detailed draughtsmanship to create the gorgeous forms filled with paint, followed by the careful application of the paper collage featuring Bridget Riley's work, then the dense application of clear resin followed by the careful dripping of individual thick dots of paint across the whole of the body, the showering of golden glitter onto the surface and finally, the piece de resistance the application of a dung ball as her necklace decorated with map pins. Much has been made of Ofili's stay in Berlin in the early 1990s and his attendant interest in the art of Sigmar Polke and here we can see a similar 'alchemical' approach to the process of painting taken to extraordinary new and exacting lengths. At the same time, Ofili liberates each of the elements within the composition and allows them to float and dance across the surface of the painting.
However, this flirtation was to be restricted to a relatively few number of canvases. In 1998 he was awarded Britain's prestigious Turner Prize for contemporary art. The announcement was greeted by much media debate in Britain's notoriously harsh tabloid press about the value of his art, given its distinctive mix of animal dung, religious iconography and questions of black identity at a particularly difficult time for race relations in the U.K. But even these events did not prepare Ofili for the storm of controversy that would surround the opening of the notorious Sensation exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999.The inclusion of the artist's The Holy Virgin Mary became the subject of a vitriolic public debate and the painting so infuriated the city's Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, that he tried to remove public funding from the museum unless the director "came to his senses" (R. Giuliani quoted by J. Nesbitt, 'Beginnings', Chris Ofili, exh. cat., London 2010, p. 17).
Painted just months before the controversy erupted, the frank, naïve appearance of Orgena has a warm immediacy. The painting becomes an advocate for racial harmony and ties into an all-inclusiveness that has become more and more apparent in Ofili's work. These values extend to the elephant dung in his paintings, to the deliberate yet aggressive celebration of other forms of beauty, in short to taking the rough with the smooth, the beautiful with the ugly, the good with the evil.