‘I never wanted to be negative about anything that I was and anything that I am. I think Captain Shit became that character. I don’t think he’s me but he became this almost comical, slightly... pathetic is the wrong word, but he became this hero or anti-hero. It was a way of playing out the idea of a black superhero as a comic strip, in a sense’ (C. Ofili, quoted in ‘Thelma Golden & Chris Ofili: Conversation’, in Chris Ofili, New York, 2009, p. 238).
Painted the year after his acclaimed Turner Prize exhibition, Chris Ofili’s The Naked Soul of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars is one of a number of important works that features the artist’s invented superhero, including Double Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars, 1997 (Tate, London) and The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars (Third Version), 1998, (Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh). Towering over the viewer, the work encapsulates the artist’s bold and experimental practice which draws on a multitude of diverse sources in its mission to dismantle cultural stereotypes. Set against a haze of effervescent pale blue resin and surrounded by a panoply of glittering black stars, Ofili’s invented superhero has featured prominently in his art since 1996, the most recognisable in his pantheon of invented icons. At once cartoon and saviour, here he appears naked, save for his matching cuffs, initial emblazoned belt and billowing crimson cape. Composed of phosphorescent paint that glows under ultraviolet light, and replete with iridescent black dots, he poses with hand on hip, the luminescent properties of the opulent surface emboldening his bursting muscles outlined in chalky blue. Inspired in part by Luke Cage, the first black superhero to have his own eponymously named comic series, Ofili’s protagonist is based upon a diverse set of Marvel Comics characters, from Black Lightning and Black Panther, to better-known, mainstream personalities, such as Spiderman and Superman. As much soul star as superhero, with his afro hairstyle and carefully rendered curls of chest hair, Captain Shit is a caricature of stereotypical representations of black masculinity in popular culture of the 1970s, notably the ambivalent iconographies of Blaxploitation films and the funk music scene. Studded with Ofili’s infamous balls of dung, The Naked Soul of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars is illustrative of the artist’s unique pictorial language which integrates the urban black experience with his own African heritage.
Described by Ofili as his ‘slightly comical saviour of the day’, Captain Shit is an irreverent symbol of the hypercharged stereotypes of black males in popular culture (C. Ofili, quoted in Chris Ofili, exh. cat., Southampton City Art Gallery, Southampton, 1998, p. 83). ‘I never wanted to be negative about anything that I was and anything that I am’, Ofili has said, ‘I think Captain Shit became that character. I don’t think he’s me but he became this almost comical, slightly... pathetic is the wrong word, but he became this hero or anti-hero. It was a way of playing out the idea of a black superhero as a comic strip, in a sense’ (C. Ofili, quoted in ‘Thelma Golden & Chris Ofili: Conversation’, in Chris Ofili, New York, 2009, p. 238). Modelled upon one of Marvel Comics’ first black superheroes, Luke Cage was initially known as ‘Hero for Hire’, but later became ‘Power Man’; devoid of any supernatural powers, his strength simply derived from an inexhaustible rage. Geoffrey Worsdale observes, ‘[Captain Shit] is depicted as a super hero but his ethnicity places him outside the authority of a white establishment. Within this dichotomy, Ofili has gone some way towards defining the lot of the crassly pigeonholed black male, at one extreme threateningly all-powerful, at the other hopelessly disinherited’ (G. Worsdale, ‘The Stereo Type’ in Chris Ofili, exh. cat., Southampton City Art Gallery, Southampton, 1998, p. 9). From behind the tactile veneer of his semi-transparent body dark stars appear, each embedded with a set of cut-out eyes in mask-like shapes, submitting the viewer to the kind of intense scrutiny usually reserved for public figures. Suggesting the self-consciousness of celebrity culture, Ofili plays with the multivalent experience of his international recognition – the previous year he had been awarded the Turner Prize, the first black artist to have won and the only painter since Howard Hodgkin in 1985. Indeed, several images in the series show Captain Shit mobbed by adoring white fans, reflecting the artist’s own experiences with his newfound fame. Inspired by the critical debate surrounding multiculturalism and the appropriation of black culture by a white audience, Ofili has said, ‘My project is not a p.c. project, that’s my direct link to blaxploitation. 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 Chris Ofili, exh. cat., Southampton City Art Gallery, Southampton, 1998, p. 83).
Renowned for the integration of elephant dung into his painting, Ofili first started applying dung to the canvas in 1992 after a trip to Zimbabwe to take part in the Pachipamwe International Artists’ Workshop, supported by travel funds from the British Council. Collaborating with native Zimbabwean artists, Ofili was struck by the dichotomy between his formal art training and the energy of the natural landscape that surrounded him. Bringing the environment directly into his painting, he applied dried elephant dung to the canvas. Ofili has described his motives for what was to prove a contentious direction in painting: ‘When I left college, I was trying to develop my own aesthetic, trying to make something that I felt was really beautiful to look at. I was aware that decorative beauty was a taboo thing, particularly in painting. If someone says, “Oh, it’s so decorative”, that’s a negative. But to me it would be one of the greatest compliments somebody could pay my work. Now the decorativeness has an edge, and the dung plays a big part in that’ (C. Ofili , ‘Excerpted from an interview conducted by Marcelo Spinelli in London, March 23, 1995’, in ‘Brilliant!’: new art from London, Minneapolis 1996, p. 67). Incorporating the black youth culture that was gaining prominence in modern society in the 1990s, Ofili drew together taboo-breaking influences from hip-hop, contemporary jazz and comic book artwork, to the often political art of his American predecessors Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Hammons. An act of cultural translation, Ofili’s painting resonates with the allusive strategies of Basquiat and Hammons, contemplating the American import culture that saturated his childhood in pursuit of an art that subverts the pre-existing languages of multiculturalism and painting. Animating Ofili’s complex range of influences across the visually compelling surfaces of his works, the juxtaposition of his network of references in a single painting exposes those stereotypes that his work aims to dismantle and challenges the role of the black artist in contemporary society: ‘We’re the voodoo king, the voodoo queen, the witch doctor, the drug dealer, the magicien de la terre. The exotic, the decorative. I’m giving them all of that, but it’s packaged slightly differently’ (C. Ofili , ‘Excerpted from an interview conducted by Marcelo Spinelli in London, March 23, 1995’ in Brilliant! New Art from London, exh. cat., Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, 1996, p. 67).