Executed in 1999, Nooca explodes with colour and rhythm. Filled with lush and luxurious texture and a folk-art naivety, this painting combines both the openness of poster art and Pop art and African art with far more complex dialogues about race, racism and even religion. First and foremost, though, this is an almost baroque celebration of texture and paint and colour, a complex and decadent and engaging work of art. As Ofili has said of his pictures, "I try to make [the painting] more and more beautiful, to decorate it and dress it up so that it is so irresistible, you just want to be in front of it." (Ofili, quoted in L. Macritchie, 'Ofili's Glittering Icons - Work of Chris Ofili at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, New York', Art in America, January 2000). In turn, this ability to hold the viewer in the picture's thrall, exerting a magnetism through its beauty, allows Ofili to introduce more complex themes to his captive audience.
Nooca was one of the five paintings that form Ofili's Afrobiotics series. These works, exhibited the same year in Gavin Brown's Enterprise in New York, cemented Ofili's fame in the United States after the initial scandal with which his The Holy Virgin Mary had been received. When it was exhibited as part of the Sensation exhibition, that painting - a black Madonna comprising elephant dung and collaged pornography - excited huge outrage, with Mayor Giuliani and Hilary Clinton entering the fray alongside others. This frenzy culminated in the vandalism of the picture by a viewer.
When The Guardian published an article on Ofili in 2002, the term Afrobiotics reappeared in the form of a full page advertisement claiming that Afrobiotics were 'Specialists in Racial Harmony.' Nooca, as part of the Afrobiotics series, is filled with black, red, green and yellow, blending colours traditionally associated with African art, the African National Congress and Rastafarianism. The exuberant Nooca combines a lush and unashamedly decorative aesthetic with elements of beadwork (and, where there are no beads, a surface appearance that mimics them) that speak of homely crafts that are now being reconciled with the artistic tradition and politics of a new age. Nooca has the brash authoritativeness of an African poster, as well as a musicality and a deep sense of the exotic.
Highlighting this exoticism, and the differences in taste between the Africa of his parents and ancestry, and the England of so much of the rest of his life, Ofili has incorporated elephant dung in Nooca. On the one hand, Ofili's use of dung in his art appears to be a deliberate taunt to the critics who so easily damn all contemporary art as shit. Yet for Ofili, the importance of dung dates to his award-funded journey to Zimbabwe in the early 1990s. There, he realised the potential of elephant dung to work as a uniquely African, unifying element, providing an open and material link to a world of cultural implications, and to a world of earthly, geographical - essentially grounding - implications. It is for this reason that the monumental Nooca is propped up on two decorated dung globes: both symbolically and physically, "It's a way of raising the paintings up from the ground and giving them a feeling that they've come from the earth rather than simply being hung on a wall." (Ofili, quoted in Carol Vogel, 'British Artist Holds Fast to His Inspiration', The New York Times, 28 September 1999). A fertile element that hints at the cycles of life and of nature, the dung's incorporation in Nooca echoes the veneration of manure was enshrined in the ancient Egyptian worship of the scarab, the dung beetle.
The outrage and hostility which confronted The Holy Virgin Mary exposed questions of race as well as religion. Observers were forced to wonder whether it was the tiny pornography bubbles in the background, the incorporation of dung or the simple presentation of a black Madonna that had sparked this resistance. The fact that Ofili was a former altar boy and a practising Catholic was conveniently ignored at the time, and he was presented almost as a heretic. However, his reinvention of the Madonna for the millions of Christians of African descent was a process of fantastic democratisation. Since early in his career, Ofili has tackled issues of race in an incredibly varied number of ways. An early work, Black, involved a group of newspaper clippings discussing crimes in which the protagonist was described as 'black', pointing both to the racism in the press and to the socio-economic situation that has led to so much crime within the African and Afro-Caribbean areas in Britain. At the same time, Ofili was deliberately creating a problematic work: the viewer teeters on the verge of racial complicity in looking at this work and judging it, or its content.
The weighty implications and discomfort of Black are balanced to some extent by Ofili's fun reinvention of the Union Jack: filled with life and in more than one sense colour, his red, green and black Union Black acts as an indicator of institutionalised racism and colonial arrogance while also celebrating the increasingly multicultural and multiracial landscape of modern Britain. Ofili throws coal on the fires of controversy, deliberately presenting his viewers with awkward truths: "It's what people really want from black artists. The witch doctor, the drug-dealer, the exotic, the decorative. I'm giving them all that, but it's packaged slightly differently." (Ofili, quoted in R. Carroll, 'What's Chris Ofili Dung Now?', from
archive.blackvoices.com). But rather than pander to the desires of the public, Ofili subversively takes advantage of this situation to smuggle in his own agenda, manipulating his audience and forcing them to face realities that they may feel more comfortable trying to ignore.
Ofili's Afrobiotics and Nooca's smiling openness imply that this is not a picture of accusation so much as one of conciliation. The frank, naïve appearance and depiction of the woman, which recalls Le Douanier Rousseau as much as African painting, has a warm immediacy, the painting becoming an advocate for that Afrobiotic speciality, racial harmony. This ties into an all-inclusiveness that has become more and more apparent in Ofili's work, an all-inclusiveness that itself is complex in its insistence on relative and equal values. These values extend to the elephant shit 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:
'We crave impurity. As humans, we're impure, and I think what we look for is some kind of reflection of ourselves, to understand what we are. I think nature's godlike design is full of false starts and changes of mind and adjustments and things that aren't perfect. I think painting, or art, comes from that impure nature of things. I think that's what gives it its beauty' (Ofili, quoted in J. Jones, 'Paradise Reclaimed', The Guardian, 15 June 2002).
Ofili's religious views are inseparable from his painting. This all-embracing world view is evident in Nooca, albeit more discreetly than in The Holy Virgin Mary. Although the title of Nooca eschews any openly religious theme, there remains an iconic strength to this picture that recalls religious art, be it Old Master Italian, Ethiopian manuscript illumination or modern depictions of religious themes. Likewise thematically, this work and Ofili's views have their basis as much in his Catholicism as in his portrayal of black experience.