Saturday 14 January 2012

Chris Ofili's art and the Stephen Lawrence racial murder case

Stephen Lawrence, a victim of racial killing, in Britain, 1993.
By Tajudeen Sowole

 Following last week’s landmark judgement in Great Britain involving five suspects who were said to have murdered the teenage Black Briton, Stephen Lawrence, British-Nigerian artist, Chris Ofili, through his No Woman No Cry, tries to sustain the course of Justice in the trial that lasted 18 years.

  OFILI, based in the U.K, is arguably, one of Britain’s most controversial artists. From his depiction of Black Madonna, titled The Holy Virgin Mary, which featured in the group and tour exhibition, Sensation, to his alleged “illegal” deal with Tate Gallery over a 2006 installation, The Upper Room, he has constantly been in the news.

  Lawrence, a teenage black Briton, according to sources, was killed while waiting for a bus, in what has been established as a racial murder, in April 22, 1993.

  The immediate investigations and eventual trial of five suspects ended in no conviction situation, which further fueled the insinuation of racial bias in the handling of the case.

1.              Chris Ofili’s No Woman No Cry (1988)

  In 1998, a year before Sensation opened in the U.K., Ofili had won the country’s most prestigious art award, the Turner Prize.  One of the works that fetched him the award, is a painting inspired by Bob Marley’s 1974 song, No Woman No Cry. For the artist, the painting of the same title “is a tribute to Lawrence’s mother, Doreen.”

  When Ofili painted No Woman No Cry after the murder case was reopened, in 1998, he didn’t probably envisage any glory awaiting his rendition until he won the Turner Prize, later in the year.

  The work, done in acrylic, oil, resin, polyester, paper collage, map pins and elephant dung on canvas (243.3 x 182.8 x 5.1 cm.) exudes emotion and sensitivity as tears roll down the cheek of Doreen. These tears, conceptually, are tiny reproduced pictures of the murder victim, Lawrence.

  From 1998, the trial ran into several technical hitches until last year when new evidences indicted two of the five suspects, Gary Dobson and David Norris (now late 30s). Last week, January 3, 2012, the two suspects, Dobson and Norris were found guilty of Lawrence’s murder and sentenced to 15 years two months and 14 years three months, as teenage convicts.

  After finishing the painting, according to Ofili, there was this feeling that “there was something else in the room other than the physicality of the work.” He noted that the “injustice of Lawrence’s murder and the way that the police had dealt with it made such little sense to myself and to the public at large.”

  Although, the parents of the convicts were said to be preparing for an appeal, the tributary place of No Woman No Cry in the documentation of the racially motivated murder of Lawrence will not change, irrespective of the final verdict.  
Stephen Lawrence, murdered in 1993

  Also, Tate Gallery, which bought the work in 1999, noted that despite the glaring reference to Lawrence, “the artist also intended the painting to be read in more general terms, as a universal portrayal of melancholy and grief.”

  OFILI, in the past one decade, has been, perhaps innocently, raising dusts with his art. With The Holy Virgin Mary, he had enraged the New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani when Sensation was shown at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, in the U.S. in 1999. It led to a legal row between the Mayor and the museum as Giuliani had threatened to withdraw the city's yearly $7m grant to the museum because he felt The Holy Virgin Mary was "horrible and disgusting, not art."

In the work, Ofili depicted Mary as a black woman surrounded by collages of female genital images assumed to have been cut from pornographic material.

  However, it was a double victory for the museum as court ruled that the yearly funding be restored and a $250 fine awarded for the defacement.

 CURRENTLY living in Trinidad, Ofili was born in Manchester in 1968. He studied Art at the Chelsea School of Art, London, from 1988 to 1991 and at the Royal College of Art from 1991 to 1993.

  The artist’s presence will be felt again when the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics open as his work is among those of 12 selected artists, who have designed posters for the summer games.

  Viewed via the Internet, his work titled For the Unknown Runner and that of two other artists, Tracy Emin and Fiona Banner may represent the new vibrancy of British art.

Selections for the event indicate that over nine others from a list of 100 entries are quite a distance behind the current strength of British art.

 the victim’s Mother, Doreen Lawrence

  In fact, some critics have described an exhibition of the works after the unveiling at Tate Britain, last year, as a “school art show.”

  However, four of these artists: Emin, Ofili, Banner and Rachel Whiteread who are among those loosely referred to as Young British Artists, appeared to have bolstered the selections.

  The 12 artists are segmented into Olympics and Paralympics: Emin, Fiona Banner, Michael Craig-Martin, Gary Hume, Sarah Morris and Roberta Smith presented for Paralympics while Ofili, Bridget Riley, Rachel Whiteread, Howard Hodgkin, Anthea Hamilton and Martin Creed’s works are grouped for Olympics.

  Prints of the works, according to Tate will be available for sales during the Olympics and Paralympics Games. 

  BORDERED in sketch of vase, Ofili’s Unknown Runner is a stylised genderless figure captured in speed. However, the artist hovers around a borderless culture as the motifs within the vase reflect native as well as contemporary characteristics.

  For Emin’s drawings of birds on a fragile branch of tree, and supported with an inscription ‘You inspire me with your determination And I Love You,’ seems a motivational rendition for Paralympians. It’s like a visual art version of Whitney Houston’s Love Of All.

 Ofili’s For the Unknown Runner selected for London Olympic poster

  With artists such as new British master, Damien Hirst, Ofili, Emin and others loosely referred to as Young British Artists (YBA), the country’s creative enterprise in the last 10, 15 years has taken the art world by storm.  

  While Ofili, with his controversial works of elephant dung and themes that touch on religious nerves generated emotions, Hirst is believed to have taken British art out of the Avant-garde market jealously guided by the aristocrats.

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