Sometimes lightning can strike twice. There are moments in time and place when art, aesthetics, and politics converge. Artists are often situated at this cultural forefront: writing, painting, composing, and filming our past and imagining our future. This week, lightning struck twice. I was not surprised to find myself moved to tears at a reading by poet Claudia Rankine. I was not surprised to find myself laughing by turns, shivering by turns, at the retrospective of visual artist Chris Ofili. I was struck by how these two artists, one throwing words on a page, the other building a world out of paint and glitter and shit, spoke directly to one another.
One impossibility at a time. On Thursday, I sat at NYU and listened to Claudia Rankine read from her new book, Citizen. Rankine created her book-length poem over years, intertwining cultural moments (Serena William’s US Open meltdown; Zinedine Zidane’s World Cup meltdown; the shootings of too many black bodies to list) with deeply personal stories. These stories were collected from her own life, from friends, from strangers, and speak of small, unexpected moments when race broke violently into space. The poem is narrated in the second person, placing the reader (regardless of race) in the middle of the action; rendering unclear which stories are hers, or mine, or his, or yours; exemplifying how the anecdotes belong to us all.
Her book is a collage, mixing image with words and images built from words; including even video; leaving many spaces plain white. On Thursday, Rankine spoke softly, and we all leaned forward, were pulled in. The body remembers, she said. Rankine spoke in the talkback of artists, like Nick Cave, whose work inspired her words. She later discovered that Cave’s sound suits were born of the same experiences that push her to fill blank pages with poems. She said that their experiences, her and Cave, had put them in conversation. And so Rankine includes contemporary art in her book, Glenn Ligon and Carrie Mae Weems and Nick Cave and Kate Clark, ending poems with images, placing art across from words.
Strike two: on Sunday, I landed at Night and Day, Chris Ofili’s retrospective at The New Museum. Ofili is an English artist whose work grapples with race, representation, history. Ofili has had a small footprint in New York since the controversy that surrounded his work in a 1999 show at the Brooklyn Museum. His piece The Holy Virgin Mary, a black Madonna, included elephant dung. Rudy Giuliani was predictably offended by a piece of art that he did not understand and threatened to revoke the Brooklyn Museum’s funding. Ofili’s early work combined collage and painting and portraiture, mixing, sparkle with literal, actual shit.
A small room on this floor contained work in black, red, and green, the colors of Marcus Garvey’s pan-African movement. Here, I overheard onlookers, the vast majority of whom were white, wonder at the Christmas theme surrounding the black lovers on the canvas. These works display mundane intimacy, elevate silent moments between lovers to large-scale work, colored with global politics, glamorized with sequins. In the gallery, Rankine’s book felt heavy in by bag, her words framing my understanding of Ofili. She reminded me that James Baldwin wrote that “the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” Ofili is placing the personal into a deeply political aesthetic. He is asking the biggest of questions. Or, he provides big answers and leaves his audience to decide on the questions. I hear Rakine’s words in my ear, read them instead of the curator’s statements next to Ofili’s pieces.
Among Ofili’s early works are the Madonna that once provoked such a controversy, and the curator’s favorite piece: No Woman, No Cry, a 1998 portrait of Doreen Lawrence. Doreen’s son, Stephen, was murdered by police in London in 1993; each of his mother’s tears is a collage containing pictures of Stephen. Here is a conversation born of shared tragedy: in Citizen, in 2014, Rankine writes to boys who had been executed by police. She writes love poems for the gone. More than a decade separates the work. Rankine used words. Ofili cried through image.
In 2005, Ofili moved to Trinidad, and he claimed he had to relearn how to see. The Blue paintings on view on the next floor were painted in his new home. They are blue and black, dark on dark, patterns barely discernible. The small room has dark walls and the lighting is kept low. It takes a minute for your eyes to adjust; at first you see only black canvases against a dark wall. The paintings make you squint and stand close to the canvas. The audience lingers on these pieces, trying to pull away their meaning, trying to see the hidden. And that’s it, isn’t it? That’s what Chris Ofili is trying to get us to do: to see the hidden, and not just on the canvas. But the hidden is ever present in the space itself. In the soft, low light, my mind rushes also to The Heart of Darkness and to the controversy that surrounded the opening of La Musee des Arts Primaires, no, La Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, a museum opened to “celebrate” art from “non-Western” countries. That museum evokes the exotic, a jungle with low lighting, leathers, rich and dark colors. In this dark room, in New York, the paintings are stunning, images of nature just coming into focus, but also violent: a lynching, a beating, the shapes shifting with the viewer’s perspective, with our ability to focus and discern.
On the final floor, the walls in the expansive room – the ceilings must have been 40 feet tall – are painted purple with vines, flowers, trees. Claudia Rankine quoting Glenn Ligon quoting Zora Neale Hurston said, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” Here, Ofili’s newest paintings, of and from Trinidad, are thrown not against white. I feel displaced, without the crisp white walls that I associate with museums and galleries. Kara Walker used that white to offset her stark black cutouts, but the white walls always remained undisturbed.
Ofili’s work in this final room is from his “Metamorphoses” series, inspired by Ovid’s poetry. Ofili, here in direct conversation with the written word, is, like Kehinde Wiley (who paints black men in ornate portraits mimicking 18th century masterpieces), placing black bodies and culture within the frame of art history. Ofili’s series of portraits, classic busts reimagined with black subjects, feel like history and cartoon all in one. This approach feels similar to and yet distinct from Afrofuturism, where singers like Janelle Monae, writers like Octavia Bulter, artists like Wangechi Mutu, are imagining a very black and brown and radical future. Wiley and Ofili are correcting the past. Monae, Bulter, and Mutu are building on that foundation and imagining black and brown futures.
The Ofili retrospective spans his career, from the 1990’s through his current work, from London to Trinidad. Ofili speaks to so many recent installations here in New York: Mickalene Thomas (whose work, like Ofili’s, mixes painting and collage to make bright, colorful, glittery portraits) at the Brooklyn Museum; Carrie Mae Weems (whose Blue Black Boy is included in Rankine’s book, and would be stunning placed opposite Ofili’s Blue Paintings), Cai Guo-Qiang, and Wassily Kandinsky (who Ofili listed as an inspiration for his Blue Paintings) at the Guggenheim; Kara Walker and the soulless Jeff Koons at the Whitney. The Koons may provide a particularly rich counterpoint: it was as full of bright color and diverse in media and approach, and yet Koons’ work seems to celebrate first and foremost itself and then all that is shallow and facile in our culture. Ofili on the other hand pushes us to stare at, reckon with, appreciate, the ugliest things we have done. Koons celebrated excess; Ofili provides an intervention. The Koons invited us to take the frivolous seriously; Ofili reminds us to take the serious seriously.
Retrospectives highlight the artists’ evolution over decades of work. Importantly, they also demonstrate how the culture in which the artists worked has changed, or not. At The New Museum, The Holy Virgin Mary was a backstory but did not read as terribly controversial. Not that times have so shifted: we have to remember that David Wojnarowicz’s video was pulled from the Smithsonian in 2010 for offending Catholic sensibilities. But it is indeed No Woman, No Cry that feels so of-the-moment as we sit and wait for a grand jury to indict, or not, Michael Brown’s murderer. A state of emergency has been declared. Militarized police are standing by. So much has changed, and nothing. And Ofili shouts with Rankine and so many artists into the silences they were handed, trying to fill the blank and white pages of poetry books and the blank and white spaces of gallery walls with pain, with struggle, with triumph, with joy. Let us turn the lights down low and make the audience get close and adjust. Let us speak softly and make our listeners lean forward. Let us cover gallery walls with purple flowers and vines against which vibrant colors feel more at home. Let us shout of suffering and death and systemic injustice even in the most violently white of spaces. Even on a museum wall. Even on a page.
Joseph Osmundson is a scientist and writer based in New York City. He is contributing editor for Arts and Culture at Arcade44, an Associate Editor at The Feminist Wire, and a post-doctoral fellow in Systems Biology at New York University. Follow him on Twitter at @reluctantlyjoe and check out more of his work at www.josephosmundson.com.