Description: B. 1968
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194.9 by 121.9 by 26cm.
76 3/4 by 48 by 10 1/4 in.
signed, titled and dated 2001 twice on the strecher
oil paint, polyester resin, elephant dung, map pins and glitter on canvas
Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin
Acquired directly from the above by the previous owner in 2001
Chris Ofili's extraordinary Strange Eyes explodes from the canvas in all of its glorious regal splendour. Buzzing with material and compositional invention, this is one of a small group of paintings which Ofili has made using the cultural and historical portrayal of black womanhood as the backdrop to a joyful cacophony of layers of oil paint, glitter, resin, map pins and, most notoriously, elephant dung. Other works in this series include arguably two of his most important paintings, The Holy Virgin Mary (Fig. 2) and Blossom (Fig. 3). Similarly to these portraits, here the woman is raised to a pseudo Madonna figure, compositionally reminiscent of icons of the Italian Old Master tradition, Ofili's reinvented black Madonna is bejewelled not with a crucifix but with a dung ball around her neck, a talisman of black experience. Studiously constructed, the surface of this painting ripples and glimmers with pools of resin and dots of paint, painstakingly applied over a period of months. The intricacy and delicacy of his technique is palpable in these tiny dots and serpentine lines that ebb and flow across the starkly symmetrical composition. It is virtually a mirror image which pulses with pattern and harmony, and by extension the search for perfection.
The bulbous Afro hairstyle and indeterminate 'ethnic' dress raise simple but important questions about clichéd and hackneyed stereotypes that have been applied continually since the very origins of the colonial age. Following on from one of his main influences and heroes, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ofili deliberately allies himself with the most facile view of black culture, choosing the most obvious signifiers of black nationhood to demonstrate the very absurdity of making work about identity. Suggestive rather than dogmatic in its delivery, Ofili's work centrally situates Black culture while avoiding making a direct statement of uncompromising intent. In Strange Eyes, notions of ethnicity are delivered through a form of pictorial invention that eschews political sloganism. The multiple eyes which give the work its title - three on each side - are reminiscent of the third, all-seeing eye, a symbol found in many different eras, cults and cultures from Ancient Egypt to the American Dollar Bill. Recalling the 1999 painting, Third Eye Vision, in the Walker Art Center, here the multiple eyes call to mind the far-reaching, spiritually inflected iconography of the African Diaspora, Buddhist and Hindu Asia.
The most immediately apparent - although arguably the most complex - cultural referents are the elephant dung balls which raise the canvas off the floor. Ofili began using dung after his trip to Zimbabwe. Highlighting the exoticism of the African continent and his ancestry, the dung works as a potent, uniquely African, unifying element, providing a material link to a world of cultural implications that hint at the cycles of life and nature. Like all of Ofili's work, Strange Eyes epitomizes Ofili's layered absorption of cultural and historical influences, fearlessly takes on questions of the sacred juxtaposed with the profane, the humorous with the sublime, and the bold with the mysterious. The female's psychedelic back-drop and mesmerizing multi-layered gaze come together to form a stunning re-mix of the artist's inspiration that carries a beat of its own. She is a diva who should be seen, but also heard. As with many of Ofili's portraits, Strange Eyes has a unique sound-track of her own, "I'm trying to make paintings that make you hear them, rather than see them. So actually, you're looking at music. So it will teach your eyes to hear, and your ears to see." (Interview with the artist and Paul Miller, 'Deep Shit' in: Parkett, no. 58, 2000, pp. 171-176 ).