Aside from a typically cheeky demand to be presented with the cheque up-front, there was little surprise in Chris Ofili’s 1998 Turner Prize victory. His solo exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, London, had been a huge success, pulling in large crowds and excellent reviews. His lush, psychedelic, highly decorative paintings have been almost universally praised, and his trademark use of dried and coated elephant dung has provided headline writers with a myriad of bad puns. Ofili’s win ought to have pleased those who think the Turner Prize has become a private club, for not only is he the first painter to win for several years, Ofili is the first black British winner, although the Indian-born Anish Kapoor received the prize in 1991. Unlike Kapoor, who went to extreme lengths to play down any connection between his cultural identity and the work he produced,footnote1 Ofili has made his ethnicity the subject of his work. The elephant dung might be the most celebrated signifier of his cultural background in his work, but it is far from the only one. Almost everything in his paintings, from his use of magazine cut-outs to his more controversial appropriation of the dots used by cave-painters in the Matapos Hills in Zimbabwe, refers back to Ofili’s ethnicity.footnote2 The exhibition catalogue for his Serpentine show even had an extended glossary at the back explaining such phenomena as hip-hop, the Wu-Tang Clan and the Notting Hill Carnival to those gallery-goers less than familiar with the contemporary black British scene.

Ofili’s Turner Prize victory might have seemed inevitable, yet, looked at from another perspective, one might perhaps be able to argue that it was quite extraordinary. Black and Asian British artists have been making work about their ethnicity from the early 1970s onwards, reaching a climax in the mid to late 1980s, when ‘Black Art’ was recognized as a loose movement and the subject of a number of group exhibitions.footnote3 Artists such as Rasheed Araeen, Keith Piper, Eddie Chambers, Sonia Boyce and Lubania Himid all made work whose didacticism recalled feminist strategies of the 1970s. Yet, despite the number of exhibitions, conferences and theoretical tracts written, ‘Black Art’ increasingly found itself labelled as worthy but uninteresting. As the serious 1980s art world, with its themes of aids, sexism and racism and its self-important movements such as German neo-expressionism, gave way to a more lightweight, ironic 1990s art world, most clearly manifested in the phenomenon of young British art, ‘Black Art’ was quietly shelved by the critics and curators. The success of Anish Kapoor, who had determinedly kept his distance from ‘Black Art’, only seemed to confirm to its advocates that they had been part of a short-lived politically correct moment which had had only a superficial impact on the art world’s structures. In light of this, that a painter such as Ofili, with his references to blaxploitation movies and hip-hop, could not only win the Turner Prize but be one of the main players in young British art, might be seen as a surprising turn-around and vindication of those 1980s black artists.

To see Ofili’s success as some sort of a return of repressed identity politics would, however, be fanciful. As Lisa Corrin notes in her catalogue essay for the Serpentine exhibition, Ofili’s work stands in marked contrast to what she terms art from ‘the era of multiculturalism’.footnote4 Corrin rightly argues that multiculturalism was a mixed blessing by allowing those who had been marginalized space previously denied to them, but, at the same time, placing strict delimitations on what issues could be explored in that space; so, racism and positive images of immigrants were approved topics, pretty pictures of flowers a strict no-no. Corrin’s thesis, like that of most other commentators on Ofili, is that Ofili’s work marks a break with the era of multiculturalism and instead approaches ethnicity in a much more ambivalent mode, using ‘double-edged humour, irony, parody, the constant inter-play of opposites, their violation of taboos and their incorporation of black popular culture’.footnote5 Ofili’s use of black culture is a playful one; the figures on his canvases are often crude stereotypes, from the thick-lipped, heavily-jowled Captain Shit to the series of caricatured black prostitutes. His clippings sometimes come from porn magazines, and his cut-outs of black figures are not all treated with the reverence they would have got from 1980s practitioners; in Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy (1997), the faces of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, amongst others, are superimposed on top of splayed legs culled from black porn magazines, and Ofili has made it clear that this juxtaposition is not meant to be a compliment.footnote6Most importantly, Ofili does not treat black culture as if it is something innately his, but something to be borrowed and toyed with—everything in his work is a found object of black culture, from the Matapos Hill dots to the stereotypical figures and the elephant dung.

The shift from the didactic work of the late 1970s and 1980s to Ofili’s more open-ended, ludic approach mirrors a shift in contemporary postcolonial theory. The single most important feature of this shift has been the rise of the concept of hybridity, in a field that had been dominated by the twin poles of anti-racism and multiculturalism. The three main British theorists of hybridity have been Homi Bhabha, Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall, and the latter’s conversion to hybridity from a more radical viewpoint was the most noteworthy indicator of this theoretical displacement. In the paper ‘New Ethnicities’, Hall attempted to ‘to characterise a significant shift that has been going on (and is still going on) in black cultural politics’.footnote7Hall argued that there had been a move away from the umbrella term ‘black’, to designate a group united through the common experience of racism, to a new era marked by ‘the end of the innocent notion of the essential black subject’.footnote8 Hall drew on Lacanian notions of identification (or rather méconnaissance—misidentification), Frantz Fanon’s stress on doubling, summed up in the self-reflexive title of Black Skin, White Masks, and Derrida’s concept of différance, to articulate a ‘new politics of representation’, where the black experience was primarily diasporic and centred on ‘the process of unsettling, recombination, hybridization and “cut-and-mix”’.

A decade later, and with the widespread reception of Paul Gilroy’s work deconstructing modernity from the viewpoint of the slave-tradefootnote9 and Homi Bhabha’s work on the intertwining of colonizer and colonized,footnote10 hybridity has become the dominant idea in postcolonial theory.footnote11And not only theory—Hall’s description of the diasporic experience could be a description of any work by Ofili. Such meetings of theory and practice are rare and perhaps ought to be welcomed in an art world increasingly given to shallow posturing—witness the new ‘school’ of neurotic realism—yet, as so often is the case, the practice serves to suggest the limits of the theory. In the case of Ofili and hybridity, one work in particular, which happened to receive the most attention during his Turner Prize victory, brings the limits of hybridity most clearly into sight. No Woman, No Cry was painted by Ofili specifically for the Turner Prize exhibition and was inspired by the inquest into Stephen Lawrence’s death. The painting, at first sight, looks little different to Ofili’s other work; it is the same size, its central figure is in the same simplified, exaggerated style of Ofili’s other figures and, like his most recent paintings, it is named after a song by a black musician. The only direct reference to the murder is a photograph of Stephen Lawrence embedded in each of the tears which fall from the female figure’s eyes, a feature almost small enough to miss. The series of tiny photographs are Ofili’s first attempt to deal with a contemporary social issue head-on and their size perhaps reflects a certain amount of nervousness in so doing. For, whilst addressing racism and discrimination was a key strategy for the earlier generation of black artists, it has become far less frequent as hybridity theory has developed. Indeed, the question No Woman, No Cry poses is this: can hybridity even begin to deal with issues such as the Lawrence murder?

Whilst hybridity is far from a stable concept, a watered-down or weak version of it has gained currency in humanities departments and art schools. In this version of hybridity, Bhabha and Hall’s basic ideas of identity are central; identity can never be whole or complete, it is never given, but endlessly re-negotiated. Authenticity and essentialism are, as ever, debunked and irony, the contingent and the liminal are celebrated. The transnational, transitional and diasporic become privileged spaces, and, whilst the old notion of the melting-pot is rightly discredited, hybridity’s ability to hold together differences simultaneously without editing over specificities is proffered as its main strength. In this sense, there is no doubt that Ofili’s work is paradigmatically hybrid. Ofili does not use his cultural identity in the essentialized fashion of 1970s and 1980s practitioners. Instead, his ‘blackness’ is a constructed, contingent identity—an early write-up on his work began, ‘Born in Britain, Ofili had always felt African’.footnote12 This idea of situational identity is crucial to much hybridity theory—as are hyphenated identities—replacing the fixed identities postulated by anti-racism and multiculturalism with more open-ended, fluid identities dependent on changing circumstances. Ofili’s self-fashioning, from his lime-green Ford Capri recalling blaxploitation movies to the photograph of him smoking a mock joint in the ‘Sensation’ catalogue, fits in perfectly with this framework; in true hybrid fashion, the supposed authenticity of identity is there to be toyed with. It is well documented that Ofili brought back the ideas of elephant dung and dots after a British Council sponsored trip to Zimbabwe, and many commentators have noted how even these, which once would have signified authenticity, suggest the constructed nature of Ofili’s black cultural roots.footnote13He also borrows freely from African-American culture with his references to blaxploitation movies, hip-hop and the artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Hammons. This is a black cultural world which exists in books, magazines, tourist destinations and vinyl. Even the moments of reality which Ofili encounters have to be translated: reacting to the prostitution going on in a car-park behind his studios in King’s Cross, Ofili had to read fiction to make sense of it, before ‘translating’ it to video:

Then I read a book by Iceberg Slim called Pimp. Because it was fiction, a true account of this pimp’s life, it gave the reality here a fictional feel, allowed me to look at it through a fictional tint. And then I started to video some of the stuff going on in the car park just to translate it into something more flexible, less hard hitting, a way of off-loading it from my mind.footnote14