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
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
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
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
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