My inner or outer Negroid skin

What I see is a sell-out
As subdued and ambiguous as the British painter Chris Ofili appears to be, his work, “Iscariot Blue”, 48×199 ins (2006) is equally vague. The painting opens the Pandora’s box about privilege, ethnicity and the macabre fascination with death. Mr. Ofili’s claim to fame is the result of fortunate misfortunes. It was the prodding by Peter Doig who encouraged the painter to relocate to Trinidad, for the island it seemed was a safe haven from the publicity and stardom which the artist was bombarded with. “Iscariot Blue” is a large nostalgic portrait of musicians imbued with melancholy. The figures are contorted and ossified. As part of the veranda, to the far a third figure (Judas or himself) is hanging from the gallows Mr. Ofili’s painting is clean, and the lines that confine the veranda and gallows are precise. The foliage that overhangs is lush and the subjects are backlit by a luminous but dark navy blue sky.

There is no doubt that Mr. Ofili can paint, but can he draw? To the naïve eye, the figures are simplified outlines and shapes that may be filled in colour. The silhouettes of the America Artist Kara Walker may have a role, if only the work was flatter. But there is more to read into his work, and the details of the men look de-skinned, as if their outer organ were removed to expose the cord of inelastic tissue. The hanging man has this quality, but it is a strain to see the interweave of the tonal blues, and the uniqueness of texture as an interrelated part of his blackness. But Mr. Ofili gets his ideas from many sources, it may be our Paramin blue devils, or the films screened as the StudioFilmClub what ever it is, he is calculating, yet transparent to a small Trinidad audience who sees the work as a nostalgic festival of “Parang” naïvely painted. So what’s the big deal? The big deal is this work is for an Internaional audience, and the mere public showing is a privilege.

Whether this work is a result of his observations of Trinidad and Tobago or a part of the Artist’s psyche, this painting is about betrayal, and ethics surrounding a post-colony where privilege and poverty is clearly divided. – You see it on the streets. If Mr. Ofili is sensitive to these hurts, his work is a reaction, and like most Trinidadians it attempts to revisit a nostalgic we all wish for, with a blue melody to drown the self-destruction of a nation by the desire for quick material want. Top image: Chris Ofili’s painting, “Iscariot Blue” at “a suitable distance” exhibition held at the Softbox gallery, Port of Spain. Bottom: A quotation taken from Pablo Picasso’s “The old guitarist,” the position may not be the same, but the melancholy and sombre mood of the player is.- thebookmann

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