Chris Ofili: Caged in Paradise

Chris Ofili/David Zwirner

From Chris Ofili: Paradise Lost, published by David Zwirner Books, 2018

It’s fitting that our most common form of barrier should come from the same damp island that gave us capitalism. Fences, chain link or otherwise, played a far smaller role in human affairs before the “enclosure of the commons” that Marx and Wordsworth agreed was crucial to how a feudal world transformed into one ruled by cash. The earliest farmers, guarding their wheat in the Fertile Crescent, may have had cause to ring their yards with sticks. Denizens of ancient cities and of medieval fiefs built high stockades to keep out raiders. But beyond those walled towns and across spans of steppe and forest, there was little reason to subdivide the landscape until property’s advent.

The evolution, in Britain, of communal holdings into a patchwork of private plots came as landowners realized that maximizing profit meant maximizing their acreage for grazing sheep—thereby destroying plots used to grow food by peasants who, now forced off the land, sought work in the factories of Manchester and Leeds. In Britain, the most common form of barrier was the hedgerow. But as capitalism spread to the Americas and beyond, and with it the empire that fed those factories lining the Manchester Canal, so did fences made from material other than twigs and leaves.

In England’s North American colonies and in the new country they became, on a heavily wooded continent, the split-rail, zigzagging “worm fence” was a symbol to Europeans of the New World. Farther west and later on in the arid Great Plains, pioneers wishing to settle a frontier where bison ran free, and where tree wood was scant and distances huge, confronted other challenges.

They invented barbed wire, which in the late nineteenth century was essential to similar adventures in settler colonialism in Australia, Argentina, and South Africa. Barbed wire also became a weapon of war and political tool of the twentieth century—a substance crucial to the concentration camp and the gulag and the fortified borders that made nation-states real. Barbed wire enabled “an ecology of modernity,” observed the philosopher Reviel Netz. But if that’s so, it’s also true that on an urbanizing planet where more humans now live within cities than outside them, it’s the chain-link fence that’s most shaped how modernity unfolds.

It was a farmer’s son turned industrialist in Norwich, Charles Barnard, who seized on the idea that iron wire might be woven, like yarn, into a strong and flexible fencing through which light and vision could pass but foxes and people couldn’t. Barnard convinced a weaver friend to retrofit one of his looms to handle material stouter than fleece, and then took out a patent, in 1844, on “wire netting.” He built a company that later sold US rights to his wire-weaving machine to an American firm—the Anchor Post Fence Company in Baltimore, Maryland—whose new machines for cutting woven wire to length, and tying off its ends, helped Barnard’s invention spread to places where patents weren’t needed. The crosshatched diamonds that entered the earth in Britain became, like soccer and ale, the property of everyone.  

Now chain link is the stuff that surrounds train yards and airports, power stations and prisons. That bounds courts for playing basketball and tennis, and circles ball fields, too. That guards schoolyards and playgrounds and which agile kids, like the young gang members in West Side Story, scamper up using the fence’s loops as toe- and handholds.

Iconic of the urban, chain link signifies a future that’s also now. A now where we live in close proximity to our fellows. Where we have reason, especially in young countries where the rule of law is inchoate and the abiding vibe is Wild West, to protect what’s ours. And where on a lush and mordant island in the southern Caribbean, a place where “goodnight” is a greeting and midnight robbers aren’t just characters from its famous carnival, Chris Ofili has been watching the landscape, with his iPhone, through a familiar lattice of woven steel.


That island, Trinidad, where Ofili has been living for the past dozen years, is the anchor at the base of the Antillean chain, defined by contrasts. It takes its Spanish name from Columbus and was settled by the French before becoming, in 1802, an English colony, which it remained until 1962. Its populace today largely comprises a mix of descendants of enslaved Africans brought here to work its sugarcane and cocoa plantations in the early nineteenth century, and indentured workers from India brought to replace them in the fields after slavery’s end.

These groups, moving from the fields to their new capital of Port of Spain, forged a vibrant culture and evolved a Catholic-style carnival colored by their pasts. V.S. Naipaul, Trinidad’s best-known writer, described the city when he returned to his home island from England, in 1961, in a way that’s endured. Encountering a barman in Port of Spain, Naipaul wrote that his mixing of ice and bitters in a glass exuded an effect that was uniquely “Trinidadian: vigorous, with a slightly flawed modernity.”

That line, like many Naipaul composed about his homeland, bears more than a whiff of what’s known in Trinidad’s oral culture as picong—an utterance expressly meant to cut or provoke. Naipaul hated where he grew up; the scorn you hear in that word (“flawed”) was meant. But as with so many of his provocations, the phrase’s substancealso invites thought.

First, because it’s not only in Trinidad that modernity is flawed. And second, because it’s hard not to deny that Trinidad—with its oil money and its cars, its mix of people from the four corners, its carnival and its violence—isn’t just a strikingly modern place but one where modernity has taken on some vigorous forms indeed. Along Port of Spain’s dingy and jangling streets, you may glimpse a sign offering “X-rays performed (by medical doctor).” You’ll also find asphalt lots that echo at night with the sounds of mighty orchestras. Named for old Hollywood Westerns—Desperadoes, Invaders—they rumble out layered melodies on steel drums that the island’s inspired artists fashioned from fifty-five-gallon oilcans left by the US Navy during World War II.

Trinidad’s economy is based not on tourism but on industry. Its proximity to South America—Venezuela is just seven miles distant—lends it an ecology whose flora and fauna share more, in its fecund mountains and marshes filled with birds, with the nearby Orinoco Delta than with the Caribbean archipelago.

That nearness to the continent, and to the equator, also means each day includes twelve hours of night. There’s a reason the phrase “Trinidad noir” has lent itself to not one but two books of short stories in recent years: the island’s longtime status, along with the corruption and petro-cash that breeds it, as a major way-station for South American cocaine. It’s an island whose mountains are draped in Amazonian forest and cooled by waterfalls from Eden, but whose landscape of traffic jams and murder also contains not a few places like the old rum warehouse, on the industrial outskirts of Port of Spain and ringed by restive slums, where Chris Ofili first introduced himself to me, a decade ago now, as “Glenroi.”

This was not long after Chris moved to Trinidad. The converted rum warehouse was home to the studios of several painters, one of whom would give his space over, on Thursday nights, to host a film club, for which he would paint a bespoke poster for that night’s offering of Kurosawa or Satyajit Ray. Chris, newly arrived to an island where few knew his name, donned a white shirt and black bow tie to become a bartender who introduced himself as Glenroi and mixed rum with coconut water for the nighthawks and cinephiles of Port of Spain.


A still showing Chris Ofili with his The Caged Bird’s Song from the BBC documentary by the same name, 2017

This bit of make-believe—a costume adopted, in a place that knows the power of costumes and of make-believe—was, Chris has said, “a way to see things that I couldn’t see as myself.” But it was perhaps of a piece with the larger aims informing his move here from London, where as a young painter he’d enjoyed the sort of attention that enables much but that also, if you’re wise, gives pause.

Chris had made his name as a member of a generation of British artists with whose mostly conceptual work his own meticulous paintings—figurative and layered and flashily gorgeous and oblique—shared little, except perhaps a sense that engaging with the obsessions of an exhausted century, with sex and race and difference and power, required at least as much wit as rage.

Ofili stood out among his peers for being an Englishman whose Igbo surname and dark skin made him someone onto whose oeuvre and person could be projected all the old anxieties of the Empire and its aftermath. His brilliance as a painter—and no small part of why he’s endured—derived from the driven fun he had in synthesizing those projections, and his own classicist’s mind and fresh ideas, into arresting tableaux that didn’t so much invoke difference as spectacle (though they did that, too) as turn “race” into the object of absurdist fun it still deserves to be.


When he won the Turner Prize in 1998, some observers affected horror at an artist who worked in “excrement”—he had taken to incorporating elephant dung in his pieces—winning acclaim. But at a time when other Turner-winners were working in media like formaldehyde and bedsheets, Chris built his craft with an attention to rhythm and line. He also adorned his canvases with shining glitter and jewel-like dots and huge penises wearing googly eyes. From London’s gray streets and newsagents, he pulled another bit of color that popped—porno mags—to cut out photos of bodacious booties, and their pinker bits, which he fashioned as butterflies. He then used these labial moths to encircle a Virgin Mary whose cocoa complexion, along with the balls of dung on which she rested, caused a kerfuffle in New York. Rudy Giuliani, before he became Donald Trump’s maddest sycophant, was a mayor bent on gutting city funding for the arts: he sued the Brooklyn Museum for exhibiting “disgusting” work.

But that was the nineties. Chris left all that behind for a place where color wasn’t the exception but the norm. Where his own complexion wasn’t difference but camouflage—and where his paintings have, for the most part, foregone the flashy collaging and cut-n-mix aspect of his London work for a return to the old verities of pigment on linen.

And where, tending bar in his bow tie on that evening I met him, he enjoyed chatting about Naipaul and, more so, about another Caribbean writer who is much less well known but perhaps equally important: Andrew Salkey. In the 1950s, the Jamaican-raised novelist and broadcaster hosted a seminal program on the BBC, called Caribbean Voices, that helped Naipaul and other island totems George Lamming, Sam Selvon, Sylvia Wynter, and Stuart Hall become the first black writers to gain visibility within modern British letters. Chris so admired Salkey’s work, he later told me, that he’d acquired his library in London when he died and brought it to Trinidad.

Chris’s own roots lie not in the islands but in Manchester. That’s where his parents migrated from Nigeria, a few years before he was born, to work in a factory that made McVitie’s biscuits. He grew up in an England, in the 1970s and 1980s, where the majority of people who looked like him hailed from the West Indies, rather than Africa. Like many of his generation, he pondered that era’s abiding dilemmas—race and empire, identity and difference—to a reggae beat. His best-known early painting is a lustrous portrait of the weeping mother of a young man named Stephen Lawrence, whose murder by racist thugs roiled England in the early 1990s. He called it No Woman, No Cry.

But when Chris moved to the Caribbean it wasn’t to the island—Bob Marley’s Jamaica—that’d been most visible in its culture’s impress on England and the world. He moved, rather, to an island whose soundscape isn’t reggae but calypso and soca. If Jamaica today is replete with a vexing mix of poverty and resort hotels, Trinidad has money from oil and gas (at least when prices are good), and no resort hotels at all. If the Caribbean is “the home of hybridity,” as Stuart Hall said, Trinidad may be its most hybrid island. For an artist who, as Chris has put it, “wanted to get off the horse I was riding and learn, again, to walk,” it has proved ideal.

Chris has absorbed the prismatic colors of the tropics—you can’t not here. But he determined not to traffic, in his work, in the noontime brightness that is its own kind of Caribbean cliché. His most potent works dwell in the blue-black hues of the twelve hours per day when the bougainvillea and creepers are cloaked in dark. The equatorial night, these paintings say, is full equally of magic and of menace.

But one aspect of Trinidad that most intrigues is how these qualities can bleed into its shining days. Fragrant mornings arrive with birdsongs but also, too often, with its newspapers’ front pages splayed with grisly images of whatever Bad John or unlucky kid met his end, the night before, in a rum-fueled Toyota or a hail of bullets. Chris may have come to the island, in part, because it offered an escape. But he stayed because it didn’t—because of how Trinidad exemplifies not merely the world’s beauties but also its ills. Because of how, as he has put it, “it’s the kind of paradise that is not without problems. That in fact is riddled with problems. But for me that makes it, dare I say, more attractive. Because you’re looking at the kind of reality; it’s not hidden away. It’s truth. At times it’s almost too true.”

All of this may go some way in explaining why what’s caught his eye here are two kinds of cages. One of these is the kind that holds birds—the wire abodes that house Macaws and Picoplats and, especially, rust-bellied finches that adorn porches and whose cages you can see men in sandals toting down the road at dusk. The men, who lovingly raise these birds on a seed grass called crab-eye, take them to singing contests whose attendant mix of cultural codes—machismo and delicacy, confinementand freedom—feels suggestive in the extreme.

The other kind is meant to contain humans. It’s the form of cage that people have fashioned from and around their homes. The “burglar bars” that cover windows, the shards of bottle glass that top concrete walls. And the preponderance of the diamond lattice of steel through which Chris, wandering the island in his jeep or on foot, has grown used to examining in darkness and in light.

Of course, Chris didn’t have to come to Trinidad to see chain link. Look closely at No Woman, No Cry: the beaded scrim through which we glimpse the mourning mum, her tears containing her son’s face, comprises a familiar diamond weave. In London, where during World War II it went up around parks to replace heavy iron fences repurposed for the war effort, chain link’s still everywhere. But in that prosperous place, it perhaps doesn’t rival the ubiquity in island towns that prompted the scholar Kimberley McKinson, absorbing the feel of another wary city in the West Indies—Kingston—to describe the “security-scape” of environments where burglar bars rule and steel gates affixed with images of pit bulls warn “Don’t piss yah.”

McKinson has suggested that the “metallurgical” approach to architecture doesn’t merely bespeak anxiety over security. She has pointed to how this anxiety has become a kind of guiding aesthetic through whose repeated flourishes—notably stylized adinkra patterns—many people of West African descent in the Caribbean have turned their fencing, and their metal, into a form of cultural memory.

It’s not hard, in Trinidad, to find examples of this—and not only from Africa. For if lines and patterns from Ashanti made it here, so did those of Madras and Calcutta. Here you can glimpse mehendi designs shaped as grillwork or woven into chain link, or odes to the monkey-god Hanuman. I have a friend of Chinese heritage whose bars guarding his kitchen are affixed with a mirror pointing inward, in accord with the principles of feng shui. Fences, here, expand beyond memory to art. And they serve as speech, too, when they’re hung with bold-lettered signs, in Trinidad’s marvelous brand of English, to express a warning like “No Liming” (meaning, don’t hang out here), or to announce an upcoming party (“Cuttin’ Crew”). The metal fence speaks to the artist’s keen interest in the idea of alchemy—in how one material may be turned into something else.

When, in 2014, Chris was commissioned to create a new wall-size work, with some intriguing new collaborators, that would hang in the National Gallery, London, he first made a painting, in ravishing watercolor, of a wary island paradise. He called it The Caged Bird’s Song. It depicts two lovers at repose by a waterfall; a potion and a goblet; a guitar; a birdcage (there it is again); the weeping face of the Italian footballer Mario Balotelli (another story altogether). The watercolor, bleeding aqua and violet and emerald, then traveled from Trinidad across the sea. It went to Edinburgh, to the Dovecot Tapestry Studio, whose master weavers spent three years transposing Chris’s pigments into a tapestry of wonder.

The National Gallery, London

Installation view of Chris Ofili’s The Caged Bird’s Song, “Weaving Magic,” 2017

The distinct alchemy of that larger project, called Weaving Magic, involved turning water into cloth. The alchemy at work in Chris’s next project, at David Zwirner in New York, found him still preoccupied with cages. But now he involved the gallery itself—turning a large white room, with the help of chain link reaching from floor to ceiling, into a cage like the small bird’s that visitors passed upon entering. With the gallery’s other walls rendered theatrical by the sensual dancing figures affixed to them by set painters, Chris hung the cage’s inside walls with four large paintings in black and white—pieces that, since they were facing inward, we couldn’t inspect straight on, but only from across the room and through the grid of wire netting.


“They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow / Through Eden took their solitary way.” That’s Milton. “It is paradise lost. A paradise of loss.” That’s Attillah Springer, a wise woman from Trinidad, describing her home for a friend who might be Chris, who might be all of us. “This is where you come to find yourself. This is where much has dissappeared.”

There are times when the modernity of Trinidad feels like a future we can love. When we realize that most people here have the blood of four continents running through their veins; when we feel we’ve found a future where race has indeed become an absurdist joke. When the soca’s hitting right and everyone, covered in mud or in masks, dons costumes to become themselves—to become, that is, humans who “get on bad” together.

Chris Ofili/David Zwirner

Installation view, “Chris Ofili: Paradise Lost,” David Zwirner, New York, 2017

There are other times, when the heavy rain is falling and kidnappings rise, when it seems a future to fear. When the island, ensnarled in traffic, is choking on its modernity in ways that many more of us may soon as well. I think of this Trinidad when, a few months after Chris’s show in New York, I ready to board a plane for the island and later enter the words “chain link” into the search field on the website of one of Trinidad’s papers. I find an article from 2015 advising readers about installing fencing around their home. “In this country,” its author begins, “the fence acts as our first line of defence: securing our property.”

I think of something Chris said once, about cages and songs and liberation and constraint and how they may all relate to what it is to be human. I had asked Chris by email, since he was traveling, if he might point me to where he’d taken certain shots of ball courts and palms. His typical reply makes me laugh: “Seeking is better than finding.”

Adapted from an essay included in a book occasioned by Chris Ofili’s 2017 exhibition “Paradise Lost,” out this month from David Zwirner Books.

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