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Triple Beam Dreamer, Chris Ofili 2001-2. Courtesy
Triple Beam Dreamer, Chris Ofili 2001-2. Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery, London

Chris Ofili

The retrospective at Tate Britain proves that the agent provocateur who shocked the world in the 90s has learned how to relax

The mid-career retrospective of one of Britain’s greatest living painters went on show at Tate Britain last week. Due to the chronological way that the gallery has curated this important show, it is possible to delineate a mellowing in the artist's concerns – the samples sliced from black culture and 90s current affairs that comprise Ofili’s early painting are less apparent in the layered but laid-back stuff of late. In fact the overall effect is rather like listening to the entire Wu Tang discography – whose millennium material marks their retreat from the clan in da front. Messages make way for method; potency is replaced by production.

As any music fan knows, hip hop had a golden age and Ofili, whose was work in rooted in hip hop culture, did so too. For Ofili this was 1998, the year he won the Turner Prize (and incidentally Lewis Parker released Masquerades & Silhouettes). The exhibition’s first three rooms straddle this period. Classics that made him controversial, cutting and current such as 7 Bitches Tossing Their Pussies Before the Divine Dung (1995) and No Woman, No Cry (1997) greet you at the entrance to the gallery but ring in  your mind from then on.

Visitors are led into The Upper Room (1999-2002), a walnut womb of 14 paintings built by RCA architect David Adjaye. During a solitary time in Ofili’s career this mid-point in the show mimics the psychological sentiment of an artist who at this stage became sick of fame and attention. And out of this he appears reborn and colour replaces cuttings from now on.

The colours of the Pan-African flag – black, red and green – create his work between 2002 and 2003. They bring to mind album covers like Tribe’s A Low End Theory and Roy Ayer’s Ubiquity. What’s more, they mark the moment when Ofili’s attention shifts away from the UK. Whereas references to Stephen Lawrence’s murder were local, these colours are part of an international culture and his move to Trinidad in 2005 was imminent.

Not long after his relocation Ofili paints only in shades of blue (not the Madlib record). Whether blue was the new black or because in Trinidad his skin colour was no longer in the minority Ofili was a responding to his new surroundings. Again his creativity seems inspired from his senses – accurate works from acute impressions.

Ofili claims that his new work that hangs in the final room represents life in Trinidad. Calm curves, and warm colours create a serene scene at first. But look a little closer and beneath the simple image of yellow blossom that cascades down a black background, The Healer (2008), hides a creature that devours on this colourful juice. The poui flowers, native to Trinidad, last only for one day. In Ofili’s eyes their beauty is stalked by a sinister stranger - perhaps equivilent to an insatiably hungry media from which his sought freedom in Trinidad.  

Such subtle references take the place of frenetic cut-outs, jolted jizz marks and snatched-at samples that made his earlier work so urgent. The surfaces of his recent images are fecund and fertile. With less fight Ofili’s work has grown up. That’s not to suggest that he’s retreated into the earthy tones of ‘world music’ or any kind of painterly equivalent – The Healer, with all its resolve, is still exciting and it’s hard to ignore the sex it implies.

But for fans of him, and of hip-hop, it’s good that he’s moved on. The urgency of his earlier work did its job, and broke down the same barriers that hip hop beat against, and now Ofili and his contemporaries across the globe can relax.

The Tate Britain is also offering tickets available at £5 for those under 26 year old, just bring ID.