Back in 1999, we were brand new to the city and, to be honest, we were far too busy clapping for subway performers and figuring out how to pronounce "Duane Reade" to think much about the larger politics of the city. At least until the elephant dung hit the fan that summer when Giuliani threatened to withdraw city funding from the Brooklyn museum for exhibiting Chris Ofili's black madonna in their show "Sensation: Young British Artist's From the Saatchi Collection."
Clearly we realize that most of the works in the exhibit, including Ofili's, were intentionally shocking and outrageous. However, we still find it hard to believe that anyone but the most crassly self-serving politician (starts with "G," ends with "I") could fail to see, after a few minutes of study, that Ofili's dung smeared madonna was more an attempt to work through issues of colonialism and his African heritage than something simply intended to desecrate or offend.
The media fed frenzy that surrounded that exhibition pretty much left us in the permanent state of snit that marked the beginnings of our rebirth as a true New Yorker. Happily it also left us with a sincere appreciation of the work of the Turner prize winning Ofili. So it is especially nice to see the artist back in New York, where at least this time his work has been judged more on its merits.
Through June 3, the Studio Museum in Harlem will be showing 181 watercolors by the artist in their show "Chris Ofili: Afro Muses 1995 - 2005." From what we've seen so far, the watercolors are simply beautiful, saturated with color and shaped with Ofili's distinctive bold lines. They feature mainly individual men and women in three quarter poses, dressed in African-style clothing. There are also a few group works, called "Harems," which feature watercolors of a man surrounded by a number of women, and a set of paintings of white-lipped women entitled "Unkissed." None of the works are portraits; rather the subjects come from Ofili's memory or imagination.
Ofili says that he produced these watercolors over the course of the past 10 years, mainly using them as studio aides to help unlock his creative ideas away from the time-consuming pressures of his denser paintings. As the New York Times points out, he actually had no plans to exhibit the works until Studio Museum curator Thelma Golden visited his studio and saw them. However they got here, we're very excited to see them and we're glad the Studio Museum realized their potential and took the time to make this exhibition happen.