+FAV presents The Adoration of Captain Shit

By Charles Campbell Friday, August 17th, 2012 Categories: +fav, Features, Updates
 

+FAV will be produced monthly and presents a diversified field of ideas on which we can ponder and thus come to understand the critical and personal nature of how artwork seeps into our consciousness and affects the way we generate and manifest our presence in this world. By inviting scholars, artists, curators, writers and those connected to the cultural industries in the Caribbean region and its diasporas, to comment one their favorite works of art, we hope that this serves as a platform of education, inquiry and conversation. This intention is grounded in the ability for each selected participant to write a few paragraphs to elucidate and comment on their choice and the wider conversation emitting from the circulations of ideas and everything that they engender.  Artist and writer Charles Campbell continues our journey into +FAV.

-ARC Magazine.

 

Charles Campbell has exhibited widely in North America, the Caribbean, and Europe, representing Jamaica in events such as the Havana Biennial and the Brooklyn Museum’s Infinite Islands exhibition. He is an active participant in the growing Caribbean contemporary arts scene as both an artist and a writer and is a regular contributor to ARC Magazine, a Caribbean arts journal. His recent work investigates the nature of time and concepts of the future using sculpture, performance and painting. He holds an MA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College and currently lives and works in Canada.

 

It was December 1998 and Chris Ofili had just won the Turner Prize for his exuberant, elephant dung embellished canvases. I was in the middle of my MA at Goldsmiths College and was both fascinated with and made uncomfortable by Ofili’s work. The press covering the Prize reduced his paintings to what I found most problematic in Ofili’s work, focussing on the titillating novelty of elephant dung and on the artist’s racial and ethnic character. In addition Ofili seemed to court this type of coverage, and the work, I had to admit, invited it. Paintings such as The Adoration of Captain Shit represented the black male as a flat, sexually potent comic book character. Nevertheless my interest in Ofili refused to wane and if anything increased. The lush seductive surfaces, the painting’s multi-layered complexity and the in your face images all held my attention. In the end the very problems I had with the work seemed to point to long felt contradictions in the signification and self-representation of black culture. Captain Shit had something to say.

Black artists in Britain at that time faced the usual dilemma. Work that touched on just about any aspect of our lived experience was dismissed as dealing with ‘black issues’, or, as the euphemism still has it, ‘identity’. Work that didn’t was seen as derivative of our white peers. The context for our work was completely determined by our racial character, and to insist that the work be viewed on its own merits was doomed to failure.

The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars, 1998 Oil, acrylic, polyester resin, paper collage, glitter, map pins and elephant dung on linen (96 in. x 72 in.) Image courtesy Courtesy Afroco

Ofili’s embrace of the most obvious stereotypes of blackness initially struck me as perverse. The visibility politics I grew up on dictated that what was needed was to broaden the understanding of what it means to be black. Narrow stereotypes portraying us as tribal primitives, drug dealers or gangsters should be eschewed in favour of representations cultivating a deeper understanding. Ofili turned this accepted wisdom on his head. The images here were caricatures not characters. Captain Shit was a pimp on steroids and the women in his paintings combined hardcore porn with Blaxploitation. As Ofili himself said the black artist is fated to be seen as “the voodoo queen, the witch doctor, the drug dealer, the Magicien de la terre, the exotic”[1] and he seems happy to play along.

The image surfaces of the paintings themselves however started to tell a different story. Collaged faces from black popular culture, figures painstakingly composed of dots of pure colour, shimmering layers of coloured gels and of course the inscrutable blobs of glistening elephant dung combined to make them visually compelling. They excited the senses and activated a multitude of connections, reanimating aspects of the flattened world of visual representation. The paintings held a convincing totality, even as their elements were irreducible. Eyes, afros, elephant dung, the elements refused to participate in any pictorial complacency. Instead they drew attention to how they insert themselves in the world. What emerged was a complicated and contradictory universe. Signifiers of blackness put next to one another and refigured on canvas lost their stability. The work drew attention to the incongruous and inconsistent nature of even the basest stereotypes. Ofili was putting before us the multiple planes on which blackness exists. By reconciling them pictorially he helped animate their contradictions.

My inclination was to dismiss Ofili’s persona and trumpet the power of his work, dismissing the former as a dumbed down media creation that should be separated from the intelligent multifaceted work. But to separate Ofili’s public persona from his paintings was impossible. From the moment Ofili set up his elephant dung displays in the markets of Berlin and Brick Lane he declared himself at the centre of any reading of his work. These performances marked the elephant dung as something other than just another esoteric material and Ofili as its dealer. Captain Shit was Ofili’s barely veiled self-portrait and this comic book persona was present both on and off the canvas. By disappearing behind this persona Ofili inverted who was implicated in the double bind black artists faced.

Chris Ofili entitled 'The Adoration Of Captain Shit And The Legend Of The Black Stars' (right) and 'Afrodizzia (Second Version)' in the Tate Britain gallery on January 25, 2010 in London, England. Image courtesy Oli Scarff/Getty Images Europe

Ofili’s Captain Shit was an exaggerated image of his racial identity and existed as something that was already signified, that we already knew. By aligning this image with his public persona he frustrated viewers attempts to invent a ‘real’ Ofili behind his work. We were left only with representations and, if one truly looked, the awareness that what we were seeing was a reflection of our own projections.

As importantly, the viewer Ofili’s canvases reflected back was not a single, unified entity. Looking at ourselves in the refractive surface of Ofili’s paintings we saw fractured subjects. Like the multiple ideas of blackness that can’t quite hold together but he forced us to see at once, the tentacles that emerged from Ofili’s work lead to experiences that could not be singularly occupied. Each put us in a different space, and although taken individually they conformed to our contemporary special/temporal experience, together, in the unified totality of the paintings, they ripped us asunder. The experience of looking at Ofili’s work was dizzying. This not only because of his representations of blackness but through his very construction of the paintings. The time and labour compressed in the layers of glitter, resin and collage was too far removed from our immediate apprehension of the images. We may hold in front of us an image of Ofili studiously applying the dots to his canvas, but that was a long way away from our immediate experience of the paintings.

In many ways the paintings left us with no escape. They were too total. There was no time in the work and no space between the images. Even when trying to isolate an image we were pulled into the complete painting. The web of images and visual effects that Ofili created was too tight. They pointed relentlessly to our own constructions and removed us from the pretend realities we tried to build. Trying to envision the artist behind the work and we came up with the Dung Dealer, Captain Shit, himself a flat caricature of the pre-signified black male. Trying to envision a black community from which this art emerged and we came up with contradictory representations of blackness. The power of the work was not that it pointed to any truth outside us, but that it pulled us apart. The work presented us with an opportunity to enjoy an accelerated moment in the demolition of our sense of absolute subjectivity, and somehow, in that moment much more was possible.

In the end I found the potential in Ofili’s work to be located in both the visual appeal that so seduced me and in the type of representations I found questionable. Its novelty, reproduction of stereotypes, the ease of its commoditisation cannot be separated from the complexities of its visual surface. Ofili used the very things that made working as a black artist challenging as vehicles for his work, amplifying his message and creating new possibilities.

 


[1] Chris Ofili interviewed by Marcelo Spinelli, London, 23 March 1995

Charles Campbell
Charles Campbell

Charles Campbell has exhibited widely in North America, the Caribbean, and Europe. His recent work investigates the nature of time and concepts of the future using sculpture, performance and painting. He holds an MA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College and currently lives and works in Canada.