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Elaborate and Intricate, "Shithead"

By Whitney V. Hunter, Cohort 13

British artist, Chris Ofili’s first American survey exhibition at the New Museum proves a wonderfully full and engaging exposition. Large, elaborate and intricate works: paintings on canvas, drawings, and sculptures spanning his career, fill three floors of the museum.

“St. Sebastian, Shithead, and The Annunciation”

“St. Sebastian, Shithead, and The Annunciation”

Each floor makes a substantial mark on the mind; for me the second floor captures my interest most vividly. Coming in contact with two sculptures, I am reminded about the power of artistic expression and re-interpretation. Off the elevator to the right sits a tangled and twisted bronze androgynous figure. In it are multiple hammered nails and two sharp steel rods jutting through its body. Beautiful in its tortured anguish, with appendages that match its contortedness, this figure is “St. Sebastian,” the early Christian saint and martyr, as created through the aesthetic filter of Ofili.

Another sculpture that stakes its claim, and successfully expands the boundaries of re-interpretation is “The Annunciation.” The sculpture envisions Gabriel “potbellied, bearded, afroed [with] black skin… roughly textured,” and the Virgin Mary, “golden and highly polished.” This work beckons a “Black love” with all its seventies-esque velvet picture-like splendor. What is most wonderful about this work, aside for its stunning presence, is what is accomplished by the artist in his experimentation with sculpture (since 2005). He writes, “The excitement is that the freedom is developing.” This is in reference to the freedom of the hand in drawing which he knows intimately.

Lastly, and for me very significant, is a shocking little sculpture. As I stood at the base of a long staircase contemplating my ascension, still reeling from the six large-scaled, dark and imposing paintings in a dimly lit room, I made the decision. I took the journey. Halfway up, I am surprised by “Shithead,” a 1993 sculpture crafted of human teeth, the artist’s hair, polyester resin, and copper wire on elephant dung. This artwork is for me the ultimate and solidifies the possibilities of re-interpretation.