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Gary Younge
‘I want it to hit people in the gut’: Chris Ofili on his epic, three-wall Grenfell fresco

The artist has finally chosen to address the tragedy – with Requiem, a vast work depicting a flaming building, fleeing souls and an ocean of tears. He explains why he placed an artist who died at its centre

In May 2017 Chris Ofili was at a gathering on the Lido in Venice, following the opening of an exhibition, when he was told a young artist wanted to meet him. Ofili, 54, cuts a lean, muscular figure, but with more salt than pepper in his hair, he is feeling his years professionally. “When you get to this age you’re a little bit disconnected from the younger group,” he says. “And I thought, ‘That’s really nice. Somebody would actually formally like to meet me.’”

In the near distance, he saw 24-year-old Khadija Saye, whose work was being exhibited at the Biennale with other emerging artists as part of the Diaspora Pavilion. “She had this really radiant presence,” recalls Ofili. “There was an undeniably genuine, honest presence about her. And I said yeah, of course I want to meet her. We did a brief selfie and maybe exchanged a few words. But it was enough to realise, ‘That’s a good person there and I hope she makes really good art, because that combination can be quite special.’”

Saye was, in fact, on the brink of a breakthrough with a haunting photographic series called Dwelling: In This Space We Breathe. “It turns out she made quite extraordinary, mystical, alchemic self-portraits and works fusing her history and the history of photography,” says Ofili. “This work that reached into the past but also went into the future.”

Just over a month later Saye was dead. She lived with her mother, Mary Mendy, on the 20th floor of the inflammable tomb and now charred monument to corporate disgrace, otherwise known as Grenfell Tower, where 72 people died in a fire. Saye had no phone to call for help – the police had taken it during a wrongful arrest – so she took to Facebook to ask for prayers and advice as she struggled to escape through the thick smoke.

A couple of days later, Ofili was back in his studio in Trinidad when he heard Saye had passed away. “At that point the fire was still burning,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘What?’ I didn’t really understand what you’re supposed to do with the loss of somebody that young who had such huge potential.”

Today, in a piece by Ofili called Requiem, an image of Saye hovers high on the middle wall of Tate Britain’s northern staircase. Emerging from a cluster of yellow and orange, encircled by the souls of the perished, she holds to her ear an andichurai, a Gambian incense pot and treasured possession of her mother. It is a depiction based on one of Saye’s own photographs, currently exhibited at Tate Modern, also to be shown alongside Requiem.

Entering the staircase from the top, passing through opaque doors, one’s immediate impression is of riotous reverence. Just beneath the apex, Saye appears as though from a stained glass window in a passageway dominated by arresting purples and blues. To the left, a prophet or witness bows, his dark robes aglow in the light of the flaming building he is presenting. Tears fall from his face into an ocean of despair from which souls are trying to escape.

To the right, a flute-playing, satyr-like figure rests beneath the lilac shade of a Ceanothus Concha (the same tree that sits in a garden dedicated to Saye in east London where she once worked). It lures the souls towards it with its melody as blossoms float across the canvas. The effect reminded me of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where a stained glass window bearing the image of a black Christ – funded and created as a gift from the people of Wales after Klansmen bombed the church and killed four little girls after Sunday school in 1963 – is visible from the pulpit. If approaching the work from the bottom of the staircase, you ascend, as though underwater, through the calmer blues of the tear-soaked stream in which the souls swim, to become enveloped in more vivid colour and clearer narrative.

Requiem stands on its own, but is nonetheless pulled together by threads from Ofili’s significant body of work. There’s the witness, who also features prominently in Poolside Magic; his tears, echoing No Woman No Cry; the satyr, a constant feature of The Seven Deadly Sins. When the Tate originally offered Ofili the space for a new commission, which will stand for at least 10 years, he was sceptical. “The space felt awkward,” he says. “It felt dated. It felt like the last kind of place I would want to make a piece of art: a thoroughfare. It didn’t feel like it had any central focus.”

Thinking back to similar opportunities he’s had, particularly at Tate, he reflected on No Woman No Cry, a tribute to the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, whose image appears in each tear; and more recently Blue Devils, which addressed stop and search. “I thought OK, stay in that vein. Try and think of something that would address the public and the hundreds of thousands of people coming through here.”

Quite what that thing would be eluded him for some time. It wasn’t until he was in a car heading into central London from Heathrow, following another Venice trip, that it dawned on him that every time he passed Grenfell he looked away. “This time I was really conscious that I was looking away. So I looked at it again and started having these horrible thoughts about Khadija being in that building. And that’s when I thought, ‘Right, I really have to try and address Grenfell because this luxury of looking away, and packing away those thoughts, has expired. But I knew it was a very vulnerable and tender subject, where you could do more damage than good. And I felt that if I was going to address it, I was going to have to understand it.”

He delved into the literature and testimony that emerged from the tragedy, but ultimately came back to that evening in Venice. “I thought my entry could be through the one person that I think I knew in the building who lost a life. And if I went in that way, I could keep it personal and not be too broad.”

He then set about his artistic research, visiting churches and chapels in Padua, studying the work of 13th-century painter and architect Giotto di Bondone. Focusing on frescoes, he felt a particular responsibility because the work would be up on a wall for at least a decade. “It’s important at times to use skill and platform to say something that’s beyond words, really. I think this is beyond words. You can’t talk for 10 years. But somebody can look at something and have their own personal responses in 10 years’ time.”

The space was altered in a range of ways to accommodate his vision, which in turn used the space quite differently to the painting by David Tremlett that preceded it.

Raised in Manchester to Nigerian parents, Ofili has lived primarily in Trinidad since 2005, but zigzagged across “the black Atlantic”, spending much of his time in London and New York. Referring to the diasporic connections made through colonialism and slavery, he says: “No matter what their plan was when they went over to conquer, there’s another potential of how we can stay connected and use and exchange ideas. I’m determined to keep that callaloo mixture authentically mine. Not a generalised version. This is actually my dish. This is the way I make it. We work with what we’ve got.”

When I interviewed him 13 years ago at his studio in the hills overlooking Port of Spain, he explained why he avoided polemic in his art. “A lot of black art that came before was set up to critique the system. I thought that was boring. Basically, you would have to be right all the time. And I was not interested in being right all the time. I wanted to be sincere and outrageous and friendly and rude and experimental and conventional. I just wanted to try to be who I am.”

This informed his approach to Requiem. “I could get so much wrong if I was relying only on facts. But if I could stay in an emotional place, then there’s no right and wrong, it’s just connection to self, and I knew I was equipped in my emotional response. Because that’s a lot to work with. I want this to hit people in the gut. The only way to do that is to say, ‘Wake up, wake up!’” He clicks his fingers as though to stir someone from their slumber.

This preventable fire signalled the dominance in British life, and death, of the four horsemen of late-stage capitalism: inequality, austerity, deregulation and privatisation. Six years later, with the official inquiry still in progress and nobody yet held accountable, a body of artistic work is building in response. In the last five months alone there have been Steve McQueen’s film and Gillian Slovo’s play at the National Theatre, both titled Grenfell. What was it about tragedy, I ask Ofili, that has made it such a touchstone? “It was the direct by-product of a system,” he says. “And we have to ask ourselves ‘What set things up to allow these things to happen? Because human beings did this: there was no AI involved.”

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