The Upper Room by Chris Ofili

Chris Ofili

The Upper Room, 1999–2002, Oil paint, acrylic paint, glitter, graphite, pen, elephant dung, polyester resin and map pins on 13 canvases, Support, each: 1832 x 1228 mm support: 2442 x 1830 mm, Tate; Purchased with assistance from Tate Members, the Art Fund and private benefactors 2005, T11925, © Chris Ofili, Courtesy Victoria Miro and David Zwirner; Photo: © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY

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Eucharistic Humility

Wherever it has been installed, The Upper Room by Chris Ofili has been a space intended for quiet contemplation. As Ofili explained, he was ‘trying to create an atmosphere for people to feel somehow out of themselves’ (the EYE 2005).

Designed by Ofili in collaboration with the architect David Adjaye, the room is reached via an upwardly sloping, dimly-lit passageway, thus slowing the viewer down while creating a sense of suspense and anticipation (Nesbitt et al. 2010: 17–18).

Upon entering the rectangular, wood-panelled room visitors encounter thirteen canvasses, spot-lit from above. Six lean against each of the long side walls and one against the short wall at the far end. Each of the paintings is supported on two clumps of elephant dung, one of Ofili’s trademark materials. Each displays the outline of a long-tailed, waistcoated rhesus macaque monkey against a background of lush vegetation painted in different colours, reflected in the paintings’ Spanish titles: Mono (‘monkey’ with a word play on ‘monochrome) Gris, Mono Verde, Mono Rosso, and so on. Except for the one at the end, each monkey is painted in profile holding a chalice.

It has been suggested that the monkey figure was a reference to the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, in which the deity Hanuman leads an army of monkeys into a battle against evil (Enwezor in Nesbitt et al. 2010: 73). But Ofili, who was raised a Roman Catholic, is also interested in his own Christian heritage, as is clear from the title of the work. And in Christian iconography, monkeys or apes can sometimes stand for evil, or specifically for Satan (Ferguson 1961: 11). Moreover, in Byzantine icons demonic figures are often depicted in profile as they do not have both eyes on God (Uspenski 1976: 73 n.4; Williams 2009: 53).

We are told in John’s Gospel that when Christ identified Judas as his betrayer, Satan entered him (John 13:27). Yet, in Ofili’s installation, Judas is not demonized as the evil ‘other’. Instead, the work represents all twelve disciples in the same way and may therefore remind us of the fact that all twelve betrayed and deserted Jesus that same evening. (Matthew 26:56; Mark 14: 50–52).

The Upper Room may invite us to ponder the mystery of the eucharistic feast where all believers come to the Lord’s table as Judas did—sinners in need of redemption by the sacrifice made once for all.

 

References

Ferguson, George. 1961. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Nesbitt, Judith, Okwui Enwezor, Ekow Eshun and others. 2010. Chris Ofili (London: Tate Gallery Publications)

theEYE. 2005. Chris Ofili, The Upper Room https://vimeo.com/ondemand/theeyechrisofili

Uspenski, Boris. 1976. The Semiotics of the Russian Icon (Lisse: The Peter de Ridder Press)

Williams, Rowan. 2009. Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (London: Continuum)


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