Iscariot Blues by Chris Ofili

Chris Ofili

Iscariot Blues, 2006, Oil and charcoal on linen, 281 x 194.9 cm, Victoria Miro, © Chris Ofili, Courtesy Victoria Miro and David Zwirner

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Slavery and Liberation

Iscariot Blues is one of a series called The Blue Rider—a reference to the early twentieth-century German artists collective Der Blaue Reiter—painted by Chris Ofili shortly after his move from London to Trinidad in 2005. The dark hues of the paintings contrast starkly with the brightly coloured canvasses of his earlier period. In Iscariot Blues we can only just make out the outlines of a man hanging from a gallows alongside two musicians. The juxtaposition is strange and unsettling.

The title suggests that the man on the gallows represents Judas Iscariot, though the image may also make reference to Trinidad’s history of slavery. Referring to the Judas figure Ofili commented: ‘I was brought up to think that Judas was the bad guy … and that he was responsible for the persecution of the Son of God. In further readings, there’s an understanding that Judas knew that in order for man to be saved, Jesus would have to die. And the only way for that to happen would be if he was betrayed by those closest to him. So it was interesting that he could be transformed from this “baddie” to a “goodie” all of a sudden’ (Nesbitt et al. 2010: 99).

Ofili’s reflections echo those of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1896–1968) when he described Judas as ‘the sinner without equal, who offered himself at the decisive moment to carry out the will of God, not in spite of his unparalleled sin, but in it’ (Barth 1957: 503). For Ofili, the contrast between the violent image of the hanging dead figure with the depiction of the blues musicians captured some of the tension in that ambiguity.

Jamaican-born British cultural critic Stuart Hall, drawing on the American novelist James Baldwin, once described the blues as combining in its cadences the cry of trouble and tribulation with the promise of the joy of jubilee: ‘It takes us to a dark place, but it never leaves us there’ (Hall 2018: 131).

Iscariot Blues can be interpreted as alluding to Judas’s role in the story of redemption, a story that goes back all the way to Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. It invites reflection on the unfathomable part Judas played in that story, by juxtaposing this gruesome death with the soulful music played under open skies on a sweet evening in Trinidad.

 

References

Barth, Karl. 1957. Church Dogmatics Volume 2, Part 2, ed. by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. by G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T & T Clark)

Hall, Stuart. 2018. Familiar Stranger: A Life between Two Islands (London: Penguin Books)

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


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