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.
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)
20 When it was evening, he sat at table with the twelve disciples; 21and as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” 22And they were very sorrowful, and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” 23He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me, will betray me. 24The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” 25Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Is it I, Master?” He said to him, “You have said so.”
17 And when it was evening he came with the twelve. 18And as they were at table eating, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” 19They began to be sorrowful, and to say to him one after another, “Is it I?” 20He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me. 21For the Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”
14 And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him
21But behold the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. 22For the Son of man goes as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” 23And they began to question one another, which of them it was that would do this.
24 A dispute also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 27For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.
21 When Jesus had thus spoken, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” 22The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. 23One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; 24so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, “Tell us who it is of whom he speaks.” 25So lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him, “Lord, who is it?” 26Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I shall give this morsel when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. 27Then after the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” 28Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29Some thought that, because Judas had the money box, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast”; or, that he should give something to the poor. 30So, after receiving the morsel, he immediately went out; and it was night