The black, green and red version of the British flag that flew above Tate Britain on the bank of the Thames seven years ago is to return. The artist Chris Ofili’s dramatic reimagining of the flag in the pan-African colours will be flown on the gallery’s roof in October to mark Black History Month.
Ofili, the Turner prize’s youngest winner, has given his Union Black to Tate Britain to celebrate the black contribution to London and in recognition of the gallery’s support of his early career. The design echoes black nationalist Marcus Garvey’s flag, in which the red stood for the blood of martyrs, the black for the colour of their skin and the green for the land of Africa.
“The flag may have added resonance for Londoners in these times, but it is important anyway in a wider framework because it speaks to the international makeup of a city where so many people of African descent live and work,” said Alex Farquharson, director of Tate Britain, announcing Ofili’s gift this weekend. “It has something to say about British identity and about our colonial past, as well as about our artistic place in the world.”
Ofili’s flag first flew above Tate Britain in 2010 when the gallery mounted a major show of the artist whose paintings now cost hundreds of thousands of pounds and who is still best known for his controversial use of elephant dung. It was originally displayed in 2003 in the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale, alongside Ofili’s series of red, black and green paintings on themes of love and liberation, in an acclaimed collaboration with architect David Adjaye.
“Some of the most complex and difficult subjects to speak about are easier to take on when they’re packaged in an attractive way,” Ofili said of the flag.
Since then the 48-year-old, who has lived in Trinidad since 2005, has given the Tate three other works, the painting Blue Devils (2014), currently on show in Tate Britain’s free collection displays, and two works on paper: Untitled (1998) and a work commemorating the life of the murdered southLondon teenager Stephen Lawrence, R.I.P. Stephen Lawrence 1974-1993 (2013).
In 1998, when Ofili beat Tacita Dean, Sam Taylor-Wood and Cathy de Monchaux and became the first black winner of the Turner at the age of 30, his portrait of Lawrence’s mother Doreen, No Woman, No Cry, was part of his winning entry.
Ofili’s parents, May and Michael, left Nigeria in 1965 and the artist, their second child, was born three years later in Manchester. Both parents worked for the biscuit manufacturer McVitie’s, but when Ofili was 11, his father moved back to Nigeria alone.
The artist came to international fame in 1999 when his workThe Holy Virgin Mary prompted Catholic protests in New York. It was exhibited at the Brooklyn museum as part of the Sensation group show of young British artists’ work and depicted a black madonna and child, embellished with cuttings from pornographic magazines and pieces of varnished elephant dung. Already seen at the Royal Academy in London, and in a Berlin gallery, complaints began when then New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani attacked the work as “sick stuff”.
Farquharson said the Tate had to confer with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport about the decision to take down the conventional union flag and replace it with an artwork later this year. “We don’t expect any public protest, because we have flown the flag before in 2010,” he added. When the flag comes down he will consider loan requests from other arts institutions.
“Civic museums around the country may well have moments they would like to mark. The flag reminds me of Ofili’s amazing body of work and looks back to times before artists of colour, such as Ofili and another black Turner prizewinner, Steve McQueen, had such recognition.”