Diaspora-Artists logo

Chris Ofili - No Woman, No Cry Postcard

Postcard relating to an individual
Published by: Tate Britain

image of Chris Ofili - No Woman, No Cry Postcard

Postcard of one of Chris Ofili’s most elebrated paintings, No Woman No Cry, offered for sale as part of the merchandise relating to his exhibition at Tate Britain, 27 January - 16 May 2010. [Mixed media on canvas, 243.8 x 182.8 cm]

In April of 1993, 18-year-old student Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death in a vicious and unprovoked attack that was widely regarded as a racist murder. No convictions were secured for this death and allegations persisted that the London police were ultimately indifferent to racist violence against Black people. Worse, that incompetence and racism may have played a part in the lack of convictions. The New Labour government of 1997, sensing the palpable mood of outrage and injustice at Lawrence’s death and the attendant failure of the police and judicial system to secure satisfactory prosecutions, commissioned a report by Sir William Macpherson, which, when published in February 1999 became known as The Macpherson Report. With its damning verdict of police forces such as the Metropolitan Police being affected by a culture of institutional racism, the report was seen as evidence that under New Labour, Black victims of crime, including racial violence, would be taken seriously and that the police would work to eradicate racism from their ranks. Notwithstanding the importance of the report, its findings, and its recommendations, the public mood (articulated within sections of the press and media, and elsewhere) took the form of outrage at the wanton violence perpetrated against someone framed as a decent, upstanding, hardworking young man, and sympathy for the Lawrence family, particularly the teenager’s parents. Doreen and Neville Lawrence were regarded as dignified people who though burdened with an unimaginable grief, carried themselves in a way that was inspirational. Like their son, they were perceived as decent people, who wanted nothing more and nothing less than justice for their beloved son. Few racist murders had in the past generated this level of sympathy. Indeed, much of the media and the wider society had appeared apparently indifferent to the deaths of no fewer than thirteen Black youngsters at the beginning of the 1980s. But on this occasion at least, things were different and there was a palpable sense of society-wide sympathy for Lawrence’s parents and respect for their dignified manner.

When Chris Ofili was shortlisted for the Turner Prize exhibition of 1998, held at Tate Britain, from late October 1998 to early January the following year, he became the first British-born Black artist to be so honoured. The other shortlisted artists - Sam Taylor-Wood, Cathy de Monchaux, and Tacita Dean - were also of the yBa generation who had come, and indeed would continue, to dominate Tuner Prize shortlists. The award was, in due course, made to Ofili, “for the inventiveness, exuberance, humour and technical richness of his painting, with its breadth of cultural reference, as revealed in his solo exhibition at Southampton City Art Gallery and in Sensation at the Royal Academy, London.” Ofili went on to win the Turner Prize and in this endeavour his painting, No Woman No Cry, (which was the star of his display) helped him. The song from which Ofili borrowed his title appeared on a Bob Marley and The Wailers studio album from 1974, Natty Dread. It was though, the live version, from a concert recording released the following year, which marked the song out as an iconic, emotional, highly charged work in the annals of reggae music. On the 1975 Live! Album, the crowd erupts appreciatively when hearing the opening chords of the song, and join in word for word as Bob Marley sings this song of comfort, perseverance, and triumph over the adversity that was the Jamaican sufferers’ lot. Describing the common bonds of day to day existence that united and strengthened a particular domestic community of humble Jamaican sufferers, the song goes on to declare, or insist, that “everything’s gonna be alright, everything’s gonna be alright.”

Ofili’s No Woman No Cry was a sentimental portrait of a tearful woman, widely taken to be Mrs. Lawrence, or a woman the viewer can surmise might be a representation of Mrs. Lawrence. The theatricality of the elephant dung with which Ofili had catapulted to stardom was present within the painting in the form of a pendant worn by the woman, and as two props on which the painting (and indeed, many of his paintings which use the material) rested. But, sentimentality, predictable or inevitable use of elephant dung aside, the painting was widely recognised and it was no surprise when the Tate purchased it in 1999. As Virginia Button noted in her history of The Turner Prize, No Woman No Crywas widely admired by the press.”

The woman in Ofili’s portrait appeared behind a decorative, latticework type grid. Not a harsh grid that trapped her, but an ornamental patterning that reflects the figure’s gentle humanity. With her hair plaited, and her eyes gently closed in sorrow, the painting was perhaps a timely embodiment of sympathy felt towards Mrs. Lawrence and the high esteem in which she and her husband were held. The woman in Ofili’s painting cried gentle tears and within each droplet, those who cared to look closely enough could see a portrait of the murdered, the martyred, Stephen Lawrence. Reflecting as it did, something of the nation’s sympathy, it was difficult to imagine Ofili’s No Woman No Cry, as the centrepiece of his display, not winning 1998’s Turner Prize, once Ofili had been shortlisted.

The work though, had its detractors. Stallabrass for one commented that the work “makes a curious contribution” and that “it is unclear, to say the least, what Ofili’s work adds to that righteous chorus [of protestation at the brutality of Stephen Lawrence’s death and the subsequent clamour for justice] except to place himself on the side of the angels.”

Notes. For a substantial account of the Stephen Lawrence affair, see Brian Cathcart, The Case of Stephen Lawrence, Penguin Books Ltd, 2000. For more on the Macpherson Report, see the entry MacPerson Report, in The Oxford Companion to Black British Culture, edited by David Dabydeen, John Gilmore and Cecily Jones, Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 281-282. For an account of the tragedy of the deaths of 13 youngsters in a house fire, see Cecily Jones, New Cross fire, The Oxford Companion to Black British History, edited by David Dabydeen, John Gilmore and Cecily Jones, Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 341-342. See also The New Cross Massacre Story: Interviews With John La Rose, published by Alliance of the Black Parents Movement, Black Youth Movement And The Race Today Collective, London, 1984, and Peter Fryer, The New Generation, from Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, Pluto Press, London, 1985 pp. 387 399. See The Turner Prize, 1998, catalogue published by Tate Gallery Publishing. No Woman No Cry, written by V. Ford, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Natty Dread, Island Records, 1974, No Woman No Cry, written by V. Ford, Bob Marley and the Wailers Live!, Island Records, 1975. Virginia Button, The Turner Prize, Tate Gallery Publishing, 1999, p. 142; Julian Stallabrass, High Art Lite: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art, Verso, 1999 (revised edition, 2006), p. 116.

Related people

»  Stephen Lawrence

Born, 1974. Died, 1993

»  Chris Ofili

Born, 1968 in Manchester, UK

Related exhibitions

»  Turner Prize 1998

Group show at Tate Britain. 1998 - 1999

Related venues

»  Tate Britain

London, United Kingdom