Island records

One of the “Sensation” generation of Saatchi artists, Chris Ofili has retreated from scandal to pain

At the start of his day at his studio in Port of Spain, Trinidad, Chris Ofili habitually paints watercolours, to help get him into the frame of mind for larger-scale work. His ritual goes like this: he takes a sheet of paper divided into eight squares and deftly fills each with the head and shoulders of a figure - simple full faces of African women and profiles of bearded African men, dressed in brilliantly detailed, patterned shirts and frocks, in some of which the watercolour bleeds like batik.

He subsequently groups the figures into little families: "the suitors", or "the unkissed", or "the harem". In this way, with these quickly
individuated characters ("Afromuses", he calls them), Ofili paints himself each day into his own vision - playful and generous, referencing everything from Nefertiti to P Diddy.

Some of these works on paper will be inclu­ded in the retrospective of Ofili's work that opens at Tate Britain late this month, hanging next to his large-scale canvases, with their fabulously intricate veneers of paint and collage - an unmissable wow of colour for Sad sufferers everywhere. The exhibition will represent a homecoming of sorts for Ofili, who grew up in Manchester and came of age as a painter in London, but has lived for much of the past decade in the Caribbean. The prodigal son returns - bearing elephant dung.

Ofili is 41 now - it's a dozen years since he became the first painter of his generation to win the Turner Prize, and a decade since Rudy Giuliani became his unlikely PR agent when, as mayor of New York, he tried to withdraw $7m of city funding from the Brooklyn Museum of Art if it displayed Ofili's "horrible and disgusting" Holy Virgin Mary (depicted as a black African and adorned with a pagan halo of vaginas, cut out from porn magazines) during the New York transfer of "Sensation" in 1999. Ofili has never responded directly to that controversy beyond saying that it was encouraging for him to discover, in our pixelated age, that people still believed a painting might be something worth fighting over.

Nor has he been deflected from creating further incendiary mixes of the hallowed and the profane - after the New York show, he embarked on a spectacular Last Supper in which Jesus and the disciples become randy macaque monkeys. In 2006, Ofili was no doubt suitably amused to find himself, for the second time, making a bestselling list of "people who are screwing up America".

The Giuliani outrage itself was a diversion from understanding the most gifted and original of the "Sensation" group of Saatchi artists. It presented Ofili as an enfant terrible - shocking for shock's sake - and threatened to obscure for a while, in the public mind at least, the genuine wonder and eccentricity of his painting, with its excrement-encrusted insistence that nothing is sacred (or everything is).

The move to Trinidad has, among other things, allowed Ofili to retreat from his unanticipated notoriety and to work without media distraction. He first went to the island on a residency in 2000 with his friend and fellow painter Peter Doig; both of them now live there. When asked, "Why Trinidad?" Ofili often responds, "Why not?" - but the answer is vividly apparent in the autobiography of his work. Ofili had an inclination to paint personal versions of island paradises long before he lived in one. Early in his career, he was asked about his ambitions. "To get in contact with the beautiful," he replied.

The beautiful in his life, it has always seemed, was something he located in his Nigerian heritage - his parents spoke Yoruba as their first language, and Ofili always felt himself to be more sub-Saharan than Mancunian - but he was troubled by how to depict that dislocation honestly and with the verve he felt it deserved. His early paintings were all about identity, about how to bridge the gap between his vibrant sense of possibility and his somewhat colourless surroundings.

A visit as a student to Zimbabwe helped - he found some inspiration in prehistoric cave paintings, as well as post-colonial politics, and came home with a heightened sense of heritage and an urge to sell shit collected from African elephants exiled in Whipsnade Zoo. He has never said exactly why, but it seemed to make sense; he set up a stall in Brick Lane, in the East End of London. The dung itself became a signature, a comical recycled lump of something like home that propped up his paintings or was stuck to them, varnished with resin to make it look fresh. It quickly became the Ofili brand, a memorable symbol of what he was about - earthy and African and inexplicable and funny.

His paintings were generally praised as "exotic" or "gorgeous", but there was a serious emotional intent to them - an urgent desire to create a one-man multiculturalism, to connect the reality of his life in Britain with some wider sense of non-European historical narrative.

Ofili's own artistic voice, laid over borrowings and cultural references, has a transformative power. His response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence was a poignant portrait of a grieving mother entitled No Woman, No Cry, and shared much of the universal pathos of the Bob Marley anthem. Like Marley, Ofili has found the pan-African philosophy of Kwame Nkrumah and Marcus Garvey a source of interest, at least to the extent of adapting some of its symbolism in recent work, a process that began in his 2002 show at the Victoria Miro Gallery.

His room-sized vision of a tropical promised land, a voluptuous Eden, was drenched in Garvey's red, black and green. This was no naive paradise, though: the imagery itself - his black Adam and Eve derived, he confessed at the time, from an image of a palm-fringed holiday resort he'd seen on a hanger cover from a dry-cleaner - was layered, literally, in its detail, with all the caveats and cultural baggage that such a packaged excursion might entail. The advert triggered something Ofili felt nonetheless on his visits to the Caribbean: the sense that "those old-fashioned values of Afro-love and Afro-unity" might just still exist in the present.

Trinidad has been a way of testing the depth of that vision for himself. It wasn't about "doing the Gauguin thing . . . escaping reality", he has said. The island, with its culture of exile and independence, its overabundance of pov­erty, nature and sensuality, was "more real", Ofili has suggested - by which you guess he means more like his paintings - than anything he had found before.

He and Doig - who have successfully reversed V S Naipaul's journey from Trinidad to London in search of culture - have long since ceased to be tourists, though Ofili confesses that he sees something new he wants to photograph or paint every day and they still take themselves off to remote spots to explore. Doig once described these excursions to me as boat trips to "incredible landscapes and caves and archaic spaces like natural cathedrals; to strange pelicans, and islands covered in their shit". Ofili, of course, already had form in that area.

Stuart Hall, the wise old man of cultural studies, worked closely with Ofili on his triumphant show at the 2003 Venice Biennale. He suggests two things about the painter that might seem contradictory, but which in fact get somewhere close to Ofili's understanding of the world. The first is that "Chris was extremely reluctant to be recruited into the 'black art' thing. There was a huge explosion of work from the second generation of immigrants, a struggle for visibility. To most of those people, Chris was way, way too playful."

The second, not quite contrary observation is that "Chris was really seriously engaged at a profound level with questions of blackness". Ofili's unique magical realism is his way of squaring that contradiction. The Tate Britain show, which will showcase some of his (relatively) pared-down Trinidadian style, promises further evidence of his most singular journey towards "the beautiful".

“Chris Ofili" is at Tate Britain, London SW1, from 27 January to 16 May
On 5 February, the New Statesman and Tate Britain present Ofili in Focus, a panel discussion of the artist's work. Click here for more details.

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war