Monday, 20 January 2014
The Art Of Running (or lessons in running by Chris Ofili)
The other day I was at an African wedding reception in London and I saw the internationally renowned artist Chris Ofili there. (Don’t worry that is the end of the name dropping).
As I was collecting my coat from the cloakroom at the end of the night Chris was also there with his wife collecting their belongings. We'd met a couple of years ago, and after a quick catch up we ended up talking about one of his pictures.
In 2011 he painted a picture that deeply resonated with me; “For The Unknown Runner”. It was a commission as a poster for the London 2012 Olympics and shows a runner on an ancient Greek type vase with the spectators just represented as colourful spots in the background. In Ancient Greece sporting achievement was often depicted on these types of vases as well as representing various gods and mythical creatures.
I first found out about the picture through twitter and I now have a print of “For The Unknown Runner” hanging in my kitchen. Not a day goes by when I don’t look at it and enjoy it, which is why, at the risk of embarrassing Chris with my love of his work, I told him how much his picture means to me.
The primary reason I love it is because it marries two aspects of my identity that often seem mutually exclusive – my black British identity and my running identity. I’ve written previously about the lack of ordinary fellow black distance runners when I do marathons and other races. As a black British artist Chris Ofili’s work often speaks to my black British identity. For example his piece “No Woman No Cry” is a tribute to Doreen Lawrence and her fight for justice for her murdered son Stephen Lawrence a seminal moment in black British history (as well as race relations as a whole).
And so when Ofili turns his hand to painting a runner I feel I no longer have to place these two aspects of my character into different silos. It can be part of black British culture in just the same way as his other work is.
The title “For The Unknown Runner” serves to give me further ownership of this beautiful piece of work. At first the title didn’t seem to make sense to me because this was a commission for the London Olympics and Olympian athletes are far from unknown, Ofili has gone on record previously saying that the figure was based on a picture of Usain Bolt possibly the most famous known athlete in the world.
But in a typically egotistical way I now interpret the picture not to be of an Olympian but of myself or everybody who runs.
When I run a marathon I am running my own private Olympics. To 99.9% of the spectators I am the “unknown runner”, (thanks for cheering me on mum - the 0.1%), and the spectators are nothing more to me than the colourful spots in the pictures background. But in my mind I am running to glory. I am achieving my own super human feat worthy of any Ancient Greek Olympian vase.
As I tried to express all this to Chris Ofili, through the haze of a little bit too much wedding reception alcohol, the complexity of all those thoughts ended up as “I love your picture ‘The Unknown Runner’ it really inspires me”. And after graciously thanking me, he explained how he too likes to run and how it really serves to clear his head.
Once again I learn that running can fuel great achievements (such as Ofili's art), but possibly more importantly I learnt I have more in common with one of Britain’s greatest living artists than I ever realised.
(The picture today is of Chris Ofili's "For The Unknown Runner". If you want to see Chris talk about painting the picture there is a great short film here. Also thanks to my twitter friend @GoFeetBlog who first told me about the picture)