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Chris Ofili heads into the shadows

January 28, 2010

Hip, cool and wildly inventive, Chris Ofili burst onto the scene in the early 90s. Now he’s ditching the dung and the glitter, and going some place darker

Afro Love and Unity

A detail from Chris Ofili’s Afro Love and Unity, 2002.

Chris Ofili‘s new show is a lesson in learning to be free. Not of the shadows cast by other artists, but of his own. Early success makes some artists grow scared of their shadows; they get so stuck with the thing they have become known for that they are paralysed, unable to find a way forward. Ofili, instead, has raced ahead. On Sunday he told me that he is letting his new work lead him where it will.

Now in his early 40s, the Trinidad-based British artist recognises that the coherent development of his work isn’t something he need worry about. He is centred and confident enough to know that the work will tell the story. At the end of the 1990s, having become famous for using his signature elephant dung for some years, Ofili told me he was retreating to the studio and staying out of the limelight. By then he had won the Turner prize (in 1998; he was the first black artist to do so), and been vilified by New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who in 1999 objected to the Brooklyn Museum of Art showing his black Virgin Mary, replete with dung-balls and clippings of bums and vaginas from porn magazines. But he didn’t escape attention or controversy: in 2005, Tate bought Ofili’s 2002 work The Upper Room, a complex installation of 13 paintings in a shrine-like space, designed by the architect David Adjaye. Ofili was a Tate trustee at the time.

Ofili has always played with stereo-types of blackness and exaggerated a ribald exoticism in his work. This is evident from the start, in the 1993 self-portrait sculpture that greets visitors entering the show – nothing more than a small, misshapen ball of elephant dung, sprouting a few of the artist’s shorn dreadlocks, and a smile of milk teeth. The exhibition takes us through the development of his paintings and drawings to the present. Much is missing: where are the balls of dung Ofili put up for sale in Brick Lane market, or the dung spliffs, or the “ELEPHANT SHIT” ­stickers he plastered London with in the early 90s? Where’s the lime-green Ford Capri, the one with the elephant bellow for a horn? More pertinently, where’s all the sculpture Ofili has made in recent years, the big-haired and pointy-bearded versions of the caganer, a small defecating figure who appears in Catalonian nativity scenes? The artist has left all this out, wanting to see for himself, instead, the development of his painting, beginning with the 1995 Painting With Shit On It, and ending with rooms of recent paintings with no shit at all. The shit is gone.

Read more at: Art and design Chris Ofili

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 28, 2010 2:42 am

    excellent.
    i like hearing about artists who overcome objections by ignorant political figures

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