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Biography of Chris OFILI

Nigeria > Arts : Chris OFILI

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Biography :

Chris Ofili (born in 1968), is a Nigerian artist.

He was born in Manchester and has spent his entire art career in England -- except for six weeks in Africa, where he got the idea to use elephant dung as a substance in his art, for its sculptural qualities and metaphorical resonance. Not straight out of the elephant, mind you, but chemically treated to avoid putrefaction, odor and flies -- unlike the gruesome work of his colleague, British artist Damien Hirst, whose cross-sectioned cows and other rotting animalia have offended gallery goers for some time now. In contrast to Hirst's putrefyingly sinister work and aggressively grubby persona, Ofili is self-confident and good-humored, given to disarming asides in interviews, such as his declaration about his sculpture "Elephantastic," which displays a sculpted cock and hairy balls: "My balls are hairy."

Yet when Ofili recently won 20,000 pounds sterling as part of the Tate Gallery's noted Turner Prize, reaction was ill-humored indeed: The Web site ArtNet snobbily commented that Ofili is "known for garishly colored, ethnic-naive paintings with chunks of elephant dung attached to their surfaces." The assessment echoed a Brit tabloid's headline about a previous show at the Royal Academy featuring Ofili's work: "Foul Porn Invades Brit Art Gallery." An enraged British military draughtsman dumped a wheelbarrow of cow manure on the sidewalk in front of the exhibit, to prove that "modern art is a load of bullshit." It's a sentiment with which Ofili himself might agree.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that what has offended some people about Ofili is not just the elephant dung, but the combination of a black artist and dung. The military draughtsman admitted that while he was no fan of Hirst's dead animals, Ofili's dung was "the final straw." Yet Ofili is, in addition to being an imaginative artist, also a humorist and social critic of the art scene. He placed boxed ads in the tony Brit art magazine Frieze that read, simply, "Elephant Shit," amid ads announcing other art shows. He used lumps of dung to prop up some of his paintings. "Somehow it makes the painting feel more relaxed, instead of being pinned upon the wall like it's being crucified ... [The painting can] stand in its own shit and watch the other paintings being crucified on the wall." He has placed dung in a paper bag for his installment "Bag of Shit," and in 1993, held a Shit Sale in Brick Lane Market in London. He has played with the street parlance of "shit" as drugs, and the fact that some people have assumed he was selling drugs because of his dreadlocked hairstyle -- hence his work "Shithead": a piece of elephant dung, which resembles hashish, incorporating his own hair.

Ofili is all too aware of ethnic categorizing in the art world, which expects a black artist to be naive, tribal or shamanistic, and so declares about his six weeks in Zimbabwe: "It's [a] great country, but it's a foreign country for me and the idea of looking for your roots and stuff is ridiculous." He sees his success of the moment as having a token aspect, due to the fact that "maybe there aren't many good artists that coincidentally happen to be within the mainstream category of a British artist: white, heterosexual, more often than not, men." Ofili's art, despite its serious treatment of problems of culture and "sexual stereotyping," as the Turner Award citation points out, is also often amusing. The Turner Prize, despite its traditional-sounding name, has only existed since 1984 and was judged this year by a hardly academic small group that included Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant and offbeat author Marina Warner.

But if some Brits seem unhappy with the idea of a droll black artist, the American art scene can be even more humorless. A recent Whitney Museum retrospective of gifted African-American artist Bob Thompson (1937-1966), an inspired combination of Nicolas Poussin, Emil Nolde and James Thurber, produced an admirable catalog published by the Whitney and the University of California Press. However, critics focused mainly on Thompson's death by drug overdose in his 20s, comparing him to Jean-Michel Basquiat, with whom he had nothing in common apart from being black. Thompson's art was given a murky, ill-focused cataloging by an unknown and unidentified Africanist scholar named Shamim Momin. But it cries out for analysis by someone as astutely entrenched in the Western art tradition as he himself was.

What brings creators like Thompson and Ofili together is more than their insistence on individuality, and the humor and beauty of their work; it's that they both refuse to be pigeonholed in any way. The brouhaha following Ofili's prize shows that his social satire is needed more than ever in the art world today. Not that he was humbled at all by the violent reaction -- as he climbed the rostrum to accept his Turner Prize, he reportedly deadpanned: "Thank God. Where's my check?

Last update : 07/29/2007

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