Touchy Ofili


Left: Artist Peter Doig. Right: Artist Jeremy Deller and writer Nancy Durrant. (All photos: Gareth Harris)

TWO ISSUES dominated the Chris Ofili private view at Tate Britain on Tuesday. The first involved headgear, or rather, the abundance of outlandish hats worn by art-world figures at the wintery Millbank bash––from Peter Doig’s brown and yellow bobbled creation to Jeremy Deller’s lurid green and pink combination. The other pressing concern was Ofili’s latest works, on view in the last two rooms of his midcareer survey, which prompted wildly diverse opinions from the party floor. The electric colors and expressive figurative forms of these denuded works, stripped of elephant dung and jewels, reflect the spirituality of Trinidad. “Are these meant to be ‘transitional’?” one caustic commentator asked. Others were quick to praise paintings such as the Death & the Roses, 2009, and The Healer, 2008, an opaque portrait of a nocturnal figure eating poui flowers.

Artist Grayson Perry, dressed like a provincial primary school headmistress in unusually somber (for him) garb, was particularly effusive. Standing transfixed before Mono Rojo, 1999–2002, in the museum’s shrinelike Upper Room, Perry declared Ofili the best colorist. “It’s like a musician having perfect pitch,” he said. Further accolades were forthcoming from musician Peter Adjaye. “I want to live in here,” he confessed dreamily, adding that he’s working on a sound installation for “Urban Africa,” a forthcoming geocultural survey of fifty-three African countries at London’s Design Museum, curated by his brother David (who, coincidentally, designed the Upper Room). The headline-hitting architect himself just happened to be around the corner and confirmed that the continental African tour had indeed kept him on his toes.

Left: Architect David Adjaye. Right: Tate Liverpool director Christoph Grunenberg and Stephen Snoddy, director of the New Art Gallery Walsall.

Just then, art critic Ben Lewis strolled past, proclaiming Ofili “the Gustav Klimt of the twenty-first century.” Ofili’s dealers Victoria Miro and David Zwirner were within earshot and no doubt lapped up the double-edged assessment. As the crowd thinned, artists Marlene Dumas, Mark Wallinger, and Isaac Julien circled the meager bowls of macadamia nuts. Yinka Shonibare, meanwhile, remained tight-lipped about his forthcoming fourth-plinth commission in Trafalgar Square, a scale replica of Nelson’s ship, HMS Victory, in a giant glass bottle. “It’s challenging,” he finally conceded. Ofili himself was similarly shy, though his Trinidad-based compatriot Doig was happy to impart that fifteen Trinidadians had made the trip over to London, including “artists, writers, and social workers,” adding: “Ofili’s work gets better and better.”

A convoy of black cabs laden with the Tate glitterati then sped across town for the afterparty in the plush surroundings of the Bloomsbury Ballroom. On arrival, hungry partygoers eagerly quaffed the cocktails and sniffed around for hints of canapés. Food failed to appear, but there were still plenty of encomiums in the air (all for Ofili, fortunately). The opinionated British actor and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah was on hand in a fetching black porkpie hat, waxing lyrical. “Am I a fan of Ofili’s work?” he hollered. “I’m an addict. He speaks for my generation.” Just over his shoulder, I spotted Francis Outred, Christie’s contemporary art supremo, and the Texan collector Kenny Goss, who was sure to plug his new ten-thousand-square-foot Goss-Michael (as in George Michael, Goss’s partner) Foundation space in Dallas, set to open autumn 2011. The new gallery will house the couple’s impressive Brit art collection with works by more than thirty UK artists (Ofili, of course, included). And what will be the inaugural show? “Probably a greatest-hits display,” he pondered.