PRINT September 1997


Like many esteemed artists before him, Chris Ofili knows that shit’s a great signifier. His trademark boulders of resin-coated elephant dung protrude from the ornate surfaces of his paintings and sometimes even support his canvases like the ball-and-claw feet on old furniture. When you learn that the artist is the Manchester-born son of Nigerian parents who emigrated to the UK just before his birth, these excrescences suddenly speak volumes about postcolonial nostalgia, back-to-nature yearnings, and notions of exotic otherness. Ofili first discovered his fecal attraction while on a British Council traveling scholarship to Zimbabwe in 1992 (in an exasperated attempt to express the intensity of his experiences, he’d thrown a lump of dried dung onto a canvas, and liked the result), so there’s a ready-made back-to-Africa-and-into-identity myth that has now become indelibly attached to his work.

It’s a myth that Ofili both plays with and plays off. Although unaware that during the ’80s David Hammons had himself made a series of sculptures from elephantine shit, Ofili, upon returning to Europe, knowingly “sampled” Hammons’ Blizzard Ball Sale, 1983, displaying—but not selling—chunks of his newfound artistic medium in Berlin and London street markets. (In Berlin they thought he was a witch doctor, in London a drug dealer.) With deliberate in-your-face blatancy, Ofili continued to poke serious fun at the most crass but enduring of racial stereotypes and clichés, making an elephant-dung self-portrait crowned with some of his severed dreadlocks (Shithead, 1993); he even rolled enormous spliffs of the stuff, which he then sold as multiples, causing some concern at customs when they were shipped to the San Francisco Art Fair.

Yet it is in Ofili’s paintings that the shit has really stuck—along with intricately painted patterns that also emerged from his African sojourn. (After a visit to the ancient cave paintings in Zimbabwe’s Matopos National Park, Ofili was struck by both the optical and the emotional intensity of these abstract friezes of primary-colored dots.) His early dreamy hazes and skeins of Aboriginal patterning, with their surfaces rudely interrupted by messy pieces of elephant poop (supplied, back home, by the London zoo) have now metamorphosed into something tighter, tougher, and more complicated. Indeed there’s nothing folksy or nostalgic about Ofili’s most recent canvases. Here beauty meets kitsch in seductive scatterings of glitter, flamboyant patterning, and magazine cutouts; ritualistic spots reinvent themselves as late-twentieth-century sequins; and issues of identity, ethnicity, and exoticism all dip and dive between translucent layers of clear resin.

In his beautiful, funky, problematic recent pictures nature collides with culture, and nostalgia butts up against an urban here and now. The six shiny elephant turds in Afrodizzia, 1996, are studded, voodoo style, with the names of Miles Davis, James Brown, and Cassius Clay, and do not so much interrupt as punctuate—even syncopate—a background of explosive Technicolor mayhem in which collaged heads of black heroes (each sporting his own painted-on Afro) float and bob amidst kaleidoscopic layers of intense patterning. In Flower Heads, 1996, the six lumps that burst like strange fruit from looping, blossoming strands also act to keep its sparkly purple arabesques in check, preventing them from looping off into empty decorative dumbness. These works have as much to do with problems of abstraction as dilemmas of identity; and the relationship between shit and surface has become just one of several provocatively elegant counterpoints that press the big-issue buttons while simultaneously working as visual devices in their own right.

In his first canvases, Ofili splashed patches of shiny varnish onto acrylic-covered canvases, mimicking the way elephants urinate onto their turds to mark and moisten their patch. These varnished areas would catch the light and, depending on the angle, either enhance or obscure what lay beneath. Intrigued by this hide-and-seek effect, Ofili refined his use of paint and resin to produce ever more complicated surfaces. In his canvases, details are trapped, built up, and superimposed with increasing intricacy, and Ofili has become more and more adept at mining the possibilities of jewellike color and enameled texture, with surfaces that are by turns milky and opaque, tarry and translucent.

Unlike previous generations of black British artists, Ofili uses every strategy at his disposal to avoid easy closure and rote polemics. He’s flip, funny, savage, and serious as he explores male, polyglot, urban artistic experience where being black is only part of a more complex story—even if some people refuse to see it that way. There’s just too much going on in these paintings to allow a single reading; and, like the rap music that is one of Ofili’s passions, it’s when his works appear most crudely blatant that they become, paradoxically, most ambiguous.

The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996, courts, flaunts, and flouts a whole roster of prejudices and preconceptions as an already perplexingly pagan/Christian hybrid turns decidedly profane: the blue-robed African-style goddess baring her beaded elephant-turd breast turns out to be surrounded by a deluge of female genitals clipped from porno mags. At once awesome and ridiculous, proud and wary, the huge figure in Ofili’s Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars, 1996, takes more machismo myths round the block. This blaxploitation Captain Fantastic, complete with bared chest, bulging crotch, and padded shoulders, hovers like a specter against a luminous background splattered with inky black stars. But then you notice that each of those stars has a watchful pair of eyes that knowingly reappropriate and return your gaze. Like one of the presiding gods in his Afrodizzia pantheon, Ofili floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.

Louisa Buck’s book Moving Targets: A User’s Guide to British Art Now will be published by the Tate Gallery in November.