January 25, 2010 / 4:36 PM / 9 years ago

UK artist Ofili ditches elephant dung in new show

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - He is best known for working with elephant dung, but British artist Chris Ofili has taken a more painterly turn since his move from London to Trinidad five years ago.

A mid-career retrospective at Tate Britain in London covers the first two decades of the 41-year-old, Turner Prize-winning artist’s work, and one third of the 45 or so paintings on display have not been seen in Britain before.

The earliest paintings date from 1993, a year after he travelled to Zimbabwe where he first thought of applying elephant dung to the canvas.

“He was struck at this disconnect between what he was painting and what he was seeing all around him,” said Judith Nesbitt, chief curator of Tate Britain.

So the first room of the seven-room show, which opens on January 27 until May 16, is dominated by titles such as “Shithead,” “Painting with Shit on it” and “Spaceshit.”

Also instrumental to his artistic style were ancient cave paintings he saw on the same trip to Zimbabwe which helped to inspire his trademark dot technique.

Dung and dots dominate the art in the first part of the exhibition, although Ofili also uses glitter, resin and magazine cut-outs to decorate his works.

Included in the show is “The Holy Virgin Mary,” executed in 1996, which portrays a black Madonna figure with an exposed breast made of elephant dung and cutouts from pornographic magazines decorating the surrounding canvas.

The work gained Ofili the kind of notoriety which contemporary art embraces when the then mayor of New York took umbrage at the painting when it was shown at an exhibition in the city, and took his case to court.


As in other works at the Tate, religious imagery blends with references to sexual stereotypes sometimes promoted by the world of rap music and “blaxpoitation” in cinema.

According to Nesbitt, Ofili was aware he was in a small minority at art school.

“Very few people were representing the experience he was having as a young black man in London,” she said.

Sealed off from the rest of the show in a dark, walnut-lined gallery is “The Upper Room,” where 12 monkey paintings remind the visitor of the 12 Apostles and the last supper.

There is also a room devoted to Ofili’s red, black and green paintings which formed his installation for the British Pavilion at the 2003 Venice Biennale.

The colours are designed to represent African nationalism, a nod to Ofili’s Nigerian heritage, and depict old-fashioned notions of paradise.

After Ofili’s move to Trinidad, his approach to art shifted away from dung balls, resin, glitter and beads and toward an interest in pure color.

The “Blue Rider” paintings aim to evoke the quality of twilight, while the final room dedicated to some of his most recent works see Ofili return to a more vivid, colorful palette in works that blend the island’s folklore with Biblical themes.

Editing by Steve Addison

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