Chris Ofili is a contemporary British artist who is, I suppose, best known for using balls of elephant dung in his paintings. Indeed I’ve been well-disposed towards Ofili for years, ever since The Daily Mail or some other self-consciously philistine rag decided to be terribly outraged when he was nominated for the Turner Prize. It’s always irritating when hard-nosed tabloid journalists pretend to have the delicate sensibilities of Victorian spinsters, but it particularly irritated me because actually elephant dung is really very innocuous stuff: I remember reading about palaeontologists in Africa having ‘snowball’ fights with elephant dung, which gives you an idea of how harmless it is. They eat lots of dry vegetable matter and it passes through them barely digested, emerging almost as tightly-bundled balls of hay.
In retrospect, this quibble about the particular characteristics of elephant dung was rather missing the point. Especially since when you look at the early paintings he clearly was being intentionally provocative; for example, one of the titles is 7 Bitches Tossing their Pussies Before the Divine Dung. And several works with ‘shit’ in the title, like the distinctly creepy little sculpted head, made with elephant dung, dreadlocks and human teeth, called Shithead. And the painting of the Virgin Mary surrounded by snippets cut from pornographic magazines. Indeed, if you’re an artist who wants to shock people the Daily Mail* provides a valuable service; it must be difficult to find anyone easily offended in the world of contemporary art.
Not that the dung is just there to wind people up; it’s also a symbol of Ofili’s African background. Apparently he started using elephant dung after a trip to Zimbabwe, along with a dot-painting style inspired by cave paintings in the Matobo hills. The style developed into elaborate paintings that combine paint with collage, sequins, resin in layer after layer, and the effect is both decorative and very visually engaging: there’s a lot to look at in these paintings. The major theme is, broadly, images of black identity: hip-hop and blaxploitation movies provide a lot of the visual cues. These paintings really are gorgeous as objects, which always helps.
Over time his paintings got less aggressively confrontational and more, um, spiritual, I guess. But he still kept developing that style, with the dots and the elephant dung and so on, in various different ways, until recently he clearly felt he had taken it as far as it could go, because his latest paintings are quite different, much more straightforward, painted with big sweeps of colour. I’m sorry to say I wasn’t really keen on these new works: they didn’t have the same visual impact and they just felt a bit insubstantial to me. But it will be interesting to see where he goes with them, because he’s a talented man.
* And, incidentally, Rudy Giuliani.
» The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars 1998 © Chris Ofili. Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery, London