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Spotlight on Chris Ofili

The first Black British artist to receive the prestigious Turner Prize, Chris Ofili is best known for his multi-layered paintings, made by a variety of unconventional materials, like map pins or elephant dung. He was also one of the Young British Artists (YBAs), a label applied to a group of artists from Britain who began exhibiting together in the late 1980s. Ofili participated in Brilliant! and Sensation, exhibitions that were associated with the YBAs. The artist gained international fame in 1999, when his painting, The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), became the subject of controversy during the Sensation exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. The New York mayor at the time, Rudy Giuliani, called the painting 'sick' because of the use of elephant dung and demanded to remove it. The museum resisted Giuliani's demands, and the exhibition went on as planned.

Ofili was born in 1968 in Manchester, England. He received a BA Fine Art at Chelsea School of Art in 1991, and a MA Fine Art at Royal College of Art in 1993. In 1992, Ofili went on a research trip to Zimbabwe, which proved significant to his artistic development. There, he first got the idea of using elephant dung as a way of incorporating Africa's natural environment into his art. While in Zimbabwe, he also saw the ancient cave paintings in the Matobo Hills that had surfaces composed of small dots - a technique Ofili will go on emulating in many paintings. In his art, Ofili deals with issues of black identity and representation, borrowing from a wide range of references that relate to black culture: Blaxploitation movies, hip hop, and African material culture. While paintings, such as The Holy Virgin Mary, Double Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars (1997), and Pimpin' ain't easy (1997), are steeped in irony and humor, they also confront taboos and comment on severe issues of representation.

In 2002 Ofili created The Upper Room (2002), an installation of 13 paintings, each of which portrays a rhesus macaque monkey. In its unique arrangement, space evoked the atmosphere of a chapel and invited comparisons to the Biblical Last Supper of Jesus and his 12 disciples. When the Tate announced the acquisition of the installation in 2005, Ofili once again found himself amid a controversy. The acquisition was criticized because Ofili was on the board of Tate trustees at the time of the purchase. Another milestone in Ofili's career was the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, where he and architect David Adjaye collaborated on the exhibition Within Reach at the British Pavilion. Ofili presented a series of red, black, and green paintings that show a vision of paradise inhabited by an Afro couple. From the early 2000s, the artist increasingly became interested in Caribbean culture, and in 2005 he relocated to Trinidad and Tobago. Inspired by the Trinidadian landscape, culture, and folklore, Ofili began painting a blue series of paintings that marked a stylistic shift - paintings like Blue Riders (2006) with a flat surface and a monochromatic palette. Most recently, Ofili began exploring the medium of tapestry. The result, The Caged Bird's Song (2014-2017), was a collaboration with Dovecot Tapestry Studio commissioned by the Clothworkers Company.


John Stillwell/AFPGetty-Images


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