in Interviews | 06 MAR 94
Featured in
Issue 15

The Elephant Man

An interview with Chris Ofili

in Interviews | 06 MAR 94

Readers of issue 10 of frieze were surprised to find one quarter of a page of advertising which contained only two words: ELEPHANT SHIT. If they lived in London, they might already have noticed stickers with the same two words on fences, buildings and hoardings. And if they happened to walk through Brick Lane at certain times, they might also have noticed that a young artist had opened a stall with something unusual on display. After publicising it and carrying buckets of it home from Whipsnade Zoo, Chris Ofili had decided to let the jaded citizens of London view the waste products of the lordly elephant.

The African elephant, of course.

Born in Britain, Ofili had always felt African. But despite his black skin and the fact that his parents' first language was Yoruba, how African could he be, living first in Manchester, then in London? For him the question was crucial. He had made a series of paintings of black people – a father, a mother, a child – which touched on the sense of identity. Yet it was his own identity. 'The only person in these paintings was me', he has admitted. All adolescents have demons to exorcise, and they are always the same demons. But perhaps artists remain adolescent all their lives. Or perhaps they do it because they never fit in. Think of the immigrant Willem de Kooning, drawing an imaginary brother, or Arshile Gorky, tugging at his dead mother's apron-strings. Ofili's excuse is that he was inventing a style. And asked for a definition of style, he replies without a moment's hesitation: 'To develop my own ego and get in contact with the beautiful.'

Ofili was to develop a style more quickly than he suspected. In 1992, he was awarded a scholarship to Zimbabwe, to travel and make art. Zimbabwe had been Rhodesia, and for Ofili, it still was. He was constantly struck by the remnants of colonialism, in particular the inequality of black and white. What affected him most, however, was the animals. On horseback, it was possible to study them from close quarters, for the smell of the horse annihilated that of its rider, allowing humans the opportunity to approach species which might otherwise fell or attack: wildebeest, giraffe, elephant, roaming free. Yet perhaps animals are never 'free'; in search of food for most, if not all of their lives, they make tracks wherever they go. And what are these signals in the form of footprints and droppings but art: at once the product of life-experience (the development of the ego) and objects of 'beauty', expressed from their bodies? As in the case of human babies, animals might regard their faeces as gifts, since they lay a trail for others and may indicate a place of safety. Perhaps more. Ancient human civilisations told fortunes by examining excreta. Even today, doctors take careful notice of them before making diagnoses. Artists in particular are judged by their droppings. Or drippings, if they happen to be abstractionists. Dots had already appeared on Ofili's canvases, but suddenly these seemed meaningless. In Zimbabwe, he was taken to the Matopos Hills, to see cave paintings thousands of years old, at least one of which consisted completely of dots, made with sharpened twigs. Another effect of the African journey was that Ofili began pouring resin on his paintings. Always a late addition, it is difficult to see until a viewer moves his head slightly and a sudden flash of light obscures what was visible only a split-second before. And because the flow of the resin works with or against the directionality of the marks on the canvas, the flash may either enhance or temporarily obscure what lies below. Ofili associates it with the dung. 'Elephants shit, then piss on that,' he explains matter-of-factly, 'It gives the shit a moist, new feeling.'

In Berlin in 1992, Ofili held an impromptu sale. Well, 'sale' is the word he uses. The point is that nothing at all was for sale: this was simply a display of hardened elephant droppings, seven pieces in all. Visitors to the flea-market were faced with Ofili himself, a small sign saying Elefantenscheiße and the lumps lying on the ground. Artspeak was one thing, he had decided; talking to non-experts was another. Yet despite the fact that these were people who did not necessarily regard his activities in aesthetic terms, they were prepared to put simple questions which gallery-goers would not. 'How much do they cost?'

'They aren't for sale.'

'So why are you here?'

'I'm just presenting them.'

'Oh. Thank you.'

One fellow trader moved his pitch to avoid the dung, some of which was still wet. Another moved closer and closer as time went on, because a crowd was gathering. Angered by his refusal to make money, a woman from an adjacent stall took matters into her own hands, sold a piece for him and gave him the money. Odder still, a number of people regarded Ofili himself as the work. ('A witch-doctor,' someone muttered.) When he repeated the sale in Brick Lane in London, reactions were quite different. Striving to connect the strange and the familiar, most people gave up, laughed and fled. Others simply asked if he was selling drugs. (Three sculptures resulted from this experience: two rolled joints containing elephant dung and Shithead (1993), with an exotic drum as base, a lump of elephant dung and on top of that, three years' growth of the artist's own hair.) After this came the stickers - small labels saying ELEPHANT SHIT placed all over London. Then the enigmatic advertisement in frieze and the graffiti: ELEPHANT SHIT painted by night on a wall in Fulham, for example. Finally, the inevitable happened. In an exhibition in 1993 at Atlantis, London, instead of suspending his paintings from the wall as usual, he rested each one on two lumps of dung. Releasing the literal aspects of his art could be dismissed as mere high spirits. Yet it is more than this. It keeps insisting on the childish element in painting (a synonym for getting dirty and making a mess, at least of people under six years old); the financial aspect of buying and selling what is literally worthless; the obsessional aspect of the artistic endeavour and the importance of constant interpretation and reinterpretation, for meaning is never static.

In contrast, Ofili's painting is aesthetic in the extreme. Conceived during the brief vogue for run paint in British art, his spots and poured resin share some of the jewel-like quality of Nicholas May and a little of the emphasis on routine that provides the structure of an Ian Davenport. Yet the sense of complexity and unmaking that animates Ofili's paintings differs from both. His dots form a haze, if not concealing then certainly confusing the place of the canvas, destabilising space rather than creating it, drawing attention to the weave. His runs of resin do the same, but more intuitively, as if giving the work a symbolic bath. (In contrast, Ofili's drawings and prints tend toward the linear, like weaving.) Ambiguities of depth are created by this lavish gesture, which gives a substantiality to the painting while apparently doing little more than veiling it, as if to heighten its beauty. And shifting approaches to space hint at a sense of time too: not the real time of making which proved such a red herring in criticism of '50s abstraction (how convenient it is to forget the number of times Pollock called Lee Krasner in from the studio next door, to lift the canvas onto the wall so that he could ponder it before making his next move), nor some fictive time but an overlay, with long-term memory piercing moment-by-moment experience, the deeply rooted and temporarily mislaid bursting unbidden into the quotidian with all the power of a revelation. There is a glamour about Ofili's work which he is not concerned to hide: the gleam of the present, its excitement and danger, above all its aspect of sheer display, what might be regarded as its abiding exoticism.

As words like this spring to mind, however, so do the heresies that they imply. Caught between the Black arts movement in Britain – urging the return to African roots – and the multiculturalism of borderline positions which can deteriorate into sheer visual dilettantism, Ofili has devised his own Dada commentary on his activities in order to explain his anomalous position, to himself as well as to his viewers. In Open (1993), something resembling a Blackpool boarding-house tablecloth turns psychedelic. And while bejewelled curlicues serve to make the canvas seem further from the viewer, fake shadows from the lumps of real dung, spaced out like paperweights to stop the canvas blowing away introduce trompe-l'oeil where it has no obvious use, as if to stress the literal proximity of the centre of the canvas as opposed to its edges, where colours fade. Similarly, in Elephantastic (1993) where the canvas is divided roughly into thirds, trails of red, blue and yellow dots are used, and the same colours appear in another key on the upper part, with larger dots and a darker blue. Here too a pair of smaller lumps of elephant dung below one larger one – 'The biggest turd I ever picked up', Ofili announces with deep reverence – form a rough approximation of the male genitalia. This apparent degradation of high abstraction - how different an Ofili Open is from a Motherwell of the same title - leads in different directions: to the street or the studio; to Ofili's own identity and its divided affiliations; to the matter of formalism and genetic purity and to questions of colour and difference.

Like early Modernists, he borrows and adapts freely. Hints of Aboriginal design, Oriental decoration and perhaps Robert Rauschenberg crop up, as do continuing references to elephants. Recent paintings have been named after elephants from Berlin's Circus Crone: Lala, Rara, Mala... Their repetitive, mellifluous names remind us of the effect of the animal life in Ofili's work. Yet Picasso's visits to the Cirque Medrano differ from Ofili's to the Circus Crone in one respect. For Picasso, the circus produced fine paintings one by one. For Ofili, it provides a thread, however nonsensical, by which painting can continue, commenting on itself, building a language, offering the development of the ego and contact with the beautiful. In short, style, brought to abstraction in a difficult time.