Chris Ofili dumps the elephant dung for far less controversial watercolors and drawings in his first Chicago exhibition.
WHAT “Chris Ofili,” the artist’s first Chicago exhibition
WHEN Sept 28–Dec 22
WHERE Arts Club of Chicago (201 E Ontario St, 312-787-3997, artsclubchicago.org)
Chris Ofili comes off as exceptionally courteous and thoughtful for someone whom Fox News pundit Bernard Goldberg listed as No. 86 in his 2005 book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. When I call the 41-year-old English artist to discuss his upcoming exhibition at the Arts Club of Chicago, he says he’s looking forward to visiting and curious to see how people here react to his work, which has never been shown in Chicago before.
While the pencil drawings and watercolors Ofili will display hold their own, some relate to his more famous paintings. The latter helped him snag Britain’s Turner Prize in 1998—the first win for a black artist—only to cause a First Amendment fracas in the U.S. a year later. When the Brooklyn Museum exhibited Ofili’s painting The Holy Virgin Mary in “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection,” Catholic leaders freaked over the tiny porno-mag clippings and elephant dung the artist carefully applied to the portrait. New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani condemned the painting as anti-Christian and tried, unsuccessfully, to evict the museum and eliminate its city funding.
Had Mayor Giuliani read Artforum, he would have known that, at the time, Ofili incorporated elephant dung into most of his work, in which race, sex and pop culture loom as large as religion—and still do. The artist identifies the material as an unsettling reference to his African heritage (his parents are Nigerian) and, in some cases, as a link to black artist David Hammons’s 1980s elephant-dung pieces. But over the past decade, Ofili’s dropped the dung completely. In 2005, he moved to Trinidad, where his paintings lost their collaged surfaces and took on a lush tropical palette. The artist considers this evolution normal. “I think that we’re constantly in flux, especially if you find yourself in a new environment…. Then it only feels natural to surrender,” he says.
The Arts Club show includes Afro Muses (1995–2005; pictured, above), gorgeous watercolor portraits of imaginary people, each of which Ofili completed in one sitting. Another “driving force” in his practice is drawing, which yields text-based works, formal experiments, such as Afro daze (1996; pictured, left), portraits and racy nudes. The artist reveals that the drawings’ inspirations include Malian photographer Malick Sidibé and…Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. “It’s one of my wife’s favorite musicals,” explains Ofili, who hasn’t lost his power to shock.