Saturday 5 May 2012

In Chris Ofili, lesson for young Nigerian artists

By Tajudeen Sowole
(First published, Tuesday, February 09, 2010)

ONE of the world's most controversial artists, Chris Ofili, 42, has resurfaced - from the rubble of suspicion cast on his work - to point direction for art of the 21st century.

At the Tate Gallery, U.K., Ofili's retrospective show, which opened two weeks ago and ending in May 2010, features 45 paintings, as well as pencil drawings and watercolours from his mid-1990s works till date.

In 1999, Ofili's painting, The Holy Virgin Mary which was part of a group and tour Sensation, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, U.S. had led to a legal row between the Mayor, Rudy Giuliani and the museum.

Giuliani had threatened to withdraw the city's yearly $7m grant to the museum because he felt The Holy Virgin Mary was "horrible and disgusting, not art." As emotion was raised over the show, the controversial work was defaced by one of the angry visitors to the museum.

In the work, the Nigerian depicted Mary as a black woman surrounded by collages of female genital images assumed to have been cut from pornographic material. However, it was a double victory for the museum as court ruled that the yearly funding be restored and a $250 fine awarded for the defacement.

That row explained Ofili's strength and perhaps confirmed that he was worth the Turner Prize award given him a year earlier.

He belongs to a group of artists, mostly in their 40s and 30s, known as The Young British Artists (YBA) - with common background such as studying at either Royal College of Art or Goldsmith College of Art and passed through the revered Charles Saatchi collection.

Some of the movement's key members are known for their works, which have made radical statements on the contemporary art landscape. They are the new face of British art.

In fact, Ofili is regarded as the most famous black artist in Britain.

That the new biggest artists of U.K. in the last two decades, have been from the YBA movement, is perhaps a pointer to the future of art, beyond geographical boundaries as seen in the legacies of the departed masters.

Chris Ofili's Upper room installation at Tate Gallery, U.K.

If there is any artist who has made bolder statement in recent times, it's another member of the YBA, sculptor and painter, Damien Hirst. His solo art auction, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, emerged with the largest sale for a one-artist auction after recording 111 million pounds at one of the world's leading auction house, Sotheby's, in 2008.

Traditionally, works go through the galleries and private collections to gain energy needed for auctions. But Hirst's solo auction differed; his works that made the record sales were produced within a period of two years. After the success of his outing at Sotheby's, Hirst was quoted as saying, "if you don't like the rule, change it."

For Hirst, success comes with controversy over engaging an army of studio assistants who cannot lay claim to any of his works. And his response to critics would come, asking whether Norman Foster, a renowned British architect, for example, lays bricks for his buildings.

However, Hirst might not survive in Nigeria, except he is as resilient and perhaps "arrogant" as late controversial artist, Fred Archibong. The mainstream art scene here did not agree that Archibong's method of engaging studio assistants was ethical.

Another artist from the YBA movement, also of Nigerian descent, Yinka Shonibare (MBE) is known for applying brightly coloured African fabrics identity in sculpture since 1994 and brightened his career in 1997 with a show at the Royal Academy of Art, London. One of his remarkable shows was at the bicentenary of Trans Atlantic slave trade art exhibition. Some of the works revisited the comfort of the British elite during the slavery days.

Between these artists and those who respond to sensitive issues, which side is hostile? Perhaps, Ofili's 2005 installation of 13 paintings titled The Upper Room - also included in this current show - offers an answer. When Tate eventually acquired the work at an alleged 750, 000 pound, transparency issue set in. Reason: Ofili, a 1998-Turner Prize recipient was a member of trustees of Tate at the time of the acquisition. As faulty as that transaction was, Tate, it was learnt, could not resist buying the work; Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, U.S. was desperate to get the work. Tate's explanation that the artist was not part of the negotiation was not convincing; the Charity Commission disapproved of the transaction, but did not revoke the sales. That verdict underscored the strength of Ofili on the canvas.

And more sensitive is the argument of some observers and critics that Upper Rooms, a depiction of the biblical last supper, is no less blasphemous than the controversial The Virgin Mary. Both works, conspicuously, are part of the on-going show.

Here, the consciousness, among younger Nigerian artists to redefine what is art, in their context and age, particularly in a new century is faintly seen as most younger artists want to ape older ones they have been idolized for decades. This leaves the mainstream art elusive to the younger artists. But in few artists such as Richardson Ovbiebo and Peju Alatise, there is a hope of radical change in the nearest future.
At the November 2008 art auction of ArtHouse Contemporary, Ovbiebo's metal sculpture, Rhythms of Life emerged one of the most appreciated bids: from N50, 000 bidding price it was sold at N300, 000. And whatever skill Alatise displays in her huge paintings, she attempts to express as much in her jaw-dropping conceptual work.
Chris Ofili
However, in the craze for stardom, Ofili's motive, perhaps, had something in common with Salman Rushdie's provocative book, Satanic Verses. Whatever it was that led him to The Holy Virgin Mary and The Upper Room, his relocation to Trinidad in 2006 has changed that perception: aesthetics, rather than applying nauseating medium such as elephant dung to prey on religious sensitivity was louder in his new works.

Ofili was born in Manchester in 1968. He studied art at the Chelsea School of Art, London, from 1988 to 1991 and at the Royal College of Art from 1991 to 1993.

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