Like many esteemed artists before him, Chris Ofili knows that shit's a great signifier. His trademark boulders of resin-coated elephant dung protrude from the ornate surfaces of his paintings and sometimes even support his canvases like the ball-and-claw feet on old furniture. When you learn that the artist is the Manchester-born son of Nigerian parents who emigrated to the UK just before his birth, these excrescences suddenly speak volumes about postcolonial nostalgia, back-to-nature yearnings, and notions of exotic otherness. Ofili first discovered his focal attraction while on a British Council traveling scholarship to Zimbabwe in 1992 (in an exasperated attempt to express the intensity of his experiences, he'd thrown a lump of.dried dung onto a canvas, and liked the result), so there's a ready-made back-to-Africa-and-into-identity myth that has now become indelibly attached to his work.
It's a myth that Ofili both plays with and plays off. Although unaware that during the '80s David Hammons had himself made a series of sculptures from elephantine shit, Ofili, upon returning to Europe, knowingly "sampled" Hammons' Blizzard Ball Sale, 1983. displaying - but not selling - chunks of his newfound artistic medium in Berlin and London street markets. (In Berlin they thought he was a witch doctor, in London a drug dealer.) With deliberate in-your-face blatancy, Ofili continued to poke serious fun at the most crass but enduring of racial stereotypes and cliches, making an elephant-dung self-portrait crowned with some of his severed dreadlocks (Shithead, 1993); he even rolled enormous spliffs of the stuff, which he then sold as multiples, causing some concern at customs when they were shipped to the San Francisco Art Fair.
Yet it is in Ofili's paintings that the shit has really stuck - along with intricately painted patterns that also emerged from his African sojourn. (After a visit to the ancient cave paintings in Zimbabwe's Matopos National Park, Ofili was struck by both the optical and the emotional intensity of these abstract friezes of primary-colored dots.) His early dreamy hazes and skeins of Aboriginal patterning, with their surfaces rudely interrupted by messy pieces of elephant poop (supplied, back home, by the London zoo) have now metamorphosed into something tighter, tougher, and more complicated. Indeed there's nothing folksy or nostalgic about Ofili's most recent canvases. Here beauty meets kitsch in seductive scatterings of glitter, flamboyant patterning, and magazine cutouts; ritualistic spots reinvent themselves as late-twentieth-century sequins; and issues of identity, ethnicity, and exoticism all dip and dive between translucent layers of clear resin.
In his beautiful, funky, problematic recent pictures nature collides with culture, and nostalgia butts up against an urban here and now. The six shiny elephant turds in Afrodizzia, 1996, are studded, voodoo style, with the names of Miles Davis, James Brown, and Cassius Clay, and do not so much interrupt as punctuate - even syncopate - a background of explosive Technicolor mayhem in which coilaged heads of black heroes (each sporting his own painted-on Afro) float and bob amidst kaleidoscopic layers of intense patterning. …