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Chris Ofili
Chris Ofili

The Adoration of Captain Shit
The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars (Part 2) 1998

Afrodizzia (2nd version) 1996

Elephant Dung Artist Scoops Up 1998 Turner Prize

By Philippe Broad

LONDON, 3 DECEMBER 1998 - The UK's important Turner Prize has gone this year to 30-year-old British painter of Nigerian origin, Chris Ofili. Organized by the Tate Gallery in London, the £20,000 ($35,000) prize, sponsored by Channel 4, was presented by agnès b., clothes designer and gallery owner.

Best known for his paintings using elephant dung, Ofili remarked during a radio interview at the award ceremony that the important thing was to know whether art was "good art or bad art" and not whether it contained elephant dung. He is, nonetheless, reported to have used this ingredient in all his works so far (almost a guarantee of authenticity), the original smuggled in from Africa, with subsequent needs coming from London's Zoo and dried in an airing cupboard. Quite what effects the ingredient will have on the longevity of Ofili's works will come to light in due course. One female visitor to the exhibition, interviewed prior to the prize award, commented that "those works (Ofili's) over there are total kitsch", and one Australian visitor bemusedly speculated on the effects an invasion of dung beatles might take (blankets turned into lace?).

Chris Ofili: Holy Virgin Mary, 1996

The Turner Prize is the Tate Gallery's major, highly orchestrated, media event of the year, "intended to promote public discussion of the developments in contemporary British art." The choice of the prize winner is always controversial, hopefully keeping (for the Tate) chins ever-wagging, and (for us) the message of art ever-advancing through the works of contemporary artists. This did not stop one British town council from demolishing Rachel Whiteread's 1993 award (an inner-casting in concrete of a derelict house) because it did not have planning permission.

One important factor for the artists is that, apart from its straightforward cash benefit, the Turner Prize has an immediate influence on the cachet they command in the market. This has led critics to describe the award as art market hype rather than an art award per se.

Manchester-born Ofili comes out of the Chelsea School of Art with a masters degree from the Royal College of Art, London, and has exhibited frequently in Britain, continental Europe and America. His solo exhibition at the Southampton City Art Gallery this year has already done the rounds of London's up-market scato-trendy Serpentine Gallery (remember the tins of Pier Manzoni's "Merda d'Artista" selected by Julia Peyton-Jones for the gallery's reopening last February?), before its current viewing at the Manchester City Art Gallery.

Shortlisted for the inventiveness, exuberance, humour and technical richness of his painting, it is Ofili's dynamic use of colour and the originality, energy and complexity of his work, with its multilayered references to contemporary urban culture and awareness of the history of art which won him the jury's acclaim and the prize. Ofili's work No Woman No Cry, painted during the inquiry into race relations in Britain triggered by the unsolved murder of Stephen Lawrence, a London student killed in a racist attack, is a compelling example of his multilayering technique and commentary on urban culture. Other works such as The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars (Part 2) 1998 and Afrodizzia (2nd version) 1998 illustrate Ofili's references to art history, the Bible, hip hop music or the stereotype of black sexual potency. A total of ten works by Ofili are on view - six large paintings and four water colours - with works by other finalists, Tacita Dean, Cathy de Monchaux and Sam Taylor-Wood, until 10 January 1999 at the Tate. The show is drawing record crowds.Take a look for yourself.

Tate Gallery
Tel : 0171 887 8000
Until10 January 1999
Open daily: 10.00 - 17.50
Admission : £1.50

Philippe Broad is a senior editor and co-founder of

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