Dung icons

10th January 2003 at 00:00
How can such beauty cause an outrage? James Sharp considers how Chris Ofili uses unusual materials to enhance his art

Each year, the Turner prize creates a media storm; 2002 was no exception, illuminated by a series of articles in this magazine (October18-November8). Before that, it was Martin Creed's neon installation, Tracey Emin's unmade bed, Damian Hurst's pickled cows and Rachel Whiteread's "House". In 1998, when Chris Ofili won the pound;20,000 prize, the tabloid newspapers were outraged by his use of elephant dung. If, as critics say, the prize is generally awarded to the artist who makes the biggest public impact, that was certainly true in Ofili's case. Ofili was nominated on the strength of a solo exhibition at Southampton City Art Gallery in 1998, but he first came to prominence in the art show Sensation, at the Royal Academy, London, in 1997. This show of work by 42 young British artists from Charles Saatchi's collection has been described as a watershed, the point when anti-establishment became establishment. The work (which included Damien Hurst's pigs in formaldehyde and Marc Quinn's cast of his own head made from frozen blood) seemed to contrast strongly with the traditional values of the Royal Academy. While Marcus Harvey's portrait of Myra Hindley grabbed headlines in the UK, Ofili's paintings "The Holy Virgin Mary" and "Afrodizzia" (reproduced here) caused outrage when the show transferred to the Brooklyn Museum in New York in 1999. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was so incensed by Ofili's painting of a black Madonna with a ball of elephant dung on one breast and surrounded by genitalia cut out from pornographic magazines that he threatened to stop the museum's city subsidy if the show was not cancelled.

It is perhaps too easy to allow the more controversial aspects of Ofili's work to overshadow the technical brilliance and sheer exuberance of his art. His paintings are vibrant and technically complex. His meticulously executed technique is to create layers of rich, vibrant colour and intricate pattern, using acrylics, oils, resin, collaged images, glitter, map pins - and, of course, elephant dung. The canvas is then covered with further layers of translucent resin to form a transparent, glossy surface. "Afrodizzia" demonstrates the artist's attention to detail and his interest in decorative beauty. The first of two versions painted in 1996, "Afrodizzia" is a tongue-in-cheek homage to the Afro hairstyle and the world of hip-hop music. Picking up on this iconic image from the 1970s, Ofili cut out pictures of black faces, added Afro hairstyles and stuck them on to the canvas. He also stuck six balls of dung on to the image, each with the name of a black hero, including Miles Davis, Cassius Clay and James Brown, spelt out on it with coloured map pins.

Ofili's trademark is the elephant dung, famously collected from London Zoo. It is frequently described as a cultural reference to his African heritage. His parents were born in Lagos, Nigeria, and their first language was Yoruba. His use of the dung began in response to what he saw and felt on an eight-week scholarship spent travelling in Zimbabwe when he was 24. He described the trip as a turning point, a time when he became aware of signs not only of a colonial past but of colonialist behaviour in modern Zimbabwe. Much of the interest in his use of dung balls is the way in which they become such decorative and beautiful objects, covered as they are in brightly coloured pins and saturated in glistening resin. A material that is alien to a gallery's clean and minimalist environment becomes something precious and jewel-like. Most of his paintings also rest on two balls of dung rather than being hung on the wall. Ofili has said that this is a way to raise up the paintings and give them a feeling of having come from the earth. His use of dung has established him as a personality in a crowded art world, but it also creates an important tension in his work - the earthy, emotive substance prevents it from being dismissed as simply decorative and derivative of Baroque art.

Ofili's paintings are very textural and invite close inspection. Their technical and intricate brilliance can only be really appreciated close up. Although he sometimes uses pornography - the sexual nature of some of his works may make visits a problem for younger pupils - older pupils should be encouraged to investigate themes and issues that he explores. "Afrodizzia" deals directly with issues of black identity and racial stereotypes. Students can investigate whether attitudes have changed since the 1970s and look at the way black people were portrayed in Blaxploitation films such as Shaft (1971). They can discuss whether it would still be acceptable to make such films today. Older pupils will no doubt be aware of the films of Quentin Tarantino, which the director has claimed were heavily influenced by Blaxploitation movies.

In "Afrodizzia", Ofili cites heroes from the world of music and politics. The painting provides a starting point for discussing those who are regarded by the students as heroes or role models. He is heavily influenced by hip-hop and rap and works in his studio while listening to loud music - an interesting activity to try with primary pupils. He has also said that he was inspired to use dots by cave paintings he saw in Zimbabwe; younger children respond well to this aspect of his paintings. His use of comic-book art is another starting point. Although some of the concepts and issues in his work are too complex for primary children, they will love his colours, patterns and textures - the ideal inspiration for different kinds of mark-making. Most children will find the opportunity to make pictures using glitter, sequins and other shiny objects too difficult to resist.

James Sharp is art co-ordinator at Elmhurst Primary School, Newham Chris Ofili (Exhibition catalogue by GWorsdale and LG Corrin), Southampton City Art Gallery; Serpentine Gallery, London 1998.www.artcyclopedia.com www.tate.org.uk

Teaching tips

Key stage 1

* Explore identity through portrait, using mirrors or working in pairs.

* Encourage pupils to bring in artefacts that show their interests - a magazine picture, badge, toy figure, sweet wrapper, bus ticket or family photo. The objects (or photocopies) can be stuck on to the portrait.

* Make pictures using glitter, sequins, shiny objects and glue. Make dot paintings with thick paintbrushes. Stick on objects and pictures.

Key stage 2

* Invent comic-book heroes and draw their adventures, linking to the National Literacy Strategy.

* Play music during art lessons and see how it affects what is made.

* Look at Aborigine art or paintings by Seurat and make dot paintings using large brushes and thick paint.

Key stage 3

* Watch a section of a Blaxploitation film such as Shaft and design a poster for it. Discuss whether such a film could be made today.

* Play classical music such as Holst's The Planets and ask pupils to portray the emotions it conjures up through paint. This could fit in well with literacy work on poetry.

Key stage 4

* Make multimedia collages on the theme of heroes, using images from magazines, fanzines or downloaded from websites. Make screen-prints from the images and add different collage materials. This technique is reminiscent of 1960s pop art - an opportunity to study the work of artists such as Richard Hamilton, Robert Rauschenberg and Peter Blake. Hamilton is at the forefront of working with new media techniques, in particular digital imaging; pupils can scan images into the computer and combine them on screen, using paint software to add special effects.

* Compare Offili's images with the work of Roy Lichtenstein, with its sharp lines and comic-book energy.

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