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New Left Review I/235, May-June 1999


Niru Ratnam

Chris Ofili and the Limits of Hybridity

Aside from a typically cheeky demand to be presented with the cheque up-front, there was little surprise in Chris Ofili’s 1998 Turner Prize victory. His solo exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, London, had been a huge success, pulling in large crowds and excellent reviews. His lush, psychedelic, highly decorative paintings have been almost universally praised, and his trademark use of dried and coated elephant dung has provided headline writers with a myriad of bad puns. Ofili’s win ought to have pleased those who think the Turner Prize has become a private club, for not only is he the first painter to win for several years, Ofili is the first black British winner, although the Indian-born Anish Kapoor received the prize in 1991. Unlike Kapoor, who went to extreme lengths to play down any connection between his cultural identity and the work he produced, [1] For example, Kapoor declined to exhibit in the 1989 Hayward Gallery exhibition ‘The Other Story’ which showcased the work of black and Asian British artists. Ofili has made his ethnicity the subject of his work. The elephant dung might be the most celebrated signifier of his cultural background in his work, but it is far from the only one. Almost everything in his paintings, from his use of magazine cut-outs to his more controversial appropriation of the dots used by cave-painters in the Matapos Hills in Zimbabwe, refers back to Ofili’s ethnicity. [2] Ofili’s appropriation of the dots found in Zimbabwean hill painting has curiously attracted little comment. The most major criticism came from art critic Waldemar Januszczak who complained, in one of the few hostile reviews to Ofili’s Serpentine show, ‘And—most unforgivably—he samples thoughtlessly and glibly from the great, the important and the criminally neglected art of the San people of Zimbabwe’, ‘Ordure of No Merit’, The Times, November 1998. The exhibition catalogue for his Serpentine show even had an extended glossary at the back explaining such phenomena as hip-hop, the Wu-Tang Clan and the Notting Hill Carnival to those gallery-goers less than familiar with the contemporary black British scene.

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