Arts: Television: A new tao of poo

Chris Ofili is a young British artist; Anthony 'Tiswas' Ismond is a convicted burglar. They share a love of hip- hop - and a painting. By Hester Lacey
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The Independent Culture
When the BBC asked Chris Ofili to take part in their series Date With an Artist, he nearly said no. "I thought it was a crap idea," he says candidly. Ofili is one of the young British artists who exhibited in the controversial "Sensation" show at the Royal Academy, where his painting The Blessed Virgin Mary, with its explicit photographs of female genitalia, provoked both enthusiasm and exasperation. The idea behind the BBC2 series is to ask contemporary artists to create works of art for specific people: Jake and Dinos Chapman, for example, made a four-legged mannequin for Elastica's Justine Frischmann, and the sculptor Peter Randall-Page made a carving for the percussionist Evelyn Glennie.

Ofili changed his mind while listening to hip-hop on the radio. "It was a programme I listen to regularly, and they play dedications to people in prison, and I started thinking about that. So the BBC put up signs in a few prisons asking if anyone listened to the same station, and three people responded. One had murdered his girlfriend, one was in for hotel fraud - the BBC wanted him because he was very talkative - and one had done burglary. I wanted him."

Which is how Chris Ofili met Anthony "Tiswas" Ismond, a prisoner in Wormwood Scrubs, and created a painting for him. "He was a nice, regular guy. I had these ideas of what prison might be like - full of thugs. Well, it might be, but he's not one," says Ofili. "I was keen to see what the prison environment was like because I thought it would affect my understanding of hip-hop life. And it's horrible. It really is oppressive. There is an atmosphere in there - you are aware that there is always the potential for something nasty to happen. You go through door after door after door and they are all locked behind you."

Ofili says that the two mens' shared passion for hip-hop was the driving force behind the work. "The project for me was more related to the musical context. I was making a painting - I do that every day - but I was listening a lot to the music, which has lyrics about prison and violence and the everyday misunderstandings of the black male." Hip-hop, he says, is "really visual music". "You can picture what's happening. The Notorious BIG's album Ready to Die is an incredible chart of a man's life - it begins with his birth, you hear his mother giving birth, and it goes through the decades. He ends up in prison, and the album goes on about robbing and killing, and he's thinking about suicide. Then on his second album, Life After Death, he's becoming a nicer guy. And that's just one hip-hop artist. There are others who shed light on the ideas of stereotype, fiction and fact."

His painting, For Tiswas, took around six weeks of work. A similar piece would cost pounds 5-pounds 6,000 to buy; this time he was working for free. For Tiswas is made from polyester resin, with the faces of hip-hop artists cut out from magazines - the Notorious BIG, Dr Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Tupac Shakur. Plus a couple of resin-coated elephant turds - Ofili's signature touch. "I'm not going to go into why I use elephant shit because I can't be bothered," he says calmly. "If people see a painting that is six foot by three foot, light blue with a green stripe down the middle, they don't ask 'Why is it light blue?' In the programme, while making the picture, he adds: "People say, 'I really like your pictures but I wish they didn't have elephant dung on.' That's like saying, 'It's not that I don't find you beautiful, I just don't like your face'."

Ofili, 29, born in Manchester to Nigerian parents, studied at the Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College; he has won various prizes, and exhibited solo in New York and London. Eleven of his works are in the Saatchi Collection. He discovered dung in Zimbabwe, and, he has said, "somehow found it inspiring". Tiswas, when the picture was handed over, initially failed to recognise it. "What are these - coconuts or what?" he asked nervously.

"It's elephant dung," said Ofili.

"At least it doesn't smell," came the response.

"Yeah, it's like a resin," explained Ofili. "I seal it."

Tiswas plucked up courage to tap the turds. "I like the pictures, too," he enthused. "That's what you call art, isn't it?"

Off-camera, the story doesn't have a happy ending. The painting, which was supposed to hang in Tiswas's cell until his release in 2000, is currently back in Ofili's studio. "It got really badly handled by some of the other prisoners," he explains. "They weren't used to that sort of thing, and they touched it and smudged it. I wouldn't have minded if it had got damaged - it's just the life of the painting. But he didn't want it to get broken." And there were other reasons why Tiswas couldn't hang on to his picture. "People would pick on him. You could smell it a mile off: they were already giving him dirty looks and shouting at him. For a guy to have a four-foot by three-foot picture on the wall - it just doesn't fit with the prison image."

! 'Date With an Artist', BBC2, Mon 7.30pm.

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