Going through the motions : ARTS

Adrian Searle heralds the emergence of Chris Ofili, the Rembrandt of dung WATCH THIS FACE . . .. . . in the visual arts
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Just as Yves Klein glued coral sponges to his paintings, so young British artist Chris Ofili sticks turds on his. But this isn't your familiar common or garden dung. Not your cowpat, not your rabbit dropping, not your otter spraint or owl pellet, not your normal night soil. This is elephant shit: great, frangible, rotund clods of it, donated by Layang Layang, Geetha, Ra Ra, Azizah and their chums at Whipsnade, Regents Park and Berlin zoos.

There are cardboard boxes and bulging bin-liners of the stuff stacked in the corners of Ofili's Thameside Chelsea studio. Lumps of it squat benignly on his work-top, and perch in the silvery light on his window-sill. His paintings do not hang from the walls but rest on piles of it. And, most importantly, cannon-balls of it are stuck to the surfaces of his paintings. Ofili is no coprologist, though his enthusiasm for the waste of the elephant might not always lead one to suspect him of being a painter.

Ofili's extraordinary paintings have been cropping up in group shows with increasing regularity - there's one at Victoria Miro in Cork Street now, and he's having his first solo show in New York next year. He's also going to be included in Richard Flood's "Brilliant! New Art from London" at the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis next autumn. Chris Ofili is an artist to watch, and one to listen to with care: his tongue is often in his cheek.

"I'll give you drugs, I'll give you dreads, I'll give you ethno-decoration. I'll give you beads, Yoruba and voodoo, I'll give you Badness. I'm a real magicien de la terre," he says, standing in his studio, dressed in several jackets to ward off the cold,and wearing a baking-foil mask of an elephant on his head. His eyes peer out through the trumpeting mouth. Ofili is joking, playing on the stereotype of the black African artist, just as his work caricatures the cliches of exoticism and tokenism, of ethnicity, multi-culturalism and otherness: black face, elephant mask. A year ago he cut off his dreadlocks and glued them in a crown to a large African elephant dropping. He called this self-portrait Shithead.

Ofili's parents moved to England from Nigeria in the early Sixties, and he was born in Manchester in 1968. Sarah Kent once wrote that he was one of the first Nigerian artists to be born and bred in the West. The artist prefers to say he was born and bredin the North. Until a recent visit to New York, the furthest west he'd travelled was Altringham. He studied at Chelsea and the Royal College, and for much of his student career he painted in a loose figurative style that wandered between the scatological, jazzy improvisations of Jean Michel Basquiat and the clogged somnolence of early George Baselitz. He won prizes in the Northern Young Contemporaries and at the BP Award competition at the National Portrait Gallery, and began to be regarded as a painter of black urban life.

At the Royal College, Ofili gained scholarships to Berlin and Zimbabwe. He's never been to Nigeria, but his six weeks in the countryside outside Bulawayo made him reconsider his identity as an Anglo-African artist. Bored with anecdotal figurative painting and wishing to break free of what he saw as the all too easily won support of his college tutors, he set about re-inventing himself. Taking part in an international painting workshop in Zimbabwe, he found himself surrounded, as he put it, by practitioners of "frightening acrylic abstractions". He spent his time wandering the countryside on horseback, observing the landscape and the wildlife: "All those animals, shitting and doing their thing, and all those rocks and stones sitting in the dry heat, like so many Richard Long sculptures."

Back at the workshop, he took a dried-out ball of dung and stuck it to a canvas with resin, which made it look wet and fresh again. A perverse souvenir, yes, but it also parodied the played-out American-style lyrical painting which surrounded him.

Visiting the Maputo hills, he saw ancient cave-paintings, one of which consisted entirely of a frieze of dots in primary colours. "I imagined them painting this great wall of optical, shimmering dots to the rhythm of chants and drumbeats, all of which gets condensed into each dot."

Back in England, Ofili began filling his paintings with a rippling decorative moire of dots, concentric rings of them, islands and archipelagos and whorls of little spots. The repetitive, ritualistic and mesmerising process of painting them goes on to the chants and drumbeats of Snoop Doggy Dog, the sounds of inner-city Gangsta rap providing the backbeat to paintings which conjure an imaginary Africa.

After Africa, he began covering London in stickers saying "Elephant Shit". He sprayed the slogan on walls and took out adverts in the art press. In a Berlin flea market, and later at the more abject end of Brick Lane, where people sell bent coat-hangers,single shoes, dead light bulbs and soiled clothing, Ofili set up stall with a display of elephant dung. It wasn't for sale. He just wanted to gauge people's reactions. Those who didn't shy away wondered whether the stall was a cover for drug dealing, orwhether he was a witchdoctor. He was only displaying goods that nobody else could possibly want, just like everybody else on the market. All the while, he was painting and making etchings, one of which was awarded second prize at the Tokyo Print Biennale.

One might expect Ofili's paintings to be fashionable exercises in uglification. His aim, however, is to make them beautiful. He's happy with the word "decorative", not least because it is so often used, among painters, as a term of abuse. The paintings' sensual, glamorous pleasures are enhanced by the montaged dung, scattered about the painting, standing proud of the surface, with the names of the elephants that supplied it picked out in multi-coloured beads.

These disconcerting forms are surrounded, and partly camouflaged, by flickering patterns of dots, skeins and spills of glossy, translucent resin - like lakes of melted boiled sweets - and dreamy passages of ornamental, organic doodling. The turds the paintings rest on look like the ball-feet of a comfortable sofa.

If African decoration is important to Ofili, so too is the mannered surrealist drawing of Matta and Masson, Sigmar Polke's exhibitionist lunacy, Pollock's dancing drips and the curdled, wayward intensity of Wols. These unashamedly seductive, complex paintings are pushed past the point of excess. They are flagrantly exotic, stoned and delirious, as though they are leaning against the wall because they're too dazed to stay upright.

The reason for this might be the enormous spliffs Ofili has been rolling. These are his first multiple artworks, and he's making them for the San Francisco Art Fair. He is worried whether they'll get through customs, although there's nothing illegal about them at all. Even so, I wouldn't care to smoke one: instead of dope, they contain the finest quality Indian elephant shit.