Anger at Britain's role in Iraq blamed for Ofili's failure to secure top prize

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The Independent Online

The British Council last night blamed continuing anger over the Iraq war for the failure of Chris Ofili to win a top honour at this year's Venice Biennale.

Andrea Rose, the council's director of visual arts, praised the Turner Prize-winning artist for creating a "wow factor" with his spectacular "love pavilion" focusing on five paintings decked in beads and glitter and resting on heaps of elephant dung. But she said his chances of winning one of the fine art festival's Golden Lion awards had been irreparably harmed by ongoing Europe-wide disapproval of Britain's role in the war against Saddam Hussein.

Speaking from the British Council pavilion, which houses Ofili's Africa-inspired show, Within Reach, Ms Rose said: "He has created a wow factor. It's a love pavilion. Chris got married last year and the paintings are full of love."

However, she said the widespread condemnation of the Iraq war by other European countries had made it "impossible" for Ofili to win first prize at the Biennale.

Asked why Ofili had not won, she said: "Because of the war. It was impossible."

Her comments came as the Golden Lion for best national entry was presented to Luxembourg - a country that famously has few, if any, enemies - for its exhibition of the works of voice and video artist Su-mei-tse. The Golden Lion for best work also evaded Britain, when it was awarded to the Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss.

There was some small compensation, however, when a lesser award for best artist under 35 years was won by the British duo Oliver Payne and Nick Relph - a pair of young film-makers whose work is on show as part of a huge international exhibition in the Arsenale dockyard.

Nonetheless, the UK's overall performance brought back memories of the "nul points" scored last month by our Eurovision Song Contest entry - widely blamed on anti-war sentiment. Disquiet over the war was also blamed for the poor showing of the black American artist Fred Wilson.

While the memory of the conflict may well have affected some things, it did little to stop the glitterati coming out in force for the customary opening weekend soirees. This, despite the fact that there was talk of introducing armed guards at the British pavilion amid fears that an event featuring such naked displays of nationhood might be targeted by terrorist attacks.

Sir Elton John, Bianca Jagger, art collector Charles Saatchi and TV chef Nigella Lawson were among the celebrities spotted in the blazing Venetian sun yesterday.

Also touring the pavilions was the dealer Jay Jopling, who last night celebrated his 40th birthday at an intimate dinner with close associates including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.

Ofili, 36, is still best known for outraging former New York mayor Rudi Giuliani with his "elephant dung madonnas". The notoriously private artist has spent months working on his mammoth exhibition, which takes as its theme the spiritual quest for a nirvana inspired by a mythical view of Africa.

Ofili, whose roots are in Nigeria, has used elaborate canvasses to transform the British pavilion into an exotic, palm-fringed garden paradise. The dominant colours are the black, red and green that are identified with black power. Not everyone was convinced by the display, however. "The paintings are wonderful, but the installation was ill-conceived and over-presented," said Karen Wright, editor of the British magazine Modern Painters. "It's like walking into a fun fair."

Among the highlights in the 30 other pavilions is Israeli 's entry. Artist Michal Rovner's video installations take the form of mesmerising projections featuring an apparently endless diaspora of tiny, faceless people trudging across walls.

The Australian pavilion, which contains a series of life-like genetic mutants by the artist Patricia Piccinini, has also caused controversy.

Perhaps one of the greatest spectacles of the Biennale so far was the sight of Grayson Perry, one of the four artists shortlisted for this year's Turner Prize, dressed as his alter-ego, Claire - a kind of larger-than-life Little Bo Peep. "I'd love to be Claire the whole time here," he said. "But it's just so damn hot it makes my make-up run."