A bit of monkey business as the Tate buys Ofili's 'Upper Room'

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The Independent Online

He is best known for using elephant dung in his art. But it is monkeys that form the focal point of a monumental work by Chris Ofili that has just been bought by the Tate gallery.

The work comprises 12 canvases depicting rhesus macaque monkeys that the artist observed from life at Cayo Santiago in Puerto Rico, known as Monkey Island. A final, larger canvas features a larger monkey, painted in gold.

With the 13th canvas appearing to represent a Christ or Buddha figure, the work in total suggests the Last Supper with the 12 disciples - albeit dressed in hats and waistcoats playing a cup and ball game.

The complete sequence is entitled The Upper Room and is presented in a specially designed room of walnut veneer by the architect David Adjaye.

Stephen Deuchar, director of Tate Britain, where it will go on show this September, said it would be "a highlight" of the new displays. Jan Debbaut, who is in charge of the Tate's collections, said it was "one of the most ambitious works produced in Britain in recent years".

The Upper Room was bought with the help of a £70,000 grant from the National Art Collections Fund charity, private donors and Tate members, although the special museum price agreed with Ofili's dealer, Victoria Miro, was not disclosed.

Ofili, who was born in Manchester, won the Turner Prize in 1998 but hit the international headlines a year later when Rudolph Guiliani, who was mayor of New York, threatened to cut funding to the Brooklyn Art Museum if it went ahead and showed Ofili's work depicting the Virgin Mary in the exhibition Sensation. The mayor objected to the use of elephant dung and a background of genitalia cut from pornographic magazines.

Despite clear religious inferences, there was no such scandal when The Upper Room was first exhibited at the Victoria Miro gallery in London three years ago. Instead, it quickly proved an enormous draw.

Tanya Barson, one of the Tate curators who saw it there, said it was very quickly recognised as a landmark work. "The gallery was packed. That happens surprisingly rarely," she said.

"I think Chris Ofili is one of those artists who has very broad appeal. His use of colour is extraordinary and there is absolute luminosity. He's captured a certain popular imagination and he's a cool guy as well."

The work was very clearly an arrangement of 13 paintings that should not be separated which made it either a museum piece or a work for a major private collector, she said. The Tate was delighted to have secured it.

Its composition was inspired by a 1950s drawing by Andy Warhol showing a monkey dressed in a hat and waistcoat playing with a cup and ball game.

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