By Kevin Biwot, Kenya
There is elephant dung in London. It is dark and shaped round like balls. These balls of elephant dung support beauty and expressiveness on top of them. There is elephant dung in New York too. And the mayor does not like it.
It may sound crazy but these are true instances. I am not talking about zoos, dear friend. I am talking about the works of somebody I would like you to know. First, let me tell you where to find elephant dung in these distinguished cities. In London, the place is the Tate Gallery. In New York, the place is the Brooklyn Art Museum. In a while you will find out how elephant dung found its way there.
I have the pleasure of introducing to you to one of the most brilliant artists of our time. He is Nigerian by birth but he grew up in Manchester, Britain. His work has been exhibited in three different continents. In 1998, he received the Turner Prize for Artists, which in my estimation, is an Oscar for artists. His name is Chris Ofili.
There are many ways to describe Chris Ofili’s works. Some call it beautiful, some claim it is shocking. Some say it is worth applause while some would rather deflate their eyes than see his work. One element that stands out in his work, however, is that he is an active social commentator.
While doing his masters at the Royal Arts College in the U.K., Mr. Ofili had the opportunity to travel to Zimbabwe to study rock painting It is while he was in Zimbabwe that he got the inspiration to use elephant dung in his work. He loved the way elephant dung was used to make lines in the rock painting. He considered it attractive.
On his return to Britain, Chris Ofili had the opportunity to showcase his new style by commenting on a sensitive issue. On April 22, 1993, a teenager by the name Stephen Lawrence was stabbed by a gang of white youths chanting racist slogans. The crime bore much weight considering the heavy tension between blacks and whites in Britain at that time. The aftermath of the murder, however, was extremely disappointing. The police investigation into the Lawrence case bore no fruit- not because the police were professionally challenged but because the institution itself was rife with racism, as many critics pointed out. The debate created by this issue was immense and at the heart of this debate was the deceased’s mother, Doreen Lawrence. Chris Ofili made a painting of her and named it “No Woman No Cry”. The painting depicts an African woman crying. In the tear drops are the pictures of her son. It was an impressive statement. The picture is big and stands on map pins made of elephant dung. This painting led to his being awarded the Turner Prize.
Chris Ofili has proven that he is not one to shy from controversy. In 1998, he made an entry into an exhibition called “Sensitive”. This exhibition was organized by a group of artists who called themselves the “Young British Artists”. Chris Ofili’s entry was the “Holy Virgin Mother Mary” and it was extremely controversial to the extent that the Catholic Archbishop in New York had to speak of its “ugliness”. The painting was of a black Madonna, the Virgin mother Mary. If the painting were left with the Black Madonna alone, it would be worth showing off in a church. Chris Ofili added impressions of butterflies flying around the Madonna and included his trademark lines and collages of elephant dung. It does not sound controversial in any way, does it? But if you include the fact that the ‘butterflies’ were cut outs of women’s buttocks and vagina from pornographic magazines, it brings out a whole new picture. The mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, called it ‘sick stuff’ and threatened to withdraw funding from the Brooklyn Art Museum for exposing such offensive material. The painting faced protests from the public and was defaced by a 72-year-old retired teacher at one time. The issue at hand was his offensive depiction of the Catholic religion but Ofili’s intent was way deeper than that. Some critics argue that he was questioning the stereotype that has the Virgin Mother Mary depicted as a white woman and has on the other hand black women being the face of pornography in Britain.
Chris Ofili’s paintings comment on pop culture, relationships and others are simply created for beauty. I chose his work as a topic because it reflects how at the time of our youth, we feel a sense of expressiveness biting at us. I often have strong opinions on issues of sexuality, politics and religion but I always ponder on what the ‘African approach’ in these matters would be. I have often questioned myself what ‘African thinking’ is.
I cannot explain the content of ‘African thinking’ but I can tell that if the ideas of an African were juxtaposed with the thinking of other communities, it would stand out.
A case in point is Chris Ofili. Many people have argued that Chris Ofili’s use of dung is revolting. However, that is not the case in Zimbabwe where he got his inspiration. He found out that the elephant, was a revered animal among the natives and as such use of its dung was not in any way revolting. You can also look at Chris Ofili’s paintings. At first sight, you can tell they were done by an African. They are colorful, bold and have an element of culture in them. They are beautiful, yet they have a meaning as similar to most African artifacts such as sculptures, cave paintings and ornaments. You cannot imagine that the work was done by a youth who grew up in Britain. Why so? It is because they exude a spirit and culture that can be found only in Africa.
There is no probably no ideal African thinking is but if there were I know it would entail boldness, empathy and it would not necessarily be politically correct.
To read more on Chris Ofili http://www.africancolours.com/african-art-news/142/nigeria/in_chris_ofili_lesson_for_young_nigerian_artists.htm