Ofili talks dung, art

Painter Chris Ofili, famous for incorporating elephant dung in his pieces, spoke at Yale on Monday.
Painter Chris Ofili, famous for incorporating elephant dung in his pieces, spoke at Yale on Monday. Photo by Creative Commons.

Some artists are known for their use of watercolor, others are famous for their acrylic pieces. British painter Chris Ofili, meanwhile, is renowned for using a different artistic material: elephant dung.

Ofili, famous for his use of elephant dung on his paintings, gave a lecture in room 206 of the Sculpture Building at 36 Edgewood Ave. Monday night. Roughly 80 people were in attendance for the talk, which focused primarily on Ofili’s works and career as an artist. Robert Storr, dean of the School of Art, introduced Ofili to the audience of faculty and students as “one of the most visible artists that came out of Britain in recent memory.”

“He has a lot of images,” Storr said, referring to Ofili’s prolific and widely known body of work. Indeed, his works broach subjects ranging from hypersexuality, as in “Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy,” to issues of religious skepticism, as in “The Holy Virgin Mary.” His aesthetic is similarly versatile — Ofili noted that some of his pieces are noted for their laborious production processes, each detail painted with exacting precision and thought, while other “six-minute paintings” were finished before any of the paint had a chance to dry.

“I [make] paintings only about the things that I’m interested in,” Ofili said about his divergent works. “Nothing particularly to do with Rubens or Velazquez, that people like to talk about.”

Ofili started painting at the age of 18, and before he was a painter, he said he wanted to make furniture. At the Chelsea School of Art where he was a student in the late ’80s to early ’90s, Ofili received a liberal arts education and was exposed to all areas of art, from sculpture to painting. There, Ofili said, he met a painting professor who did not impose rules and allowed Ofili to explore his own aesthetic.

“Luckily, he wasn’t interested in some type of precision in painting, he was more interested in more biorhythmic and spiritual elements in trying to make images,” Ofili said. “I thought it was the most wonderful thing, because I realized there were no rules whatsoever in trying to make paintings.”

Indeed, Ofili’s work is an amalgamation of spontaneity with labor, partly imaginary and biographical, incorporating “the weird, unexpected and unjustifiable,” he noted.

In 1992, Ofili said, he went to Zimbabwe, which marked a transition in his work from portraits to landscape, as well as an increase in abstraction.

“It was not a straightforward journey,” he said of his time after gradution. “There were a lot of failings and a lot of heartbreaks.”

But it was on this trip when Ofili first began experimenting with elephant dung. On the trip, Ofili and his safari guides would follow the trails of droppings in order to find elephants in the wild. Because of a draught, Ofili did not see any elephants — but he said he saw a lot of dung. He packed some as a souvenir, brought it back to his studio in London and started using the feces in his works.

“Painting with Shit on it,” an ornate canvas covered in glittery materials that is seemingly defaced by elephant dung smear, is the first piece in which Ofili used elephant dung. Ofili explained that he wanted to explore the challenge of making dung coexist with the beauty of an art object. He has since painted dozens more works using dung.

“It is an opportunity to better know the artist, work and the process, which is really exciting,” said Jesus Benavente, an applicant to the Yale School of Art who was in attendance at the talk. When asked what he thought about Ofili, he said, “supposedly controversial, but not really.”

The talk was funded by the Hayden Fund for Art and Ideas.

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