Aug 30 2011: Art, Elephants & Black Stars: An Interview With Chris Ofili (Big Issue In The North, 1998)

This transcript was made following an interview with Chris Ofili on 9 November, 1998, to mark the opening of a retrospective show at Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery, and during the run of Ofili’s Turner Prize show at Tate Gallery in London. An edited version appeared in The Big Issue in the North during the week of the announcement that awarded Ofili the Turner Prize for 1998. At the time of our discussion he was a nominee only, however, and apparently this was the only interview Ofili agreed to during the week of the Turner Prize award being made.

Wayne Burrows: I suppose the first question has to be a bit of local background, because although you’re known as one of the group of artists based in London, you were from Manchester originally, weren’t you?

Chris Ofili: Yeah, I grew up in Manchester, and it’s a place that I still like getting back to. I was up there last week and talking to a friend, and I was saying something to him about how Manchester’s still where I have my roots. I mean, I live in London now, and I could live pretty much anywhere, but I’ll always be Chris from Manchester to everybody, so I guess that always remains with you, wherever you’re from.

WB: It’s supposed to be a happening place these days …

CO: A lot more than when I was living there, definitely. I’m amazed sometimes at how much Manchester’s changing now, and how fast. There are so many new bars and places opening up everywhere, and a really upbeat kind of vibe to it now that probably wasn’t there so much when I was first starting out.

WB: Where in Manchester did you come from?

CO: A place called Longsight, which was…well, kind of ‘inner-city’, is how I’d put it.

WB: Did you need to move to London because the opportunities were there?

CO: I don’t know. Sort of, I suppose, but I never really did much art education early on. I did my foundation course at Ashton-under-Lyne but that was as far as I took it then, that was as far as it went. It was quite a lot later that somebody encouraged me to apply for a place at Chelsea Art School, and that was when I started it again. So it’s a bit strange, because I only studied for one year, and I never really worked as an artist in Manchester, or even really aspired to working in art when I was there. I did show there later, at things like the Whitworth Young Contemporaries exhibition, the BT New Contemporaries, things like that, but it’s a really nice feeling for me to be going back as an artist, and showing work there like with this show, because it’s the first time I’ve really been able to show how my career’s been developing in my home town, you know?

WB: It seems like the New British Art scene is seen as a very London thing, no matter where the artists are actually from individually …

CO: I know what you mean, but I suppose that’s what London is, it’s just a kind of melting pot where you come and you throw yourself into its energy and get bounced around with all the collisions that are going on. That’s the strength of London as a place, that you can come here from wherever you’re from and get involved in something new. But at the same time, I think I bring my own Manchester spirit with me, that’s who I am, and it doesn’t really matter that I live in London now, that’ll always be where I came from and it won’t change.

WB: It doesn’t seem like you came from a conventionally artistic background, and I was wondering what turned you on to art in the first place? Was there one thing you saw or a particular artist’s work that made you want to do this?

CO: I don’t know. I went on the foundation course at college to do furniture design, that’s what I wanted to do originally, and if it hadn’t been for that I wouldn’t have done a foundation course in the first place. In school, I remember the art class meant nothing to me, except that was the period where you could piss about because there were no rules. I guess there must have been some, because we used to get chucked out of class sometimes, but it wasn’t until I got onto the foundation course that I got really interested in it, and I think it was probably the same thing that attracted me, that there were no rules. Other subjects were all about right ways and wrong ways of doing things, repeating what you were shown, but it was that total openness that I found exciting about art at first. Once I was into it, of course, I started to take it more seriously, and found artists whose work I loved, but it was that sense of art in general being something that caught my attention rather than any one particular artist, exhibition or piece of work that drew me in at the beginning.

WB: How does it feel to be up for the Turner Prize? Do you think it’s that important or not?

CO: At first, I just thought, oh well, it’s the Turner Prize, kind of ‘so what’, it won’t affect me. But then you start realising there’s more involved, like so many people it will have an effect on, and just the power of it to change your life and the lives of people around you. So now it does mean quite a lot to me to have been nominated for it, and when you look at what it’s for it is quite an important thing to be part of. But I’ve been trying to get a balance, not taking it too lightly, but not taking it too seriously either. The downside is that you might start acting how you think a Turner Prize artist should act and I’m trying to avoid that. But you can make use of it to get things across to people, and there’s a big responsibility that comes with that. I hope it’ll just make people aware that I’m an ordinary person, not some unapproachable artist type, and that if I do have this talent or whatever, and even that’s a big if, for me, well, everybody’s got a talent for something, it’s not that big a deal.

WB: The Whitworth show – I saw it at the Serpentine – is a kind of retrospective, isn’t it? I can’t remember what the oldest stuff on show there was, but it really covers your work so far…

CO: Yeah, it goes from about ’93 or ’94 onwards. It’s been a weird experience for me seeing all these things back in one place, because I’ve spent the last five years just off in my own little world making the pictures kind of non-stop. I never really stopped to look at where I was going with them or anything like that.

WB: Has seeing it all together changed the way you look at them now?

CO: I’ve been lucky, because I’ve been selling things steadily, which means that the pictures leave the studio almost as soon as they’re dry, so I haven’t had my pictures hanging around. Which means I’ve never really seen how they’ve been developing, and my development has been done blindly, which has been a good thing because it’s forced me to keep going, allowed the work to change, and kept me looking forward. I found it quite exciting to see it all together again – and it was great to feel that what I’ve done was being celebrated and appreciated by people.

WB: One thing I notice people doing is looking at the pictures wondering how seriously they should be taking them: are they serious pictures about serious issues, or kitsch pictures about pop culture… it’s sometimes hard to tell how you’re supposed to take them.

CO: Yeah, that’s how I like them to be, that’s what my take on life is like, really. It’s funny and serious at the same time, which isn’t that unusual, I don’t think. People will laugh at the strangest things, like when somebody falls on his face they’ll just crack up in hysterics even though it’s not actually funny at all. Then the reverse, when somebody will be telling you something they think is hilariously funny, but it’s not at all, it could be serious or profound or offensive. So I think life is like that, full of double-edged meanings, and that’s how I want my work to be. I think that means the work has an openness about it, trying not to get bogged down by some of the moral attitudes people take.

WB: Would you include issues like racism, stereotyping and pornography in that, because I guess these have been some of your subjects?

CO: Yeah, you try to just laugh at these things. I think sometimes if you can laugh at it you’re able to see it for what it really is, and seriousness can conceal a kid-glove attitude that refuses to deal with these things, hedging around them with that pre-packaged, PC attitude that means they don’t get looked at, at all. Better to laugh at these attitudes than have people ignore them out of a misguided politeness, I think.

WB: In one of the paintings in the Turner Prize show you do this big celebration of black heroes and black identity …

CO: Yeah, ‘Afrodizzia’ …

WB: That’s the one…but the thing I noticed was that on the surface it was a pretty straight celebration of black identity, but then I saw you had LL Cool J and Clive Lloyd on there together, and I thought, hang on, these two have nothing in common apart from being black …

CO: Yeah, in that painting there’s LL Cool J and Clive Lloyd, and loads of others. I think there’s Richard Rowntree as Shaft as well, somewhere. But that was exactly the point in those pictures, taking all these totally different people and putting them all together with the same Afro hairstyle. I hope it forces you to have to think about what it means to put Clive Lloyd, who’s this distinguished, great Caribbean cricketer, next to LL Cool J, who’s this womanising American rapper, and make you see how different these individuals are, and what that means for the idea of ‘black identity‘. All the people in that picture are pretty varied, and in most respects could be said to have little or nothing in common, so I hope it questions the idea of ‘black identity’, while also celebrating some of the achievements of the people in the picture.

WB: Are these the same people whose eyes you can see inside the black stars behind Captain Shit?

CO: Kind of, but the point of the Black Stars in those pictures is to be anonymous. They remain nameless, so they might be particular people, but they’re hidden so each one can actually be whoever you want them to represent. I hid them in the stars in that way because that’s how it works with fame, as real individuals hide behind their stardom. The public face might be a kind of mask.

WB: Is it important for the meaning that those pictures are in florescent paint, because you couldn’t see that effect with the gallery being fully lit …

CO: Yeah, that was one of the handicaps of showing in that public space at the Tate, that it wasn’t possible to have them glowing in the dark. But I suppose as long as people are aware of it, that the paintings do glow in the dark, I suppose that becomes a hidden extra in them, and there’s the idea that you’re not getting the full force, that the Captain is keeping some of his powers in reserve, maybe.

WB: I suppose the question about the elephant dung has to be asked, and you’ve had a lot of stick for that, as well as it having become your kind of signature, in some ways. When I saw it, I thought of David Hammons, and wondered if it was a direct reference to his work using beaded elephant dung-balls in his sculptures?

CO: Yeah, I mean David Hammons is just one of the best artists around, no question. I was interested in a lot of the same things, and Peter Doig put me onto an issue of Parkett magazine that featured David Hammons and Mike Kelley, and I felt a direct connection with what he was doing. So I became more aware of David Hammons’ work, and it’s definitely part of that. But absolutely, Hammons is just an incredible artist and he’s still not been properly seen in Britain, really. He’s an artist who’s matured over a very long time, he’s 30 or 40 years older than I am, and he makes me realise I’ve got a very long way to go. If I’m honest, I’ll say that if people see my elephant dung pictures and that leads them into going away and looking again, or looking for the first time at David Hammons’ work, his elephant dung sculptures and objects, for example, then I’d consider that to be a job well done. I’d be very happy to see people doing that.

WB: I suppose there must have been some interesting scenes when you started visiting the elephant house at London Zoo…

CO: It has been really interesting, developing that relationship with the keepers there, because I guess it’s not the kind of relationship you’d normally develop as an artist. When I first went along, and asked them what I wanted, they were fine about it  – I don’t think people who work with animals all the time are very easily fazed, you know? – but they were asking “well what are you going to do with it?”. So I explained how it was to put it onto some paintings, and they were, “right, OK”. But after a while, when I was collecting more and more of it, they got more curious about what I was doing and started asking more questions. Then they came to see some pictures, saw more things in newspapers and magazines, and I guess in the end, over time, they figured there might be something in what I was doing after all. I still get the material from the same keepers, and the same elephants, too, so they’re all quite long-standing collaborators at this point. They definitely deserve some appreciation for the Turner nomination I’ve had, and I’ve credited the keepers and some of the individual elephants – whose names are Mouini, Lala and Thi – on a notice inside the gallery. Other artists have acknowledgements to gallerists and curators, I guess I have them to zookeepers and elephants!

WB: The exhibitions you’re having now are getting fairly high-profile, and I’m interested in what you’d hope they achieve, what you’d want people to think about if they see them?

CO: It’s kind of hard to say, because people will have their own ideas and I’m not really trying to put across a message, so I hope they will look at the work, think about it, like it or not like it, and take something away from it, whatever it might be. But there’s been a lot of hype, and I worry that that changes things, whether building expectations about the work I’m not sure it delivers on – they’re just some paintings, you know, they’re not going to change the world. I mean, I suppose this conversation we’re having is part of that hype, and if it wasn’t for the hype we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation now, and in a way that’s OK if it’s about an interest in the work. But a lot of it’s for the wrong reasons, and I do it, it’s fine, but I guess I hope that the substance of the work can overpower the hype, and the attention can be on the work. I hope that when all this hype’s fallen away, that the work will still be there, that eventually people will be able to see there’s a substance there, that it’s not just ‘pictures with elephant shit stuck on them’. That’d be such a crass thing to have been doing. So to return to the question, what I want people to think about, I suppose I want my work to communicate with them in some way, but don’t want to box in any potential responses there might be by explaining too much about what I think it means.

WB: It’s interesting that there’s all the references to figuration, to pop-culture and personalities, but that the effect is often really more abstract. Do you think the pictures would still work if everyone just forgot who all these people were, if LL Cool J or Bob Marley fell off the cultural map or something, so these became almost entirely abstract images?

CO: Well, they’re paintings not statements and in the end it’s a visual thing I’m working with, despite all the content I hope people can also find in there. When I went to the Serpentine while the show was on, there’d be young kids getting right up close to the paintings, pointing out all the names of the rappers and film stars to each-other, looking at all the faces, but then there’d be other people standing about five yards behind them looking at the whole composition and taking it in on that other level. I’m quite encouraged that people can get those different things out of them, but in the end it’s really the visual thing that’s going to count and if I had to choose, it‘s whether they work as paintings I’d hope to be judged on, rather than on what someone thinks I‘m trying to say, or what messages might be in there.

WB: And the Manchester show will be a kind homecoming…

CO: A homecoming, yeah. I’m kind of really excited and a bit nervous about how it’ll be seen. It’s nice to have that celebration of what I’ve been doing, but at the same time I’ve been in my studio, in-depth working for so long, so I’ve not always seen my work the way others might see it. But it’s fairly simple, really – I just want people to appreciate the work, you know, and not just see it as pictures with elephant dung stuck on, as some sort of gimmick. I think there’s more substance to it than that, and I hope people will be able to see that for themselves, despite the hype and the way some of the coverage I’ve had has talked about these works in the past.

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