Artists News Zimbabwe

Ofili’s first dung works discovered

Paintings donated on African trip in 1992 urgently need conservation

Chris Ofili in front of one of his works at the Venice Biennale in 2003

Chris Ofili’s first dung paintings, made when the artist visited Zimbabwe at the ­beginning of his career, have been tracked down by The Art Newspaper to the vault of a gallery in Bulawayo.

In 1992, Ofili, then 23, went on a British Council-funded visit to the Pachipamwe International Artists’ Workshop (Pachipamwe means “where we are all together” in Shona). It was held at Cyrene Mission, an Anglican boys’ school 40km south-west of Bulawayo.

Ofili first used elephant dung in his work on three paintings that he made at Cyrene Mission and left behind for the Pachi­pamwe organisation. Although the workshops came to an end in 1994, the Pachipamwe trustees had already given the works on permanent loan to the Bulawayo branch of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe (NGZ), which collects contemporary art.

There are three untitled paintings. The largest (nearly two ­metres long) depicts what appears to be a figure, on which six pieces of dung have been attached. The other two are expressionist paintings of figures.

Ofili, who was born in Manchester of Nigerian parents, had never visited Africa before his trip to Zimbabwe, which would have a profound influence on his work. He was then a student at London’s Royal College of Art.

The artist won the Tate’s Turner Prize, achieving international fame, in 1998. The record price for his work is £1.9m, paid last year at Christie’s for Orgena (1998). However, artists’ student pieces are generally much less valuable than more mature works.

Doreen Sibanda, the gallery’s director, has confirmed that Ofili’s paintings are stored in Bulawayo. Owing to their unusual materials, and the artist’s lack of experience at the time of making them, they are in urgent need of conservation.

On Ofili’s return to England, elephant dung quickly came to play a crucial role in his art, particularly his use of two balls of the material to serve as physical supports to lift paintings off the floor. The British Council, which funded his Zimbabwe trip, soon bought Painting with Shit on It (1993).

Voti Thebe, an artist and head of the Bulawayo branch of the NGZ, attended the 1992 workshop. He recalls how Ofili went out for a walk and brought back what the Mancunian painter thought was a mysterious object—dried cow dung. A few days later he discovered elephant dung, which he took to London in his luggage. This Zimbabwean material has since become a ­signature of his work.

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2 Oct 11
16:51 CET


Oh dear - I think a quote from the Art Newspaper 2003 interview with Richard Hamilton is apposite here: "It’s not the fact that pictures are done in certain ways that’s important. It’s what you end up with that matters. How it’s done is incidental. Unless the final result is memorable, who cares?" Enough said?

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