A couple of years after he won the 1998 Turner prize, Chris Ofili was in Atlantis art store in the East End of London, buying huge quantities of paint and holding up a queue. When he handed over his credit card, the cashier recognised his name and struck up a conversation about his work. A student standing behind Ofili then joined in with some excitement.

“Are you Chris Ofili?” he asked. “In art school, the word was you’d given up.”

Ofili was delighted. “Go back and tell your friends that I’ve definitely given up,” he replied. “Just don’t tell them you saw me buying this much paint or they won’t believe you.”

Ofili, 41, has always struggled with success. Not achievement. For that he has worked hard and, unlike most young artists, his efforts paid off almost immediately. Before he was 30, his work had been exhibited on three continents, including solo shows in London, New York and Berlin, he was in Charles Saatchi’s Young British Artists collection and he had won the Turner prize. In the intervening decade, he’s had the British Pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennale, the Blue Rider, Devil’s Pie and Upper Room exhibitions – to name but a few. At the end of this month, Tate Britain will put on a mid-career retrospective, exhibiting a selection of his work up to the present.


Gary Younge