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Tinie Tempah will be rapping about Chris Ofili’s latest work. (Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/PR/Guardian)

The art world thrives on the reactions of critics. Sensationalist work damned as “gratuitous” or “pretentious” is what makes the Turner prize so exciting. The most media-worthy pieces of the last 10 years have been the work of the YBAs: an unmade bed, a light flashing on and off, a black Mary. Opinions may differ on works such as these, but one thing remains constant: the views belong to white, middle-class (mostly) male critics. Certainly academics are seen as credible authorities, but what of those outside the artistic elite?

It seems like the Tate has realised the importance of having diverse voices to challenge and criticise the way art is seen. Over the next two Sundays, Tate Britain will be inviting urban acts, producers and poets to show the art world a new side to criticism. Each artist – including the current UK No 1 Tinie Tempah – will use the space to present individual responses to artwork by Chris Ofili (in this particular instance Tinie will be spitting 32 bars about one of Ofili’s paintings).



A woman looks at No Woman, No Cry (1998) at the Chris Ofili at Tate Britain retrospective. Photograph: Felix Clay

Think of Chris Ofili and you would be forgiven for imagining the following: elephant manure; the weeping profile of Doreen Lawrence; a black, dung-breasted Virgin Mary that enraged the mayor of New York.

But, when a major, mid-career retrospective opens on Wednesday at Tate Britain in London, visitors will see a new Chris Ofili.

His recent work may, frankly, come as a shock. There is no dung and no glitter. There are no richly-collaged, jangling surfaces. Instead, in the last room in the exhibition, unexpected swathes of colour lash down the canvases: imperial purple dissonant against citrus orange, saffron squealing against sea green.

With the exception of two paintings previously exhibited in New York, none of these eight works has ever been seen in public. They come fresh out of the artist’s studio. The exhibition is the first major survey since 1998 of the often controversial 41-year-old’s work. Almost a third of the 45 paintings on display have never been shown in the UK before.


Charlotte Higgins

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

‘Going through a phase of experiment and transition’ … Chris Ofili. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

There was one thing I liked at the Frieze art fair, one thing which stayed with me: a tiny painting by Chris Ofili, all blue and dreamlike and strange, almost gothic – a fragment of a fantasy, a tentative trying out of something.

Ofili is clearly going through a phase of experiment and transition – an anxious, difficult phase by the looks of this painting – and some might see it as a moment of weakness and failure. In fact, another Ofili painting, equally odd and different and hesitant, has been one of my few lasting memories of last year’s Frieze.

This rambling event is fun, I am not denying that – if that’s your idea of fun. But why is there so little art at Frieze which is truly outstanding? There was a Picasso drawing at the Waddington’s stall, and some beautiful photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans, but the claim of this art fair to define the new seems questionable if it cannot give us any knock-out discoveries.”


Jonathan Jones

Chris Ofili won for his work which included elephant dung, such as ‘No Woman No Cry’ (Getty Images)

From Chris Ofili’s elephant dung painting to Tracey Emin’s infamous unmade bed, the Turner Prize has consistently provoked controversy and criticism. Until now.

Despite a shortlist featuring a film about broken crockery, a mannequin sitting on a lavatory, a photo collage and an installation featuring, among other things, Felix the Cat, this year’s prize, the winner of which will be announced tomorrow, has raised barely a murmur.

Critics have panned it as the “worst on record” and likened the exhibition at London’s Tate Britain to an “afternoon spent in a Heathrow departure lounge”. The standard of work showcased is so bad that some claim the future of the Turner Prize itself, regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious contemporary art awards, is in question. The veteran art critic Brian Sewell has demanded a place on the judging jury to shake up the prize, while others have called for it to be scrapped altogether.

David Lee, editor of The Jackdaw magazine, said the prize, first awarded in 1984, is “dead in the water”.

“This is the first time I haven’t been in 24 years, so that tells you something,” he said. “I wasn’t that impressed with the shortlist. It’s scraping the bottom of the barrel. In any generation there are only a handful of artists that are any good. Once they’ve won it, what are you going to do?

“It’s becoming an embarrassment. I’m just tired of the mediocrity that’s presented to us as though it’s the acme of accomplishment.”

Brian Sewell was equally scathing, accusing Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate who usually chairs the jury which chooses the winners, of trying too hard to be “cutting edge”.

He said: “The prize is exhausted, so why keep it? They had all the top people in the first five years or so. That didn’t work. So they turned it into a prize for British artists under 50.

“Nicholas Serota seems determined to find the new cutting edge, so judge and jury are chosen on the basis of the certainty that they will agree with who he thinks should be considered. Many of them don’t see the exhibitions for which the artists have been nominated. It’s a bit like British Leyland – you have to let it go when it doesn’t work any more.

“They are so cowardly that they won’t invite a juror who has to be convinced. They’re all in agreement before they begin. Of course I would do it. It would be an opportunity to battle with Serota and his crew, to rock the boat at the Tate.”

Not everyone thinks the prize has had its day. Mark Rappolt, editor of Art Review, praised this year’s shortlist. “There’s an expectation that it should be headline-grabbing,” he said. “It’s a really good spread of people who are interesting and consistent.”

Sarah Thornton, author of Seven Days in the Art World, added: “The prize has become a benchmark of validation that distinguishes the British art scene.

“It’s still an important platform for emerging artists, but whether they need to be under 50 is another matter. It might be interesting to throw in a year in which all the nominees were over 60. It might be worth playing with the rules to re-energise the prize.”

And Matthew Collings, the broadcaster who has presented Channel 4’s coverage of the Turner Prize, said: “It’s always pretty ridiculous. As a society we accept the nonsense as part of cultural fun. The line-up this year is no more idiotic than usual.”

A spokeswoman for the Tate added: “Its purpose has always been to promote discussion of contemporary British art. With more than 60,000 visitors to the 2008 exhibition since it opened two months ago, and thousands of responses left in our comments room, the public are as engaged as ever in the debate about the Turner Prize and contemporary art generally.”

The 2008 Shortlist: Does anyone care?This year’s contenders:

Mark Leckey Critics’ favourite Leckey, 44, from Birkenhead, is nominated for his exhibition ‘Industrial Light and Magic’. He combines film, sculpture and performance – and Felix the Cat.

Runa Islam Born in Bangladesh but lives in London, Islam, 38, is nominated for ‘Centre of Gravity’. She works in film; her show at the Tate shows women smashing crockery.

Cathy Wilkes Glasgow-based Wilkes was born in 1966 in Belfast. Her mannequin on a lavatory is perhaps this year’s most famous image.

Goshka Macuga Polish-born Macuga, 41, uses works by other artists in her installations of ‘found’ objects, such as ‘Different Sky (Rain)’.

Andrew Johnson
The Independent