© The Artist


Chris Ofili (1968 – )


182.5 X 122 CM
Accession number


With a rich-patterned surface teeming with earthy glow, Painting with Shit on it occupies a somewhat pivotal place in Chris Ofili’s early work, allowing him to continue a long-term love affair with painting and, one might suggest, with beauty. The year when it was painted, 1993, was fundamental in the development of Ofili’s work and its uneasy integration of black culture, painting, dung, the sacred and the profane and the glistening appeal of decoration; and many of these elements meet in this particular work.

The mythology surrounding this painting is rich and confusing, beginning in the previous year, when Ofili was still a student at the Royal College of Art, London. He took a British Council sponsored trip to Zimbabwe, picking up on both the sacred nature of elephant dung in the country, and also on the excessively rich dot technique used in the cave paintings of the Matopos Hills. On his return, Ofili further explored the connotations of this new material, buying an advert in Frieze that featured simply the bold text‘ELEPHANTSHIT’, and creating readymade graffiti stickers with the same phrase, which he stuck all over London. Borrowing from American artist David Hammons, who sold snowballs at a market, he even took to displaying (not selling) the dried elephant dung in Brixton. The ‘creation myth’ of the Zimbabwe trip is widely reported, having been twisted around the mythology of the black artist (Ofili is Manchester-born of Nigerian descent) ‘finding’ their blackness on a trip to Africa, and Ofili has worked with and against this mythologising, even joking once that the story had been made up.[1]

What Ofili could be said to do at this point, is to start using any black style or reference he might choose. Hip-hop, a huge influence on his work, makes much of the ‘sample’ and the namecheck, and this is, arguably, the device he adopts with a huge selection of black culture, thus somewhat destabilising those tenets of multiculturalism which had ‘created a double bind for artists of colour who benefited from its aims, but were also ghettoised by its narrow compartmentalising of their work, one that did not allow it to be seen in the context of the art of their white peers’.[2[

In Painting with Shit on it, the biggest hook, the biggest sample of all, is the elephant dung, which is ‘on’ the painting, as the title suggests. Yet the painting is also ‘on’ two little pedestals made of dung, a supporting device which Ofili would continue to use for many years. In later works, such as The Holy Virgin Mary (1996)[3] and Ofili’s major work, The Upper Room (1999–2002),[4] the glazed glossy lumps of dung would be inte¬grated into the resinous, sticky surface of the entire canvas, and covered in glamorous glitter and pins. However, in this work, as Godfrey Worsdale has pointed out, the ‘distinction between the painting and the shit was made manifest even in the titling of the work, almost as if the dung took the painting somewhere else without ever becoming an integral element’.[5]

This move also, however, allows beauty back onto the canvas. As Ofili has said, ‘The paintings themselves are very delicate abstractions, and I wanted to bring their beauty and decorativeness together with the ugliness of the shit and make them exist in a twilight zone.’[6] The baggage of this borrowing, combined with the sanctioned transgression of shit on canvas, allowed Ofili to create some of the most compellingly resplendent paintings of the late 20th century, defying you not be seduced by their fecund wonder.


[1]. Godfrey Worsdale (ed.), Chris Ofili, exh. cat. (Southampton: Southampton City Art Gallery, 1998).
[2]. Lisa G. Corrin, ‘Confounding the Stereotype’, in Chris Ofili (1998), 14.
[3]. The Saatchi Gallery, London.
[4]. Tate Collection, London.
[5]. Godfrey Worsdale, ‘The Stereo Type’, in Chris Ofili (1998), 2.
[6]. Ofili in interview with Marcelo Spinelli, in Brilliant! New Art from London, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1995), 67.

Published in Passports British Council Collection, British Council, London 2009