Description: Chris Ofili (b. 1968) Head of an Afronaught signed, titled and dated twice '"Head of an Afronaught" 1999-2000 CHRIS OFILI' (on the overlap and on the stretcher) phosphorescent acrylic, oil, glitter, polyester, resin, map pins and elephant dung on canvas with two elephant dung supports 75 x 48½in. (190.5 x 122.5cm.) Executed in 1999-2000
Artist or Maker: Chris Ofili (b. 1968)
Provenance: Victoria Miro Gallery, London (C0274).
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2003.
Notes: THE CAP COLLECTION
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The Afronaught: an explorer of the realms of African-ness. Chris Ofili's hero in Head of an Afronaught is depicted using a rich palette, with some brown as well as the red, black and green which he uses as a sort of African Tricolore, and also incorporating elephant dung and beads. This is a painting that sings with its unabashed ornamentation, that is rich and fertile in its bold colours. The Afro that is used as a prefix in so many contexts is written in pins on one of the pieces of dung, but also features as the hair of the Afronaught himself.
A British artist of Nigerian descent, Ofili's work has long revolved around issues of race. The manner in which he tackled the subject changed dramatically following his award of a scholarship that, in 1992, allowed him to visit Zimbabwe. Now, rather than focussing on the socio-economic issues of race in Britain, he began to create brash and in-your-face celebrations of all that is African, ramming his origins home, bringing these concerns out of the shadows and away from the fringes and into the centre of the gallery. In this, the rich decorative qualities of his paintings are a part of his arsenal, luring the viewer into a false sense of security:
'I do think that serious subjects can't always be dealt with in a serious way. I think some of the most serious and weighty subjects should be presented sometimes in a light, glittery, glistening way to lure you in and then, slowly, as you become accustomed to that, other layers start to reveal, to unfold. The paintings are layered. My surfaces are always about seduction' (Ofili, quoted in Chris Ofili: Within Reach, exh. cat., Venice 2003, unpaged).
One of the most obvious elements that entered Ofili's works was the elephant dung that can be seen both supporting and within Head of an Afronaught. Its own iconographic complexities are indicative of the processes at work in Ofili's painting-- on the one hand, dung encourages growth, is used in building houses in some parts of Africa, was central to Egyptian mythology and iconography. And on the other hand... it is literally shit. The fact that he has placed excrement in the centre of an expressly gaudy celebration of African heritage within the context of the Western art scene implies criticism, levelling the playing field, and planting the seed of a distinct identity within the cultural stronghold of the United Kingdom. He plays the race card in a flagrant and therefore problematic way that induces awareness in the viewer. Head of an Afronaught is almost clichéed in its over-the-top presentation of its black hero. It is a stereotype, and it is precisely stereotypes that Ofili wishes to highlight and therefore to subvert: 'It's what people really want from black artists. The witch doctor, the drug-dealer, the exotic, the decorative. I'm giving them all that, but it's packaged slightly differently' (Ofili, quoted in R. Carroll, 'What's Chris Ofili Dung Now?', from archive.blackvoices.com).