Chris Ofili: ‘Being in Trinidad is still really exciting… I think it is working for me’
Suffocated by his image as the ‘elephant dung YBA’, painter Chris Ofili left 12 years ago to live and work in Trinidad… Here he describes the island’s strange hold on him, now revealed in the extraordinary tapestry The Caged Bird’s Song. By Tim Adams
It is a dozen years since Chris Ofili deliberately stepped away from the art worlds of London and New York and moved to Trinidad. At the time Ofili was famous in the popular imagination for two things. He had been, aged 30 in 1998, the first black winner of the Turner prize, in part for his indelible tribute to Doreen and Stephen Lawrence, No Woman, No Cry. And he had achieved international notoriety when New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani closed down a show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art because it featured Ofili’s (beautiful) painting of the Holy Virgin Mary, which employed spherical lumps of elephant dung, his signature material, and a host of angels that on close inspection were cut-outs from porn magazines. Ofili was too smart, and too good an artist to want either of those lines of notoriety to define him. So he moved in part to escape those pigeonholes – “black British artist”, “pachyderm shit Giuliani guy” – to make things new.
He first went to Trinidad in 2000 to host a workshop in Port of Spain, along with his great friend from Chelsea art school days the Scottish-Canadian painter Peter Doig. They were both entranced by what they found on the island, and went back a dozen times, before separately buying land and moving permanently four or five years later. I remember talking to Doig about that shared decision in an interview, not long after they had gone, and him being still in thrall to the sheer strangeness of exploring the island with Ofili on that first trip, partly by canoe. Looking back now, Ofili, born in Manchester to first generation parents from Nigeria, lights up in a similar way recalling that voyage of discovery.
“Moving to Trinidad was a great experiment,” he says, with the easy smile of a man for whom the hypothesis delivered. “I never knew what it would do to my work. Or even if it would be accepted by people, and not be seen as me just falling off the edge of the earth.”
Image: Chris Ofili at Habio Falls, Trinidad, earlier this month. Photograph: Kibwe Braithwaite for the Observer