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Art of the matter

A big welcome to the new blog Edge of Happiness – which starts life with a super article making mincemeat of the London Evening Standard’s attack on the artist Chris Ofili.

Blogger and OBV Alumni Corine Dhondee mounts a passionate defence of the British-Nigerian painter after he was slagged off by the Standard’s art critic Brian Sewell.

In a highly patronising piece, Sewell wrote that Ofili’s “rarity as a black male in the white male milieux of King’s Road… makes him the perfect candidate for positive discrimination from the Arts and British Councils and all arms and outstations of the Tate.”

Sewell continued: “In one way and another the state invested generously in young Ofili and it cannot now withdraw its support — that would be the admission of error.”

But in an article called “In defence of Chris Ofili”, Dhondee responds:

What Ofili does with this experience is to challenge race through the arts, something that is missed by Sewell. We see how Ofili’s challenges race by how he positions his figures. No longer are African figures secondary to a white figure, here the people are central to the eye, beautifully painted, full of complexity, love and sorrow. They tell us stories, ones which many of us know, but which is often not represented in European arts. Within the paintings are the experiences of lovers, mothers, men, women, folklore, fables, Ofili’s experiences, our experiences.

“And finally Sewell asks that Ofili receives no funds to continue his work, this would seem a contemporary form of colonialism, intentionally kill the man by cutting off his income. So we do indeed have it, Sewell intends to colonise Ofili.

“Sewell’s response to Ofili’s work reminds me of the response to post-modern artists when they first presented their new works in Paris. People were stunned, outraged, and upset by what they saw, calling for their works to be banned. So Ofili is in good company as these artists went on to change the face of contemporary art forever. His work will inspire others whose imaginative sensibilities do not reflect that of, dare I say it, white middle England.”

There’s little to add to what Dhondee says, yet the real mark of cultural colonialism is the fact that most readers of the Evening Standard will never get to read this response. They will absorb Sewell’s criticisms, but not the counter-criticisms.

Perhaps the worlds of art and journalism are not so very far apart?

By Lester Holloway

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