The 27-year-old's meticulous depictions of celebrities stand out in a culture that values video, performance, anything but drawing Kelvin Okafor's portrait of Tinie Tempah.
Kelvin Okafor is a miraculous artist. If Leonardo da Vinci
was alive today and he saw what Okafor has achieved with pencil, paper
and a bit of charcoal, he would recognise a talent well worthy of his
respect – a brother in art. So would the Dutch painter Jan Vermeer, or the Baroque genius Caravaggio.
these great artists thought their job was to recreate, with a steady
hand and a keen eye, the wonder of life. Okafor brings that
craftsmanlike aspiration into the modern world. His drawings are based
on photographs of celebrities – the same kinds of photograph we all see
everyday. But instead of turning the page or clicking to another site
after a second or two, this artist looks. He looks hard. It is an act of
love and imagination to look as hard as that. The drawing skills with
which he renders what he sees are truly sublime – it is amazing such
skills even exist in a culture that places so little value on them. Art schools today encourage
their students to think about video, performance, concept, anything but
pure meticulous drawing. The fact that Okafor has got through that
anti-graphic net shows that, in some people, a profound talent for
visual depiction is innate, and will always burst out.
Okafor is 27 and lives in Tottenham, north London where he grew up.
He went to Middlesex University. But his drawings are self-evidently a
personal fascination: something he has to do. The soft, subtle accuracy
of his style can mimic the contours of a photograph. But is that art?
Personally I think pictures as skilful as these have an absolute claim
to be art whereas most of the art that gets shortlisted for the Turner prize (and I say this as a former judge) has only a relative claim to be art, which future generations may or may not agree with.
Kelvin Okafor's portrait of Amy Winehouse.
Perfect drawing has counted as art for at least 40,000 years. In the exhibition Ice Age Art,
which opens soon at the British Musuem, there are hypnotically accurate
images of bison, lions and horses drawn on to pieces of ivory long
before human beings could read or write. Ice-age artists drew the most
visible and imposing things in their world, the great herds of mammals
that roamed a frozen Europe. Today, what hits our eyes and haunts our
minds is not nature but culture, the images of celebrity that fill our
screens. It is natural for an artist to draw those.
Kelvin Okafor's portrait of Princess Diana.
Okafor is not alone among modern artists who have fixed their gaze on
celebrity photographs. In the 19th century the Iimpressionist Edgar
Degas made a painting that meticulously recreated a photograph of Princess Pauline de Metternich. In the 1960s Andy Warhol made haunting silkscreen portraits derived from magazine photographs.
art world lauds these figures, so it should embrace Okafor. He's still
very young. If you can draw like this when you are 27 what can't you do
when you are 40? Here is the talent that Damien Hirst can't buy with all his millions.
Should Kelvin Okafor's drawings, so close to photographs, be considered art? Tell us what you think.
Kelvin Okafor's drawings are on display at the Watercolours + Works on Paper Fair 2013 at the Science Museum, London SW7 until 3 February.