The 27-year-old's meticulous depictions of celebrities stand out in a culture that values video, performance, anything but drawing
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.
All 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.
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.
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.
The 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.