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‘Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic’ at the National Gallery
Image Credit: Chris Ofili, The Caged Bird's Song, 2014–2017, Wool, cotton and viscose, Installation view, National Gallery © Chris Ofili. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London, The Clothworkers’ Company, Dovecot Tapestry Studio

‘Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic’ at the National Gallery

13 May 2017 Laura Garmeson

In a new installation at the National Gallery, Chris Ofili works miracles by turning water into wool. ‘Weaving Magic’ sees the Turner Prize-winning artist exhibit an enormous tapestry in triptych entitled ‘The Caged Bird’s Song’: a handwoven collaboration between Ofili and the Dovecot Tapestry Studios in Edinburgh that has been nearly three years in the making.

On entering the Sunley Room at the National Gallery, a Spanish woman whispers audibly to the gallery attendant: ‘Where’s the tapestry?’ The attendant points to the far end of the room, where a wall is almost entirely covered with what looks like a giant, three-panelled watercolour painting. It depicts a languorous scene of a couple surrounded by nature, composed in bold sweeps and sprays of colour with minimal lines and pools of pigment bleeding riotously into one another. The woman looks blankly back at the attendant. How can that be made of wool?
 
Commissioned in 2013 by the City of London’s Clothworkers’ Company, The Caged Bird’s Song was a project that unfolded slowly. From Ofili’s initial fluid watercolour sketches to the painstaking process of scaling these up by 877% and translating them into textile, curator Minna Moore Ede remarks that there is a ‘wonderful paradox between this free-flowing artist’s medium which then becomes this permanent, fixed, three-dimensional object of a tapestry’.
 

Image Credit: Chris Ofili, Balotelli (Sweet Cocktail)
© Chris Ofili, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London


Ofili was an obvious choice for this work. His use of colour and willingness to explore new media (previous paintings of his have made use of glitter and – famously – elephant dung) are both apparent, as is his ability to envision his work on a large scale, having designed set pieces for the Royal Opera House. Equally evident is the playfulness in his choice of water and fluidity as the main themes of the tapestry. In the short film accompanying the exhibition, he claims he ‘thought it would be funny’ to see if water could be woven.
 
Although it may have proved a headache for the weavers, water as the tapestry’s subject matter had a particular resonance for Ofili. Born in Manchester, and having lived in Britain for most of his life, he moved to Trinidad in 2005, where his delight in life on the island, and the natural world, inspired the tapestry’s world of water and made watercolour the obvious medium in which to work. In the image there is ‘a confluence of three waters’: the couple sit in the centre by a waterfall, emanating a kind of stylized arcadian bliss, with a pool in the foreground and a sea behind, framed by lush sloping greenery. The fluid shapes of Ofili’s brushstrokes complement the freely flowing subject matter, but dark clouds gathering on the horizon underscore the scene with foreboding.


Image Credit: Chris Ofili, The Caged Bird's Song (Voyeur),
© Chris Ofili, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London


There are various layers of meaning present in the work, such as the overtones of a classical idyll, the intimacy of a couple ‘in their own joyous world’ and the nods to contemporary culture. The title is a literary reference to Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, while the sketchy presence of a mythical deity based on Italian footballer Mario Balotelli – another favourite subject of Ofili’s – hovers beatifically over the scene. The caged bird, as the tapestry’s namesake, hangs to the right of the couple. ‘The mystery of the picture is the caged bird’s song,’ Ofili observes, ‘and the sweetness of the song of the caged bird as opposed to the uncaged bird.’ This mystery questions the nature of freedom itself.
 
Rendering watercolours in textile is difficult, because a simple block of a single colour can look flat and dull when woven. To bring the colours to life, the weavers had to constantly alternate between different-coloured threads; a technique only visible when standing ‘nose to the textile’ but which from a distance gives the impression of a single vibrant shade. Ofili describes watching the colour ‘fizz in front of my eyes’ as it was being woven, and it is this living, ‘fizzing’ quality in the tapestry that also applies to the collaborative way in which it was made.


Image Credit: Chris Ofili, The Caged Bird's Song (Black ink), 2014, Ink on paper, © Chris Ofili, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London
 
Five weavers working together at a loom harks back to pre-industrial methods. It is a clear rejection of the more ‘efficient’ technologies now available for making textiles, whereby digital images are woven into being by machines. While a machine may have been able to reproduce Ofili’s painting in months rather than years, it would surely lack the ineffable human quality brought to it by the weavers who, as Ofili himself points out, ‘weave their lives and souls into their work.’
 
 
Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic is on at the National Gallery from 26 April - 28 August.

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