“A marriage of watercolour and weaving” is how Turner Prize winning artist Chris Ofili describes The Caged Bird’s Song, his very first tapestry that forms the heart of his solo-presentation Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic at the National Gallery.
The artist has been collaborating with master-weavers from the internationally renowned Edinburgh-based Dovecot Tapestry Studio, who meticulously translated a small scale watercolour sketch by Ofili in to an enormous woven triptych.
Commissioned by the Clothworkers Company, a livery company established in 1528, the wall-piece will go on permanent display in the Clothworkers Hall following the exhibition at the National Gallery.
The Caged Bird’s Song reflects Ofili’s ongoing interest in classical mythology as well as popular and black culture. It combines his painterly qualities with the stories, landscapes and customs of Trinidad, where he currently lives and works.
When entering the Sunley Room, we are overwhelmed by a room-spanning black and white mural, depicting 27 semi-naked figures that resemble Indian temple-dancers. They seductively pull us towards the brightly coloured, altar-like fabric triptych at the back-wall of the room. No interpretation labels are provided, which allows us to solely concentrate on contemplating the image and colour explosions on the tapestry.
The left and right panel of the work show a male and a female figure each. The man carries a birdcage; the woman holds Crab’s Eye in her hand. They seem to jointly open a theatre-like curtain, allowing us a short glimpse of an erotic Arcadian scene where a man plays a serenade to his lover in a lush, tropical environment. The bizarre head of a bow-tied barman appears in the sky, pouring a green liquid into the woman’s cup. The naked couple, surrounded by the sea and a waterfall, seem to be in their own tropical paradise. A dark grey sky in the background suggests a thunderstorm rolling in from the distance, giving this exotic Eden an eerie atmosphere. Zinging colour combinations of lilac, turquoise, and yellow, contrast with delicate washes and dramatic pools of paint that bleed into each other, adding to this unsettling ambience.
Ofili’s new tapestry draws comparisons with Old Masters such as Goya, Raphael or Rubens who created designs for monumental tapestries in the past. The Caged Bird’s Song’s flowing design and evocation of classical mythological scenes also strongly resonates with historical work in the National Gallery’s collection, such as Nicolas Poussin’s A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term (1632-33) – also populated with dancing Arcadian revellers drinking and dancing in a romantic but dramatic landscape.
However, the preparatory sketches and paintings in the entrance room of Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic root the tapestry strongly in the artist’s own present. A set of studies explores the figure of Mario Balotelli, who represents the magical cocktail waiter in the tapestry. Ofili is intrigued by the skills and struggles of this genius Italian football player with Ghanaian roots. The title of the tapestry ‘The Caged Bird’s Song’ is a reference to the American Civil Rights Activist Maya Angelou’s autobiographical novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Ofili’s experience of living in Trinidad is reflected in the tropical and watery landscape depicted on the tapestry. The man on the right panel, holding the birdcage is influenced by a Caribbean custom of capturing finches and bringing them in birdcages to singing competitions.
A film in an adjacent room documents the painstaking work of the five craftsmen and women who hand-weaved the tapestry at Dovecot Tapestry Studio over the course of almost three years. We learn that they used over 250 colours to translate Ofili’s watercolour sketch into the roughly 800 times larger tapestry.
Overall, The Caged Bird’s Song, contrasting with the floor-to ceiling black and white mural is a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (total artwork) that completely draws the viewer into Ofili’s dream-like world of myth and magic. Celebrating the centuries-old tradition of weaving, it can be seen as an extraordinary collective achievement of the artist and the weavers. It is a miracle how these skilled craftsmen and women transformed the fluid qualities of Ofili’s watercolour design into a woven tapestry made of wool, cotton and viscose.
National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN. Daily 10.00 – 18.00, Friday until 21.00. Exhibition continues until Monday 28 August 2017. www.nationalgallery.org.uk