Chris Ofili’s long anticipated new show Weaving Magic has just opened its doors at the National Gallery in London this week. In it: his much anticipated watercolour-turned-tapestry The Caged Bird’s Song radiates from the Sunley Room’s darkened walls. Measuring more than 24ft wide and almost 8ft high, this work of art is the result of two and half years of work by five of Edinburgh’s Dovecot Tapestry Studio master weavers. Working from Chris’s original painting (also on display), their challenge was to take these pools of paint on paper, and emanate its liquid form in wool.
Commissioned by the City of London’s Clothworkers’ Company, the subject of this new work is typical of Chris’s ongoing practice, touching on classical mythology and allegory – especially the stories, magic and colour of the Trinidadian landscape where he’s lived since 2005. Inspired by Trinidad’s Habio Falls, the waterfall in this tapestry is just one feature that indulges in this sumptuous, tropical paradise.
With its title taken from American writer and civil-rights activist Maya Angelou’s famous autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Chris’s work continues to remain widely contextually aware. The barely recognisable barman hovering in the tapestry’s tree, for instance, is Italian footballer Mario Balotelli, whose image reappears in Chris’s work regularly. Citing a key moment when Mario scored a goal against Manchester United, lifting his t-shirt to reveal another that read WHY ALWAYS ME?, Chris has regarded him as an especially mythical figure in the contemporary world, one whose image is now woven into art history forever.
Each detail exudes a specific reference. The inclusion of a man holding a songbird, for example, is no throwaway feature. In Trinidad, songbird competitions are so popular that it’s often you see men carrying these birds around, ‘in construction sites,’ says Chris, ‘even sat in taxis on the way to work.’ With its luminous hues and remarkable fluidity, this work is proof that tapestry continues to move forward as one of contemporary art’s most exquisite and malleable forms. On free display until the end of August this year, The Caged Bird’s Song is then due to go on permanent display in the Clothworker’s Hall, in London. Weaving Magic, 26 April - 28 August 2017, The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/chris-ofili-weaving-magic www.dovecotstudios.com/tapestry-studio/projects/chris-ofili-the-caged-bird-s-song-tapestry/