By: Anke Schulz
At London’s National Gallery, known globally for its collection of masterworks by Late Medieval, Renaissance and Modern painters such as Botticelli, Titian, Vincent van Gogh, and J.M.W. Turner, visitors now have an opportunity to view a major new work by contemporary British artist, Chris Ofili.
In his latest offering – a large-scale, three-paneled wall hanging entitled “The Caged Bird’s Song” (currently on display in an exhibition entitled “Weaving Magic”) – Ofili narratively engages with classical themes of love, tragedy, and paradise, whilst simultaneously exploring how these may be recast into contemporary idioms of black, diasporic identity. The scene itself – a watercolour depiction of two lovers luxuriating in an Arcadian, tropical landscape reminiscent of Ofili’s adopted home, the island of Trinidad – also features a treed, serpent-like man (based on the media-sensationalised character of Italian footballer, Mario Balotelli), who, in the upper centre of the main panel, mischievously disturbs the tranquility of the scene by pouring a green, effervescent, and noxious-looking liquid into a cocktail glass held by the central, female figure.
This female figure is depicted, along with her musical lover, in the tapestry’s lower centre panel, and both are flanked by an additional pair of characters on two far side panels – a female on the left and a male on the right – whose representations directly reflect the title of Ofili’s wall hanging: on the right, we see the male figure carrying a caged songbird (a common sight in Trinidad, according to curator Minna Moore Ede), and on the left, a female figure whose hand dangles a sprig of seeds meant for feeding to the caged bird in order to sweeten its song.
Ofili, who discusses the making of his tapestry in a 15-minute, companion video also shown at the exhibition, says that the title of his wall hanging refers to the late poet Maya Angelou’s 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and that the image of the caged bird provides the “secret” to interpreting his tapestry, namely in its symbolism of the vulnerability and precariousness of humanity in the world. It is also significant that the central figures portrayed in the tapestry are black, and that their physical postures reflect a joyful state of innocence consistent with the tapestry’s paradisaical setting.
“The Caged Bird’s Song” provides viewers with a mural-sized translation of Ofili’s watercolour paintings, from small, preparatory sketches – some of which are also on view at the exhibition – into a large, jewel-toned wall hanging. For the Dovecot Tapestry Studio weavers charged with interpreting and executing Ofili’s design, their challenge was to both reproduce the formal subject matter, and incorporate the fluidity of line, colour runs, blooms, and puddling of watercolour pigments characterising Ofili’s original sketches. All of these watercolour effects are successfully captured throughout the tapestry, especially in the left-hand panel, where threatening blooms of storm clouds hover over the horizon.
Water is a dominant motif in Ofili’s tapestry; representing purity, life, and death, it recurs in his depictions of a waterfall, a sea in the background, an approaching thunderstorm, and a small, serene pool by which the lovers recline. The Dovecot weavers’ interpretation of Ofili’s watercolour effects further underscores the significance of this motif for the narrative, namely that of a paradise on the verge of being lost, flooded, or drowned.
For visitors to the Sunley Room, viewing Ofili’s tapestry is an immersive experience that the artist himself orchestrates with the aid of sophisticated lighting, and ceiling-height images of Indian temple dancers painted onto the surrounding walls of the gallery space. These dancers, depicted in greys and subtle browns, line the walls of the Sunley Room, and are arranged in rows by gender: female dancers appear on the left, while male dancers appear on the right, echoing the female/male couples depicted in the tapestry itself.
These gigantic images provide a neutral background for Ofili’s wall hanging, and they physically encircle the viewer, whose eyes are thus provided with sight lines for traversing the gallery, traveling back and forth from individual temple dancers to the scene depicted in the tapestry. On the far wall of the gallery, “The Caged Bird’s Song” gleams like a vividly-painted altarpiece, and viewers can reflect upon its symbolism and aesthetics from within a quiet, contemplative space that Ofili, in a creative departure from the traditional white cube gallery format, has specifically designed for this purpose.
“The Caged Bird’s Song” represents a three-year collaboration between the artist and the Dovecot Tapestry Studio of Edinburgh, Scotland. The tapestry was commissioned by The Clothworkers’ Company London to celebrate contemporary art in textile, and is on loan to the National Gallery until 28 August 2017. The exhibition is free of charge, and includes a catalogue providing additional information on the inspirations for, and production process of, Ofili’s new work.
In Say Hello to English, his second exhibition at the Tyburn Gallery London, multimedia artist Moffat Takadiwa presents a compelling new series of three-dimensional wall hangings, or object sculptures, that aesthetically engage with problematics surrounding postcolonial constructions of Zimbabwean national and cultural identity.
Born in Haroi in 1983, and practicing in the capital city of Harare since graduating (B.A. Hons) from Harare’s Polytechnic University in 2008, Takadiwa has consistently devoted his work to critical explorations of how material, environmental, and social factors impact the reality of contemporary Zimbabwean daily life. In a previous exhibition entitled Across Borders (on display at the What If The World gallery in Cape Town last year), Takadiwa examined the nature of Zimbabwean-Chinese economic and trade relations, and their deleterious effects on the natural Zimbabwean environment. For that show, Takadiwa created a collection of intricate, highly textural wall sculptures using post-consumer waste materials, such as bottle caps and disused computer and laptop parts.
In Say Hello to English, his current exhibition at the Tyburn Gallery, Takadiwa shifts his (and our) gaze to a critical reassessment of post- and neo-colonial aspects of the English language, a legacy of Zimbabwe’s colonial past as the former British Crown colony of Rhodesia. For Takadiwa, the English language is problematic because of its tendency to create class divisions (i.e., English-speaking elites) in Zimbabwean society, and its power to both shape and undermine contemporary constructions of Zimbabwean cultural identity. For Takadiwa, language and culture are inextricably intertwined –especially in the context of post-independence Zimbabwe–, and this standpoint is reflected throughout his oeuvre.
For the sculptural objects on view in Say Hello to English, Takadiwa makes use of a radically different medium to portray his ideas, namely: lettered, Roman-alphabet keys taken from post-consumer laptop and computer keyboards. These computer keys appear to have been woven together like traditional Zimbabwean textiles, but are here recast into a more contemporary, high-tech idiom. In an amusing and daring act of subversion, Takadiwa deconstructs and subverts the English language itself in these objects, by arranging the keys seemingly randomly (in effect scrambling them) so they are not legible in any way. Moreover, the artist has turned most of the lettered keys upside down, so that all viewers can see are their bottom ends, with the lettered crown rendered invisible. This aesthetic strategy powerfully conveys the struggles contemporary Zimbabweans experience with the English language, and how important it is, at least to some extent, to say “goodbye” to English in order to preserve the Bantu languages, as well as other aspects of pre-colonial Zimbabwean culture.
Although all of the works included in the exhibition Say Hello to English deal with problematics surrounding intertextuality, language and culture, one work in particular provides a paradigmatic example of Takadiwa’s philosophy, namely “The Falling of Rhode/sia.” According to the press release issued by the Tyburn Gallery, this work takes its inspiration from the “Rhodes Must Fall” social movement that was formed to contest Western-oriented education in Africa. “The Falling of Rhode/sia” also makes direct reference to the arch-imperialist Cecil B. Rhodes, whose statue at Cape Town University was recently removed from the campus as a result of student protests. In “The Falling of Rhodes/ia,” Takadiwa essentially reimagines Rhodes as a new, post-colonial creature, whose persona is both fierce (signified by the long red tongue and bared claws) and friendly (suggested by the creature’s loose and amorphous shape). For this viewer, Takadiwa’s “fallen,” reincarnated Rhodes is a likeable, positive figure who successfully reconciles Zimbabwe’s colonial past and post-colonial present.
Say Hello to English is on view at the Tyburn Gallery, London until May 6, 2017.
March 26, 2017
On March 3, 2017, Turner Prize-winning photographer (and since 2013, Royal Academician) Wolfgang Tillmans live-premiered his sound, light and musical composition, “Fragile: Wolfgang Tillmans, Tim Knapp, and Jay Pluck,” in the South Tank gallery at London’s Tate Modern. Though this performance was billed online by the Tate as an “open-form music installation” that is “part rehearsal, part performance,” this reviewer experienced the event as more of a hybrid, twenty-first-century happening/sound installation composed of: light, sound, slide projection, video, spectator participation, spoken word, poetry, and original music –all of which were interlaced with political and social commentary relating to current global issues. “Fragile” —a reference to Tillmans’ alter ego— was as an immersive, full-body, and multi-sensory aesthetic and political experience that complemented, and extended, Tillmans’ parallel exhibition of photographs, video, musical, and other works, now also on view (until June 11, 2017) in the Boiler House at the Tate Modern.
“Fragile” comprises a diverse variety of audio-visual media, including originally-composed, pre-recorded dance club music (perhaps a nod to the Berghain club in Berlin), audio field recordings (e.g., the voice of a Sainsbury’s self-checkout counter, and sounds of a Berlin subway train), a lightshow, dance videos, and photography projected onto the walls of the large, cylindrical space of the South Tank. Just prior to the artists’ appearance on stage, a rainbow-coloured light sculpture appeared in the near-dark space, the individual lights of which began to rotate and bathe the audience, and interior walls of the usually grey, concrete walls of the South Tank, in jewel-tones of light. The rainbow light sculpture seemed to symbolise both the identity of the artist, and that of the LGBTQ community, and Tillmans effectively used it to define the exhibition space as a queer, safe place for collective reflection, political consciousness-raising, and action.
The full performance of “Fragile” (lasting 100 minutes) featured alternately-played, live and pre-recorded multi-media segments, ranging in length from approximately thirty seconds to ten minutes. Many of the live pieces were performed by Tillmans himself, who —in a departure from his still photography in which he rarely depicts his own image— began to tentatively, and intermittently, occupy center stage. Tillmans’ pieces mixed poetry and song to express his concerns about human rights and other global political, social, and environmental crises.
During the performance, Tillmans was accompanied by deep bass, techno, and house-inspired music played by his bandmates, Tim Knapp and Jay Pluck, as he sang texts, such as:
“Come out, speak out, for your life and for your rights!”
“Because it happened before, it can’t happen again.”
“Twenty-five years ago, I could never have thought that this could have happened.”
“His son had recently been angered by seeing two men kissing.”
For this reviewer, “Fragile” seemed to articulate several themes of crucial importance to the artist. One of these was the concept of community, which Tillmans created through his all-welcome, free-of-charge admissions policy, and his use of the round, inclusive gallery space of the Tate Modern’s South Tank. A second important theme was LGBTQ and human rights, which Tillmans rightly interprets as subject to massive attack in our contemporary society. Lastly, the performance appeared to have an aesthetic purpose as well, namely to “blur the border between still and motion pictures” —a feat Tillmans successfully accomplished in both his live performance of “Fragile,” and his parallel exhibition at Tate Modern.
Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 is on view at Tate Modern until 11 June 2017.