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.