This exhibition is called “Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic” but that’s rather misleading, because Chris Ofili didn’t do any of the weaving and he’s only responsible for a fraction of the magic.
The strange, powerful little show at the National Gallery is the result of a three-year collaboration between the artist (still most famous for his paintings incorporating elephant poop, given glib names like “Shithead”) and five weavers at Dovecot Tapestry Studio in Edinburgh.
The journey began when the Clothworkers’ Company put out a tender for a tapestry for its dining room wall; Ofili was given free rein to come up with a design, and he opted for that most unruly, expressionistic medium: the watercolour. He later explained how the paint would occasionally take on a life of its own and bleed into the paper ways he assumed would be impossible to subsequently weave.
His final design – titled The Caged Bird’s Song – was a sensual, impressionistic number featuring a pair of lovers reclining on a beach being poured a cocktail by a sky-waiter based on an abstraction of footballer Mario Balotelli’s head. It’s a nice painting, both classic and modern, celebratory and portentous. While the lovers sit under a blissful, rainbow-striped waterfall, dark clouds gather on the horizon.
The poor weavers were then tasked with making this work – the result of maybe a couple of hours painting – into a vast tapestry. And my, oh my didn’t they do well. The recreation of the bleeding paint is both exceptionally accurate and altogether more beautiful than the original. What was once incidental becomes painstakingly deliberate. The tapestry takes on a life of its own, the light reflecting in unexpected ways from the millions of tiny strands.
To his credit, Ofili seems as surprised and impressed as everyone else by the final result, which far outshines the designs he put forward. It’s a bizarre project, but one that’s well worth seeing.
First published in City A.M.