Weaving Magic by Chris Ofili at The National Gallery, London 

A visit to The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square to see Chris Ofili’s “Weaving Magic” is a breathtaking experience before even entering the building. The surroundings of Trafalgar Square are always bustling with life, especially in the summer. The fountains outside are beautiful to sit by listening to the water while staring up at Nelson’s Column, surrounded my majestic statues of lions. Every corner has a work of art on it, including the National Gallery building itself, which is a beautiful piece of architecture. 

Chris Ofili is an artist who was born in Manchester in 1968,  He relocated to Trinidad in 2005. and this change of surroundings instigated his artwork. Ofili began using the island as inspiration for his art, using a lot of blues in his colour palette and incorporating the ocean and water into much of his work. 

Upon entering the main room of the exhibition, the sheer magnitude of the tapestry, “The Caged Bird’s Song”, is enough to take your breath away. The tapestry stretches from almost wall to wall and from floor to ceiling. However, surprisingly, one of the most striking things about the room are the walls, which were painted by Ofili himself and consist of numerous exotic dancing men and women, watching you from every angle, enticing you to join the celebration of this magnificent work of art. 

Ofili originally created the piece “The Caged Bird’s Song” as a watercolour because the inspiration for the piece was water and fluidity which came from living on an island. He had no idea how the essence of watercolour could be captured by wool and found the thought humorous. There is an element of surprise in the finished tapestry piece. It makes you stop and think, as the artist himself puts it, “Wait a moment, that’s a pool of pigment.. rendered in wool.” 

The piece itself is paradoxical because watercolour is free flowing and out of control, and woven art is permanently fixed into a three dimensional tapestry. However, by mixing several shades of colours, the fabric subtly looks the same, and becomes a soft haze of woven colours. 

The subjects of the piece have an Arcadian feel to them with the two figures at the side, pulling back the curtain of our world to reveal this dreamlike vision of two lovers, and a contemporary richness of the poem “I know why the caged bird sings” by Maya Angelou, which Ofili chose as inspiration because he liked the question of whether a bird sings just as beautifully in a cage as it does when free, which relates to the human state. There is so much to take in and interestingly, the godly figure in the tree pouring a drink was inspired by the footballer Balotelli, who has a slightly mischievous and unpredictable air about him. 

Inspired by the island of Trinidad, water plays a strong role in the piece.  The three main points of water are featured; the gushing waterfall, the pool that is gently lapping the couple, and the sea, which has a calm feeling to it. However, it is an eerie calm, surrounded by dark colours, emitting an ominous sense that the calm is about to be disturbed.

The colours and the stories within the tapestry are not the only things to take in, but also the lives and souls of the weavers in every strand of preciously woven wool. Knowing that this enormous work was crafted from a collective act of quality human time (3 years in total), makes the work all the more special. The way the weavers were able to give wool the same watery, flowing feeling as watercolour is truly magical, hence the reason this exhibit was aptly called “Weaving Magic”. 

Weaving Magic is on at The National Gallery until the 28th August. More information may be found on The National Gallery’s website here.

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