Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic at the National Gallery

You sense that Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili has a bit of the devil in him. When the Clothworkers’ Company approached him about commissioning a tapestry for their dining room, he sent back a list of conditions – a non-wish list, if you will. He didn’t want to meet them, he didn’t want to see where the tapestry would be hung, and he didn’t want a discussion about the content.

When the livery company agreed to all his demands, Ofili came up with a new ruse. In a fascinating BBC TV documentary following the creation of the tapestry, he twinkles:

“I thought it would be funny to see if the weavers could actually weave water. So I found myself making the watercolour and trying to release the pigment even more and giggling at the fact that it was almost impossible for them to achieve it – there’s no way they’re going to be able to do this! So let’s just sit back and watch!”

And watch we do, open mouthed as, over nearly three years, an amazing team of weavers at the Dovecot Tapestry Studio in Edinburgh translate Ofili’s watery triptych of free-flowing colour and grazing charcoal into a shimmering fabrication of wool.

One of the weavers, Emma Jo Webster, explains: “The watercolour’s multilayered, so you’re often looking at the colours underneath to come up through the row as well. So rather than just a block of colour the mixing is very important….If you want to weave something that looks all the same colour but you don’t want it to look flat, like cardboard, you would make a mix of very close colours and then it will just gently look like the same colour.”

Viewing the tapestry close up at the National Gallery, you can see what they mean. Like an Impressionist painting, the flecks of individual colours dance before your eyes, before coalescing into luminous pools of colour bleeding into each other as you move further away.

The central scene could be seen as a modern-day Genesis, with Adam strumming a guitar while languid Eve’s cocktail glass is refilled by a somewhat abstract barman (based on footballer Mario Balotelli!) lurking in a palm tree. Storm clouds loom in the distance, presaging an imminent end to this paradise.

The setting is wonderfully theatrical, and not just because of the male and female figures on either side, holding back the curtains to allow us a glimpse of this intimate tableau.

Around the walls floats a chorus of grisaille dancers, their sinuous voluptuousness and billowing veils straight out of an Indian temple. But many have moustaches and goatee beards – another sign that not is all as it seems?

Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic runs at the National Gallery until 28 August. After that the tapestry will be permanently installed in the Livery Hall at Clothworkers’ Hall and will be available to view by appointment. Contact archivist@clothworkers.co.uk for more details.

Chris Ofili: The Caged Bird’s Song is available on the BBC iPlayer for a further 21 days (apologies to readers who live outside the UK, who may not be able to view it).

Lumps and bumps

Thanks to all of you who commented on my last post, suggesting I should cut away more felt from the flint. So I did – and you were right, the balance of felt to stone is much better. 🙂

Wrapping rocks can get quite addictive if you let it – I also enclosed a bit of coral.

coral and felt

This week we’ve been working on lumps and bumps with Pam de Groot, essentially based on the principle that the thicker the felt, the less it shrinks.

Here’s a piece I made inspired by the Phyllidia exquisita sea slug, or nudibranch.

felt inspired by Phyllidia exquisita nudibranch

And here’s something that resembles a funny-coloured garlic clove when it’s closed, but opens up to reveal its balls in the centre. 😉

Undulations and enclosures

I really enjoyed the last online workshop with Pam de Groot, so I’m now doing another one on Surface form and space.

The first couple of weeks focused on undulations.

felt undulations felt undulations

By varying the thickness and spacing you can create different effects, so it’s always exciting and fascinating to see what other people have produced in the online discussions. One enthusiastic felter has produced a whole undersea tableau with her creations!

Here I combined some undulations with spikes, just for fun.

Now we’ve moved on to felting foreign objects, starting with stones. As you might imagine, this combination of hard and soft was right up my street. And ESP will be delighted that I’m actually doing something with all the stones I collect on our holidays (and which normally end up in his suitcase to carry home!).

I started with a small granite pebble.

Then I had a go at making a felt necklace. To be honest it’s a bit of a squeeze getting it over my head – I should have made the cord a bit longer!

Finally, I found a flint in the garden that had three holes in it – two of the holes connected to form a mini tunnel. So I tried felting this and then cutting to reveal the holes. Here are a couple of different angles, showing the flint before and after felting.

If I did it again I would probably have fewer layers of felt to try to maintain more of the shape of the stone.

I’m also not sure whether the felt covers too much of the stone texture and whether I should cut away a bit more of the felt. What do you think?

City & Guilds degree show 2017

Having grumbled about the Chelsea degree show this year, I feel I should give credit where it is due and commend the City & Guilds degree show for its professionalism.

All the exhibitors had artist statements (most of which were not too burdened with gobbledegook “artspeak”!) explaining their intentions and way of working. Some also had copies of research behind their ideas and approach.

Although it doesn’t have a textiles degree, we usually visit the show because ESP is interested in the stone carving. Among the examples of foliage, drapery, and lettering (some of which was quite innovative this year), I particularly liked Liz Middleton‘s limestone pillows.

Liz Middleton limestone pillows

And although there isn’t a textiles specialism, there were some textiles on display.

Hannah Hill‘s funny, energetic, feminist embroideries make the point that embroidery has never traditionally been considered an art form – it’s just “women’s work”.

Hannah Hill embroidery
Image: Hannah Hill

In the same room, Kirsty Armstrong showed large sheets of oxidised (rusty) steel, which she had used to make a latex “print”.

Kirsty Armstrong steel and latex

Natalia Gonzalez Martin’s meaty amorphous sculptures were made from chicken wire, plaster and wax, partly covered with gauze. Displayed on plinths, they raised the question of who in society has the power to decide what cultural objects should be displayed in museums and galleries.

Natalia Gonzalez Martin sculptures

I wasn’t sure how her work would fit in a domestic setting, but I did buy one of her monoprints!

Natalia Gonzalez Martin monoprint

The City & Guilds degree show runs until 2 July.

SLWA My Place exhibition

I’m very excited to be taking part in the My Place exhibition organised by the South London Women Artists. The work of 30 artists will be on show, each exploring their sense of place and belonging.

My piece combines ombre-dyed cotton scrim and felt, because my place – where I feel most at home – is by the indigo vat.

ombre dyed felt

The colour indigo is traditionally thought to stimulate right brain or creative activity, but for me it is more of a meditative experience, disrupting the coppery sheen of the surface as I dip the fabric, and watching the magical alchemy as it turns from green to blue before my eyes. The white clouds in the sky above are mirrored by the clumps of foam, or indigo “flower”, floating on the surface of the vat.

My Place runs from 7 to 12 July at Brixton East 1871, 100 Barrington Road, London SW9 7JF, 11am-6pm daily.

The private view is on Friday 7 July, 6-9pm – everyone welcome!