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).

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Henry’s star mantle and Gunther’s shroud

There’s been a bit of a radio silence as I’ve been on holiday followed by a week or so catching up with website work. And all of a sudden it feels like the run-up to the Christmas sales season, starting with Lambeth Open on 3-4 October, of which more later.

But first I want to tell you about a couple of amazing textile pieces I saw while on holiday. Bamberg, in Bavaria, southern Germany, is a beautiful medieval town that is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The cathedral has some splendid sculptures, including the tomb of its founder, Emperor Henry II, and his wife Empress Cunigunde, both saints. Among the scenes from their lives carved by Tilman Riemenschneider on the tomb, there is one of Cunigunde walking on red-hot ploughshares to prove her innocence.

st cunigunde

But it was in the adjoining Cathedral Museum that I made this wonderful discovery.  The star exhibit here is Henry II’s Star Mantle, which was given to him by Duke Ismahel of Bari and dates from 973-1024.

Henry II's star mantle

According to the Worshipful Company of Broiderers, “The original 11th century mantle was made of silk twill with medallions of the life of Christ and celestial bodies worked in couched gold thread, with some details in coloured silk in stem stitch.  In the 15th century the embroidered elements were cut away and remounted on the current Italian silk damask, so the original placement of the motifs is not known.”

The condition and detail are superb – you can clearly make out signs of the zodiac and other constellations among the medallions.

henry II's star mantle

In the adjoining room was another equally compelling piece of silk, known as Gunther’s shroud. This was given to or bought by Gunther von Bamberg, Bishop of Bamberg, during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1064-65, and was buried with him when he died. It was rediscovered in 1830.

Although there is some damage to the piece, the colours are exquisitely preserved, and the figures are in classic Byzantine style, reminiscent of the famous mosaics in Ravenna.

gunthertuch gunthertuch2

Clearly the best way to preserve textiles is to bury them in a cathedral for 1,000 years!

On a lighter note, here’s a photo of some lace Lederhosen I spied in a shop window – rather more delicate than the real thing. 🙂

lace lederhosen

Basketry workshop with Mary Crabb

When I was at West Dean in February there was an exhibition of work by some of the college tutors, including some exquisite woven pods by Mary Crabb. So when a textile friend announced that she had contacted Mary about running a workshop, I jumped at the chance!

Peacock Pod by Mary Crabb Image: Mary Crabb
Peacock Pod by Mary Crabb
Image: Mary Crabb, http://www.marycrabb.co.uk/photos/index.html

This friend Barbara, along with dachshund Bertie, hosted the workshop in her beautiful house and garden in Hove. I wasn’t surprised to learn that she regularly opens her garden to the public as part of the National Gardens Scheme – it’s a multi-layered, multi-textured sensory delight, perfect for such a creative workshop.

Mary arrived with boxes of wonderful goodies, particularly paper threads in luscious colours, and books to inspire us all. Along with the mix of fabrics, wool and thread we had brought ourselves, we were certainly spoilt for choice!

basketry1 basketry2

We started by learning how to twine on a paper cup cut into strips. This helped us to maintain the shape without worrying too much about tension. We explored different threads and created coloured patterns, as well as learning how to introduce new threads when the old ones ran out.

We then moved on to an exercise intended to create a flat motif, to get used to working with warp threads in the round. However, we all decided that we wanted to go straight into making vessels, resulting in an array of teeny pods!

basketry vessels

The combination of a glorious pot-luck lunch in the garden and lots of gossip to catch up on meant that most of us managed only to make a start on creating a larger vessel in the afternoon. The exception was Chrissie, who made a wonderful bag with Indian trimmings.

chrissie vessel
Image: Chrissie Messenger

However, with Mary’s very useful handouts, we will hopefully be able to finish what we started. 🙂

Image: Carol Grantham
Image: Carol Grantham

All in all, it was a very inspiring day in gorgeous surroundings. Many thanks to Barbara for hosting, despite the electrical problems!

basketry group

Some of Mary’s work can currently be seen in Back to the Beach, an exhibition at Worthing Museum and Art Gallery, which runs until 22 August 2015.

Indian craft films

Every so often I get requests from people telling me about their work and/or asking if I can feature their work on my blog. Last week I had two such emails, but I reacted very differently to them both. I will discuss one here, and the other in another post.

The first email was from Nidhi Kamath, a graduate from the Indian Institute of Crafts and Design in Jaipur. She, along with her friend Keya Vaswani, had studied craft product design but for their final graduation project had made a film on craft called Threads of Banaras, about silk weaving in Banaras.

 

Nidhi says: “This inspired us to make more films on crafts, as films as a medium for crafts was not explored much. Films are a strong and quick audio visual medium to connect with people. Also we feel that if we lose a craft, we lose a culture, so we try to capture the story of craft, its people and the culture.”

She sent me a link to Threads of Banaras and to two other films they have made since – one on block printing and one on thathera (metal sheet beating) – and asked me what I thought of them.

 

Well, I was charmed, especially by the one on block printing (of course!). Nidhi explained that the film is part of a project to make 10 films on craft for a design studio called Anantaya in Jaipur: “This would promote craft and bring its people and process forward so that people can know more about it and also contribute towards its preservation in their own way.”

 

Anantaya is run by designer Ayush Kasliwal and his wife Geetanjali, and their aim is to sustainably create “an interesting mix of luxury objects by engaging artisanal skills rooted in age old crafts culture and tradition”.

India certainly has no shortage of crafts culture and tradition, and I think it’s an admirable project to show the work of the artisans who produce such “luxury objects”.

And good luck to Nidhi and Keya – your films are lovely, and I look forward to seeing the rest of the series!

nidhi

Double ikat weaving

While in Gujarat we visited Patan, famous for its patola, or double ikat, where the design is dyed into the threads before weaving.The process of making this cloth is incredibly labour intensive and time consuming – it takes three to four months just to dye the warp and weft threads for a single sari!

patola final

The Salvi family showed us round their showroom and workshop and explained the process. They get their silk thread from China, wind it into hanks and degum it to remove the sericin. Then they twist the threads and set up the warp and weft threads.

Now comes the hard part. Using a similar technique to bandhani, they tie portions of the silk threads with cotton thread before dyeing. The cotton acts as a resist and prevents the dye from reaching the silk threads. They repeat this for four or five colours, untying and retying the resist threads each time. And they do this on both the warp and weft threads (hence the “double” ikat).

The pictures below show some of the tied threads that have been dyed once, below a diagram of the final pattern, and the final dyed warp threads set up on the loom.

patola pattern threadspatola dyed warp

As you can see, the dyeing process requires a very detailed knowledge of the pattern and extremely precise calculation of the thickness and tension of the threads, not to mention how the colours of warp and weft will combine. No wonder it takes so long!

The actual weaving is relatively straightforward by comparison. It’s done by two people on a hand-operated loom, with careful matching of the warp and weft threads to ensure that the pattern is maintained. The weavers comb four needles over the fabric afterwards to help align the pattern and ensure an even tension.

patola on loom

The Salvis use mostly natural vegetable dyes, such as madder, persimmon, indigo, onion skins and turmeric. They have a waiting list of three years for a natural-dyed sari, costing between $3,000 and $10,000, depending on the design. They make four or five a year.

They say that originally there were around 700 families in the area producing double ikat – now it’s only two or three.

The Patan Museum had a small section on patola, and said that there were originally different styles for four different markets:

  • Jain and Hindu: all-over patterns of flowers, parrots, dancing figures and elephants
  • Muslim Voras: geometric floral patterns for weddings
  • Maharashtrian Brahmins: plain, dark-coloured body with borders of women and birds, called nari kunj
  • export markets: mainly Bali.