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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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).