Chris Ofili - Weaving Magic, National Gallery: 'An irresistible pagan altar to art'

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Chris Ofili
's Cocktail Serenaders (Spray) (2014), on display at the National Gallery
Chris Ofili
's Cocktail Serenaders (Spray) (2014), on display at the National Gallery Credit: © Chris Ofili Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London

Hard on the heels of Marc Quinn’s sexy show at the Soane Museum, and Damien Hirst’s disastrous, bloated offering in Venice, comes another exhibition by an artist associated with the Britart movement: Chris Ofili.

In a free display in its Sunley Room, the National Gallery presents The Caged Bird’s Song, a new tapestry designed by Ofili, suffused with a sense of magic, myth and sensuality – and, boy, is it gorgeous.

Ever since The Upper Room (1999-2002), his spellbinding installation of 13 bejewelled paintings of monkeys, displayed in a bespoke chamber designed in conjunction with the architect David Adjaye, Ofili has proved himself obsessive about the presentation of his work. Things are no different here.

Chris Ofili's The Caged Bird's Song (2014–2017) Credit: © Chris Ofili. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London, The Clothworkers’ Company and Dovecot Tapestry Studio, Edinburgh. Photography: Stephen White

For this show, he has turned the Sunley Room into a pagan shrine, by dimming the lights and preparing the walls with a grisaille mural of voluptuous Asiatic dancers, offsetting the bright tapestry. The colour of stone, like erotic temple statuary, these comely, swaying dancers set the tone.

At the far end, spot-lit like an altarpiece, is the wall-hanging itself, a sumptuous Arcadian vision in the manner of Gauguin and Matisse, more than 24ft wide and almost 8ft high. Its intense, radiant colours – watery blue, aquamarine and turquoise, rich, dark purple and green, accents of rose-tinted yellow – instantly ravish the eye.

The scene is divided into three parts. On either side, a solitary figure – on the left, a beautiful woman in flowing turquoise robes; on the right, a man clutching a caged songbird – stand before billowing curtains. These have been drawn back, as though we were at the theatre, to reveal a scene on the wider central “stage”.

Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic Credit: © Chris Ofili Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London

There, a reclining nude couple lounge together, intertwined, on a beach. With his mouth open, serenading his companion, the man strums a (somewhat phallic) guitar. His lover drinks from a cocktail glass containing an emerald-green elixir, which is replenished, seemingly endlessly, by a twisting braid of liquid, emanating bubbles, that cascades from the heavens.

This is administered by a shadowy “cocktail waiter”, with a Mohawk hairstyle, visible beyond the droplet-like fronds of a palm tree dominating this part of the composition.

Behind the couple, a shining turquoise sea promises ease and pleasure; the general atmosphere of lotus-eating indolence is underscored by languid, undulating lines, threaded throughout the composition. In the distance, though, purple thunderclouds suggest that this dreamy beachside idyll will not last forever.

Balotelli (Cocktail) (2014) Credit: © Chris Ofili Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London

Ofili has exhibited at the National Gallery before: in 2012, he was invited to respond to Titian’s great mythological paintings Diana and Actaeon, The Death of Actaeon, and Diana and Callisto. Unsurprisingly, the wall texts for his new exhibition cite Titian as a primary source.

Really, though, the spirit of his tapestry, which was commissioned by the City of London’s Clothworkers’ Company, and handwoven, over two and a half years, by five master weavers at Edinburgh’s Dovecot Tapestry Studio, is pure Matisse. Specifically, Ofili channels Matisse’s masterpiece The Joy of Life (1905-06), another Arcadian reverie, with the feel of a stage-set, populated by naked nymphs and musicians.

At the same time, Ofili avoids pastiche, by making this Matissean “song” his own. The tapestry’s characters, for instance, are black: to my surprise, the schematic features of the celestial “cocktail waiter” were inspired by the Italian footballer Mario Balotelli – as proven by some of the preparatory works on paper, on display nearby, which also include a deliriously self-assured ink study for the final tapestry. The title, meanwhile, refers to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first volume of the American writer and civil-rights activist Maya Angelou’s autobiography.

The celestial “cocktail waiter”, as inspired by Mario Balotelli Credit: © Chris Ofili; Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London

The composition also contains specific details observed by Ofili on Trinidad, the Caribbean island where he has lived since 2005. In addition to the tropical landscape (the waterfall, for instance, is based on Trinidad’s Habio Falls), these include the man holding the songbird, since, as Ofili explains, songbird competitions are popular in Trinidad, where “you see men carrying these birds everywhere, in construction sites, even sat in taxis on the way to work”.

The source for the tapestry was a considerably smaller watercolour, also on display. It is obvious that Ofili relished challenging the weavers to interpret its soft passages of fluid, translucent colour, which bleed into one another.

If anything, though, the tapestry, with its luminous hues evoking the effects of stained glass, makes the watercolour seem drab. It is the antithesis of those faded historical tapestries that we find in museums.

It is often said that, in our secular age, art fills the void formerly occupied by religion. I, for one, am happy to kneel before this exotic, otherworldly altar.

From April 26 until Aug 28; information: 020 7747 2885