It won't take you very long. It's essentially one (very) large work with a selection of preliminary sketches and an accompanying film. Ofili himself however, along with the Dovecot Tapestry studio who had the not inconsiderable task of translating his ideas into wool, cotton, and viscose) spent 3-4 years conceiving, perfecting, and completing the work. It's clearly been both a work of lunatic scholarship and a labour of love.
Ofili, previously most famous for incorporating elephant dung into his paintings and winning the 1998 Turner Prize, has produced work I've been impressed with in the past but this, his first venture into the medium of tapestry, has surpassed anything I'd previously seen by him.
The colours, the softness of the fabric (you really want to rub your hands along it), the placid, yet classical, feel of the work, the sheer vastness. All combine harmoniously to make a spellbinding installation. Even better not only do the National Gallery allow you to take photographs but they positively encourage you to do so (and to share them with them).
The Caged Bird's Song (2014-2017)
Ofili (born in Manchester of Nigerian descent) moved to Port of Spain in Trinidad in 2005. There he seems to have found both the peace and inspiration he must surely have been seeking. Both the mural, and the preparatory sketches, are soft-hued, exotic, erotic even, and seem to celebrate both the beauty and the unpredictability of nature. There are echoes of Gauguin, Picasso, Lam, and Braque, and there are nods to the cubism and post-impressionism those artists practiced, but Ofili combines all this, and more, into a style resolutely his own.
Cocktail Serenaders (Spray) (2014)
Cocktail Serenaders (Charcoal) (2014)
The Caged Bird's Song (Voyeur) (2014)
The artist's intention was to capture the qualities of watercolour painting in thread but as these mediums are, essentially, polar opposites that presented something of a problem for Dovecot Tapestry. But not an insurmountable one. Ofili passed them his design and, over the course of 30 months, the weavers scaled it up and, using a loom (often operated by three people at a time) set to work on making the dream a reality.
There's a dreamlike quality about the Arcadian scenes pictured too. Waterfalls, reclining couples, a guitar, and a waiter pouring a sparkling liquid from above. All of these images wash in and out of each other. At times softly, at times delineated more rigidly. As we all know with dreams often a seemingly total random element shows up and in Ofili's work this is provided by Italy, Nice, and former Man City striker Mario Balotelli in the role of waiter.
Ofili, in the short, but informative, film that accompanies the show, spoke of his interest in Balotelli as a man who represents many things, an African but also an Italian, but also of Balotelli's sense of mischief. It seemed to me the inclusion of the footballer was also Ofili's way of being a little bit mischievous himself.. He seems to be showing that there's no distinction between high and low art, Maya Angelou and Manchester City, the modern and the classical, that the means serve the end. I think he's right.
The Caged Bird's Song (Crab Eye) (2014)
The Caged Bird's Song (2014)
Cocktail Bar (Balotelli) (2014)
Balotelli (Sweet Cocktail) 4 (2014)
The side rooms reveal how Ofili's worked up these seemingly disparate ideas and images into a spectacle to savour. The cut-and-paste of Cocktail Bar (Balotelli), the Miroesque sun drenched colour scheme of Balotelli (Sweet Cocktail), and the overwatered, bleeding, almost ghostly apparaition of The Caged Bird's Song (Crab Eye). The cup of seeds held by the female character to feed the birds only serves to make their song sweeter to the ear. The love and attention given over to this project has only served to make its end product sweeter to the eye.
And nothing here is sweeter to the eye than the triptych in the main room itself. Ever keen to focus on the mise-en-scene Ofili has designed a room-filling mural (below) as a backdrop to, and as part of, the piece itself. The swaying temple dancers lead one's eye to the wall hanging where everything that both Ofili, and the weavers at Dovecot, have been working on aligns in something close to perfection.
Don't you love it when a plan comes together?
The Caged Bird's Song (2014-2017)