July 19, 2017

The Caged Bird’s Song: A Tangible Beauty

Guest post by Eliana Reeves (intern at Counterpoints Arts), written in response to “The Caged Bird’s Song” by Chris Ofili.

We only know as much as our eyes allow us to see. From far away, the fizzing colours hang in midair and then drip down the wall, and as they do, shapes begin to form. A pair, sitting together, one playing a guitar and the other one drinking fluorescent alcohol from an elegant glass, the barely-there mist of the waterfall brushing their backs and a still sea wrapping the scene behind them. It’s a mythological vision, an Arcadian dream, and yet to their left, something brews behind the trees. A terrible darkness begins to unfurl, but the humans are blissfully oblivious to the danger. The gods that spy on them conspire and laugh. And still, the woman’s glass is never empty and the man’s hands never cease.

Move closer, and it gets fuzzy. It’s as if the connection has been partially severed and vibrant static envelops the painting. Almost like if you reached out your hand and touched it, it would feel like the worn carpet in your living room or the coarseness of the winter blanket you only use twice a year.

The artwork took years to create at the loom, as the weavers brought to life the brilliant design of Chris Ofili’s. It’s clear that since his move to Trinidad, Ofili’s work has been newly revolving around nature and its relationship with people. Residing on an isolated island, he captures water with ease, from rapids to lapping pools to steady oceans, while keeping the piece in a limbo between reality and a heavenly landscape. The piece’s curator describes it as such: “[the] two lateral figures belong to our world and they’re giving us a dream… that has nothing to do with our world”. At first, it looks ordinary–beautiful, but plausible–and then it morphs into something strange. There is green liquid spiraling down from the sky and two large figures in the foreground dressed in flowing robes while the cave glows in their presence. This is not an island scene; this is what age-old stories are made from.


The remarkability that the concept started on paper and then was woven by hand on a loom is even more difficult to grasp when the embodiment of that work stands in front of you, covering nearly an entire wall of the National Gallery. This is hours upon weeks upon months upon years of collaboration, transfer of ideas, interpretation. This is metres upon metres of wool, looped thousands of times in a thousand distinct shades. This is unspoken and unyielding trust between an artist and creators, that bond nearly as strong as the array of interlocking threads.

Throughout the process, Ofili found certain pinpoints he knew he wanted to include, the most prominent one being the “quasi-divine black African Italian cocktail waiter”. These aren’t words expected to be strung together in the same sentence, let alone be the centrepiece for an innovative work of art. Yet looking at his preliminary sketches to the final product, it’s evident he found exactly what he aimed for. The first images he created were of the head of the Italian football player Balotelli on its side. His cheek rested on his shoulder, and he was mixing a drink as large red letters stated behind him: Cocktail Bar. As the image became more abstract as it was drawn again and again and eventually put in fabric, the original details still remain. A non-recognisable Balotelli is, in fact, staring sideways down at the couple below him as he pours the woman something unknown. From the way Ofili talks about him, it’s apparent that Balotelli-Cocktail-Waiter is one of his favorite characters he’s imagined. He tries to describe him in words, but keeps saying, “there’s so much more to him”.


Ofili, himself, found the process entertaining. He was curious to see whether the weavers could truly capture moving fluids, and when they showed him their first sample, he was awestruck: “Hang on a minute… That’s a pool of pigment but it’s been rendered in wool”. As the process continued, Ofili found that the small mistakes he made in his outline became amusing. Turquoise bled outside the lines as he painted the robes on one of the gods, and he thought “I’ve screwed it up, it’s out of control… It’s kind of hilarious now… They are going to capture that moment”. That slip of the paintbrush is immortalised, but it would never draw your eye unless you knew that it was there.

The contemporary references in the piece add layers of richness to the work. The title itself is based on the name of Maya Angelou’s first autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Ofili’s piece being “The Caged Bird’s Song”). When Ofili discusses his choice in title, and explains that the difference between those ensnared and those free “potentially relates to being human”. Perhaps the caged bird sings because it believes that it has power and mobility, so it never tries to escape. Perhaps the couple sits unseeing beneath the waterfall, utterly content and tipsy, because they do not think to look to the horizon. Perhaps we sit comfortably within our borders because we have yet to reach beyond them.

The tapestry is being displayed at the National Gallery in the Sunley Room from 26 April to 28 August, 2017. Learn more about the exhibition on the National Gallery website.