LONDON — Tate Britain has unveiled “Requiem” by artist Chris Ofili, a major new commission that commemorates the devastating fire at London’s Grenfell Tower in 2017. In the center of the mural, which spans three large walls in the museum’s north staircase, is an image of Khadija Saye, a Gambian-British artist and activist who was killed in the fire at the age of 24.
The fire at the high-rise social housing block killed 72 people, including 18 children — the largest loss of life in a residential fire in the United Kingdom since the Second World War. An inquiry into this modern-day tragedy exposed malpractice and incompetence within the country’s construction industry, housing sector, fire service, and government, on both a local and national level. It also concluded that every single death in the fire was preventable.
Ofili’s dreamlike mural, painted in a vivid palette of orange, blue, green, and yellow, unfolds in three parts. On the first wall, a bowing man is depicted holding Grenfell Tower as it burns — a figure the artist compares to a “witness” who conducts “a ceremony of loss or Requiem,” per a statement. The man’s tears cascade down in a way that recalls Ofili’s iconic 1998 painting “No Woman, No Cry,” created in memory of Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered in London as a teenager in a racially motivated attack.
The second part of “Requiem” portrays Khadija Saye in a fiery ring. She holds a Gambian incense pot — a treasured possession of her mother — to her ear. The pose is drawn from “Andichurai” (2017), a self-portrait by Saye currently on display near Ofili’s mural at Tate Britain. The work symbolizes the possibility of transformation through faith.
Saye exhibited this piece in the Diaspora Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale as part of her haunting series Dwelling: In This Space We Breathe, in which she documented herself performing traditional Gambian spiritual practices using 19th-century photographic techniques. Ofili, who was also exhibiting at the Biennale, met Saye in Venice in May 2017, just a month before she died at her home in Grenfell Tower along with her mother.
The third section of Ofili’s mural is intended to offer space for hope and redemption. The colors of the burning tower transform into a warm sunrise or sunset as two mythical beings play musical instruments in a paradisiacal landscape. Throughout the composition are flowing waves, which represent the water in London, Venice, and Ofili’s home of Trinidad.
The monumental work was inspired by the frescoes of the 13th-century Italian artist Giotto. It was also informed by testimonies from survivors of the fire, as well as the artist’s personal encounter with Saye, which had a profound impact on him. Painted directly onto the museum walls, it will be on display for 10 years.
“Public art can hold spaces of grief and it can keep alive collective memories of events that might otherwise completely just fade away in time, just as life inevitably moves on,” Ofili explained in a statement. “I intended the mural to invite reflection on loss, spirituality and transformation. And particularly these elements are important to me today in 2023, as we are waiting for the final report of the Grenfell inquiry to be published.”