Originally posted here
A Christmas/holidays post for The Museum of Object Research, which began with a flourish earlier in the year and has been resting nicely after the initial excitement of it’s opening. It’s a thank you post to all readers and contributors – a growing band of object artists and friends who it’s been a delight to encounter. Happy reading and don’t forget all contributions around the growing practice of object art welcome and considered. A merry Christmas/holidays to all and a very happy New Year!
The image for this post is of a spiders’ webs, cane, twine and ostrich feather hat made by the San people of southern Africa in the early 20th century, on display in the British Museum. It’s my rather poor iPhone capture which has also passed through an Instagram filter or two, but I think it captures the atmosphere of the moment I spotted it among the vast collection of treasures at the BM and fell in love.
I happened to find myself standing next to a mother and her teenage son, who spoke most knowingly on the many thousands of types of spider that exist and the candidate whose threads had been so skilfully fashioned into this hat. I knew with a certainly honed from years of proximity to ‘unusual’ minds that here was a boy on the autism spectrum and the exceptional luck of meeting him at this moment added to the magic of the encounter.
At the time I was working in quite an embryonic fashion as an object artist, transitioning from a painting practice and using found objects for assemblage and customisation. I had developed a fascination with dirt as a medium and had a small body of work in which hoover dust was employed for texture and metaphor. Cobwebs had found themselves experimentally between brush and canvas or board, pushed around a surface and left to set before paint was applied in some of these pieces. This kind of playful incorporation of the ‘dirt’ that most of us strive to get rid of was a precursor to the sand I now regularly use in the painting side of my practice. As a metaphor for the historical ‘dirt’ I would need to look at in my current work on the Spanish Civil War it was pretty spot on too. Of course I see this now with the benefit of hindsight. The unconscious is a wonderful compass and usually takes us where we need to go.
But back to the hat; a delicate piece, made without the ‘benefit’ of man made materials or manufacturing processes it wouldn’t stand up to British weather being now cheerfully permeable at almost every point. I imagine the known superior tensile strength of the spider web thread means this wouldn’t always have been so, although it’s function is more likely to have been to provide shade. There’s a Western influence in the design and the suggestion of a potent condensation of socio-political narrative in this BM ‘curio’. This troubles me as much as the object enchants me and I include a useful source of information about the San people here, whom are it seems the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa, and once known as the Bushmen, the very people I first read about in The Lost World of the Kalahari by Sir Laurens Van Der Post, for CSE English decades ago.
I look back on my work with dirt and cobwebs fondly and still observe that the ethereal beauty of this hat lies in it’s use of natural (and thus biodegradable) materials, but more specifically of the stuff we in the West think of as an annoyance to be swept or brushed away. It’s frightening arrogant this denial of nature and without doubt the source of our current ecological crisis.
In the context of Christmas the hat is particularly resonant – so much consumerism and plastic tat is it’s contemporary counterpoint. I feel a New Year’s resolution to be more vigilant about my shopping habits coming on. And so I’m thus inspired anew by this wonderful object, which has led my post through such diverse topics as the unconscious, politics, history, ecology and autism.
I want to end this post with a question once asked by another incredibly sensitive and visually gifted autistic friend, Brent White of ACAT: Ala Costa Adult Transition Programme.
“Are objects portals?”
Yes Brent, I think they are.