Arctic: Culture and Climate at the British Museum

As England moves into another lockdown tomorrow, yesterday I took the opportunity to go out while I could to visit the British Museum’s latest exhibition.

Arctic: Culture and Climate examines the creative resilience of the indigenous peoples of the region, using local resources to survive and adapt to their environment over the past 30,000 years. There are more than 40 different ethnic groups, but they share many cultural traits and were trading and communicating with each other long before the “southerners” arrived.

“We’re from the High Arctic”, says Inuit seamstress Regilee Ootoova. “We rely on what’s available to us.” And what’s available to them is largely animals – seals and walrus, reindeer and caribou, fish and whales. They view hunting as the giving and receiving of gifts – that animals will only give themselves up to those who treat them with respect, and that the souls of these animals will be reborn, keeping them infinitely renewable.

Marie Rexford
Marie Rexford prepares muktuk, frozen whaleskin and blubber (photo by Brian Adams from the photographic series I am Inuit)

But animals are not just hunted for food – almost every scrap of them seems to be used in some way. Here I focus mainly on textile and basketry items, but there are some fine carvings and paintings in the exhibition too.

This bag is made of salmon skin, seal oesophagus and caribou fur. There’s a very good post on the British Museum blog on how fish skin is processed.

salmon skin bag

Seal gut, being waterproof and breathable, was used to make parkas. The seams of this one incorporate beach grass – if any moisture enters the seam, the grass absorbs it and swells, thus tightening the seam and keeping the wearer dry.

seal gut parka
Gut parka by Flora Nanuk

Another bag, this time made of duck feet.

duck feet bag
Duck feet bag by Zipporah Innuksuk

This lovely basket is made of baleen, with a walrus ivory handle.

baleen basket
Baleen basket by Marvin Peter

Baleen, sourced from whales, is flexible and does not freeze, so it was also used for making sieves to scoop away slush from ice fishing holes. The frame of this one is made of reindeer antler.

ice sieve

Certain animal characteristics were often thought to endow the wearer with similar powers. So this visor decorated with sealion whiskers bestowed the animal’s hunting prowess on its wearer – each whisker represented a successful hunt.

visor with sealion whiskers

Sometimes hunters would mimic animals so they could get closer to them. This ice scratcher, made from seal claws bound to driftwood with sinew, made a noise like a seal sunning itself on ice, lulling the prey back to sleep so a hunter could approach it unawares.

ice scratcher

Plant materials

As well as animal products, beach grass was woven into mats, bags and socks.

socks woven from beach grass

bag woven from beach grass

Wooden fish traps like this were placed into holes cut into frozen rivers.

wooden fish trap

In north-east Russia the Sakha people hold a summer festival, or yhyakh, asking the gods for good weather and plentiful pastures. As part of the celebrations, large birch bark containers stitched together with horsehair are filled with meat, wheat porridge and berries with whipped cream for serving to everyone.

birch bark container

Integrating traded materials

As Arctic peoples came into contact with “southerners”, they started incorporating their materials into their tools and garments. The first Europeans arriving in the Bering Strait traded beads for furs. This national costume of the Kalaallit, Greenland’s largest Inuit group, incorporates sealskin sewing with the embroidery and beadwork on northern Europe.

Kalaallit national costume

In the 19th century, Moravian missionaries encouraged Yupiit basketmakers to make coiled baskets that appealed to collectors and tourists, like this one with a puffin design.

coiled basket with puffin design

More recently, on Nunavak Island, Alaska, basketmakers have recycled nylon fishing rope washed up on the beach to crochet into colourful bags.

crocheted nylon bag

Sadly, as in so many other instances, this contact led to colonisation, forced conversion, imposed migration and forced settlement. And now there’s climate change.

The exhibition ends on a hopeful note, with displays curated by two indigenous organisations explaining how they are transforming their heritage by adapting, innovating, collaborating and resisting to determine their own future.

Arctic: Culture and Climate is due to run at the British Museum until 21 February 2021, although it’s temporarily closed until at least 2 December due to lockdown. Please check the website for updates.

Lockdown week 9

I wondered if I should call this post Semi-lockdown week 9, as the traffic in my part of London seems to have reverted to normal levels, and the fine weather has brought many more people out on the streets. But my situation remains the same, so I shall stick to lockdown for now.

After all the sampling for my coiled tortoise piece I’ve done in previous weeks, this week I’ve focused on actually making it. Having established that linen thread was my material of choice, I ordered some in colours closer to the radiated tortoise and set to, making 10 individual scutes.

Then I joined them all together.

That’s as far as I’ve got this week. Next I have to make the overall border and then start thinking about the base.

I realise that I forgot last week to post the link to the online Prism exhibition In Search of (Im)Possibilities. The exhibition has been divided into three themes – environment, materials, and place – and each day a post is published featuring four or five artists relevant to the theme. Here is a link to all the posts so far. My work is featured in Chapter 2, Day 1 – Materials. Click on an image to see the artist’s statement.

Finally, although I’ve stopped posting about the V&A kimono exhibition, you can now watch a series of five short films of the show with the curator Anna Jackson. Even better!

Stay well!

Lockdown week 6

Week 6 of lockdown and my creative mojo has gone walkabout. When I look back on the past five weeks I can see I’ve tried a lot of new ideas and materials. By comparison, this week has mostly been about collecting materials and honing familiar techniques.

The weather hasn’t helped. April in the UK has been the sunniest month on record, and the lockdown finally goaded me into getting my bike fixed (bike shops remain open). So I’ve been getting more of my daily exercise on two wheels, discovering the delight of relatively quiet roads in the city.

I’ve also been out gathering materials. The one new thing I did try this week was making cordage from dandelion stalks. Much to ESP’s horror, I failed to remove all the dandelion heads before hanging the stalks up to dry in the garden. So I may not have to go too far to gather dandelions next year! 🙂

dandelions drying

Once the stalks were dry, I sprayed them with water to rehydrate before twisting into cordage.

dandelion cordage

I’m fascinated by the dried dandelion heads left over – they remind me of miniature jellyfish.

dandelion headsdandelion heads

I’ve also been gathering dying daffodil leaves for more cordage and coiling. It made me reflect on how things have changed. Four years ago I was obsessed with collecting the dead flowers to dye with; now I’m more interested in the foliage!

I still do some dyeing, mostly with indigo, so I’ve been shibori stitching some recycled items ready to go into the next vat.

shibori stitching

I’m currently working on a fiddly coiling project for my City Lit course, which involves lots of sampling. I’m not ready to talk about that yet, but for relaxation I made another coiled bowl from sash cord and wool. Unlike the coiling for City Lit, it’s something I’m able to do while watching TV (another activity I’m doing rather a lot of!).

coiled bowl

Talking of shibori, this week’s kimono from the V&A exhibition is a modern garment made in 2019 by Yamaguchi Genbei, decorated with a dramatic depiction of Mount Fuji.

kimono by yamaguchi genbei

Made from machine-spun hemp, this summer kimono was part of the Majotae project, which aimed to produce hemp on a commercially viable scale for clothing, as it is particularly suited to the Japanese climate.

Stay well!

Lockdown week 5

My experiments with coiling continue, some based on previous work, like this coiled bowl made using a core of sash cord wrapped with knitting yarn.

I’ve also coiled a couple more pear trays.

For the borders I just used the thickest thread I had in my stash – together they remind me of those hot Indian colours.

I also had another go at making rhubarb cordage. This time I left the peelings to dry out, then sprayed them lightly before twisting them. It was much more successful, and smelled nice to boot! The colour was stronger too.

Another satisfactory olfactory experience was working with pine needles. There is a long history of making pine needle baskets in North America, where some pines have incredibly long needles. The longleaf pine, Pinus palustris, for example, has needles that can be up to 18 inches long!

I collected the needles I used from the ground beneath a tree in Kew Gardens a couple of months ago when such things were still possible. They were only around 5 inches long, but this was fine for making a small rustic basket. 🙂

As I mentioned previously, the straw vessels I’ve been making were for a Prism exhibition called “In Search of (Im)possibilities”, which was due to open in London in May but has been postponed, probably till next year. However, the group has decided to organise a virtual exhibition instead, starting on 13 May. This means that those of you who are not in the UK will also be able to see it – a silver lining!

This week’s garment from Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk at the V&A is an ensemble created by John Galliano for Christian Dior in 2007. According to the label, “The sweeping lines of the outer garment reference both uchikake (outer kimono) and the swing coat pioneered by Dior in the 1950s.”

The layers of colour at the neckline also evoke kasane, colour combinations found in the garments of aristocrats during the Heian period. The hat is by Stephen Jones.

The photo below shows some of the lavish embroidery with silk threads and hand painted lace appliqué.

Stay well!

Lockdown week 4

Cabin fever must be getting to me – I’ve started coiling household objects! I had a moulded cardboard tray used for holding pears, which I cut up into individual sections. This is the result of coiling the first one.

coiled cardboard coiled cardboard

I did consider stitching into the cardboard itself, but decided to go for the minimalist look, especially as the bottom is quite textured (it looks like an avocado).

Over on Instagram, I was inspired by Suzie Grieve’s amazing rhubarb baskets to try making some rhubarb cordage. I used fresh rhubarb peelings, which was a mistake. They were very wet and slippery to work with, and they shrank a lot when they dried.

rhubarb cordage wet
Wet rhubarb cordage

rhubarb cordage dry
Dry rhubarb cordage

I rather like the open helical structure of the dried cordage, but in this case it wasn’t what I was after. Another lesson learned!

The series of straw vessels for Prism continues. This one is a combination of cobbling and coiling (coibbling?). Cobbling, as I understand it, is bunching soft material together with random stitching.

cobbled straw vessel

Only a week after planting, my Japanese indigo seeds have germinated and are doing well.

japanese indigo april 2020

This week’s kimono from the V&A exhibition is a bit unusual. It’s a kimono for a young boy commemorating the first flight from Japan to the UK in 1937. Made from printed wool, it’s decorated with images of Mount Fuji, Tower Bridge and the route taken by the plane.

kimono commemorating first flight from tokyo to london

I’m not sure what the other flag is next to the union flag. It looks like the international maritime signal flag representing the letter T (tango), which usually means “keep clear”. Or maybe the T stands for Tokyo?

Stay well!

Lockdown week 3

I got a bit carried away with the blue and white coiled sample I started last week, and ended up with a fully fledged bowl! The finishing was neater on this, so I am improving. 🙂

coiled bowl

I also completed another straw vessel, this one made of coiled cordage. I found making cordage from straw a bit challenging, to put it mildly.

Although I soaked the straw and left it to mellow, some of it still had a tendency to split, and the stiff nodules made it difficult to twist. If I cut the nodules off I was left with very short fibres.

Also the resulting cordage varied in thickness, which made for a bit of an uneven pot. Still, I got there in the end.

straw cordage vessel

Making the straw cordage reminded me that I still had a lot of dried daffodil and day lily leaves I saved last year. So I also made a bit of cordage from day lily leaves. It was so easy compared with using straw – quite relaxing and meditative! You can see last year’s post on making cordage here.

lily cordage

The weather warmed up this week, so I planted my Japanese indigo seeds, saved from last year’s plants. I was also delighted to see green leaves unfurling on some willow stubs I stuck in a pot about a month ago.

willow leaves

I don’t think I will have enough to make a basket for a couple of years, but it’s a start!

Slightly further afield in my local park (the one that hit the headlines when it was shut down on Sunday), the swans are nesting.

swan nest

I thought the weaving was a bit loose. 😉 But it was interesting watching the bird plucking down from its breast to keep the eggs insulated.

I also came across a dog with a stick (or should that be a stick with a dog?)!

dog with large stick

The dog certainly didn’t give up – I came across it carrying the stick shortly after entering the park and then met it again on the other side of the park, still with the stick!

This week’s kimono from the V&A exhibition is actually a kamishimo, an outfit for a male. Samurai wore these for formal occasions – this one is probably a boy’s. It comes in two parts – a pleated lower garment (hakama) and a sleeveless jacket (look at those shoulder pads!) called a kataginu.

kamishimo

Stay well!

Lockdown week 2

Our basketry tutor at City Lit managed to send through some photos and instructions on coiling around a solid core. I ordered some sash cord online and have a plentiful stash of knitting yarns, so here are a couple of samples.

Starting and finishing is the trickiest – I need more practice on this!

Does this pattern look familiar? Not that I’m obsessed or anything! 😉

I also managed to finish another straw vessel for the exhibition “In Search of (Im)possibilities”, whenever it happens (see last post). This one is random weave with a coiled border.

In the garden, spring continues to progress. Last week I spotted what I thought was a furry ginger bee with a long proboscis feeding on the forget me nots. (You can see my video on Instagram.)

Image: Richard Bartz

Turns out it’s a bee-fly, which is a parasite. The fly larva fastens on to a real bee grub and sucks all the fluids out of it. However, it apparently has little impact on bee numbers, and it’s fascinating to watch.

Ever Supportive Partner has been working from home, and his stained glass classes have been cancelled. With no other outlet for his creative urges, he’s taken to wiring together all the offcuts of my cane platters. I think I may have competition! 🙂

Finally, this week’s kimono from the Victoria and Albert exhibition is an outer kimono (uchikake) that would have been worn over another kimono. The long sleeves mean the weater was young and unmarried.

Dating from the early 19th century, the kimono is made of silk satin and combines shibori, paste resist dyeing (yuzen), and silk embroidery.

Stay well!

 

Lockdown week 1

I’m hoping that this will turn out to be a short series of posts, but I fear this may be overly optimistic. The world as we know it has been turned upside down in just a couple of weeks, and who knows how long it will last?

I work alone from home most of the time so have not been affected by restrictions on travelling to work. However, ESP is now also working from home, which encroaches on my space somewhat! And City Lit has cancelled all face-to-face teaching at least until the end of this term, so I’m missing my weekly basketry class. 😦

Still, these are small inconveniences compared with what others are going through – we are still healthy, we have enough food (and toilet roll!), and spring is happening in the garden regardless of events.

Lemon on a tree given to me by my good friend Magdalen

In search of impossibilities

In the last few weeks I’ve been working frantically on a piece for the upcoming Prism exhibition in May. That has been postponed, of course, though there are plans to do an online version in the meantime. So I shall tell you about it anyway.

The title of the exhibition is “In Search of (Im)possibilities”.

My first idea was to turn a sow’s ear into a (silk) purse. This involved slicing pigs’ ears to remove the layer of cartilage, scraping off the remaining membrane and fat and then attempting to make them into leather by tanning them with tree bark. (There is a tanning process that involves animal brains, but that was a step too far even for me.)

After two attempts I abandoned this idea. The first lot of ears went horribly slimy and smelly after we went on holiday for a couple of weeks (the tanning solution needs to be changed regularly). The second lot were better but I just got bored. So although it may be possible to make a purse from a sow’s ear, I am not going to be the one to prove it.

My second idea focused on the human obsession with gold. Alchemists try to create gold from base metal; in the fairytale, Rumpelstiltskin spins straw into gold; folklore talks about finding pots of gold at the end of a rainbow. So I thought I would make a series of straw vessels to represent these endeavours.

The first problem was finding straw – the stuff they sell in pet shops is all chopped up and too short. So I ended up ringing suppliers of thatching straw and driving for 1.5 hours to pick up a couple of sheaves. I didn’t want it to get damp so kept it in the house at first – but then the mice discovered it, so it had to go out on the porch. Do any other artists have their work eaten by mice?!

Anyway, here are a couple of the vessels I’ve made so far.

These are made by coiling, using a metallic thread. It’s a bit fiddly, because the straw has to be damp and the thread is mostly viscose, which is weak when it’s wet so it breaks if you pull too hard.

The straw also has nodes along its length, which are quite tough and difficult to bend. I originally wanted rounded vessels, but ended up with more angular forms because materials have a way of making their presence felt!

I’ll post more in later weeks.

Another cane platter

I’ve also had time to make another cane platter. This is larger than my first one, which allowed me to create more branches. The shape is also slightly more irregular, which I think suits the organic feel.

Kimono pic of the week

Museums and galleries are now closed, but a few weeks ago I visited Kimono: Kyoto to Catwalk at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I never got round to writing it up, but I thought I’d post an image from the exhibition each week to keep our spirits up.

outer kimono for a bride

This is an outer kimono (uchikake) of brocade silk, now worn only by brides. The cranes represent longevity. Brides often change outfits several times, with red being worn after the ceremony. Late 20th century, probably Kyoto.

Stay well!