RUGS & RESPONSIBILITY: A COVENANT WITH THE ANIMALS
The animals themselves are incapable of demanding their own liberation, or of protesting against their condition with votes, demonstrations or bombs. Animal Liberation, Peter Singer, 1975
There is an image that has remained in my mind for a long time. It is of a Native American garment called Powhatan�s Mantle, once part of the 17th Century Tradescant�s Collection of Rarities and now housed at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. On this ragged section of a garment made from animal skin, a human figure is flanked by two animals, possibly deer, and by many circles that contain concentric circles within them. The design is stitched onto the hide in small shells. To me the Mantle is about a relationship between animal and human, and about common origins and common location on the earth, a mutuality and a sharing. Even in silhouette we can recognize the form of the animal. It seems we have internalized their patterning and forms. How do we visually distinguish animals from humans? Often by their ears, their �creative� shapes, their imaginative forms – spots, stripes, horns, tails, manes, fur, ruffs, there is a rich variety in animal bodies that is not matched even by the many shades of colours that humans have. The Mantle is one of several images that haunt me, each of which show humans and animals together. Another such artwork is Hieronymous Bosch�s Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in which some of the animals, noticeably the elephant and the giraffe, do not have colours yet. Many artworks about the creation of the world contain this sense of possibility and potential, an awareness of the mutability of colour and form, a sense that everything in the earth is interchangeable, and thus a sense of fluid identity. It is implicitly present in many Christian images of the creation of the world and this sense of the immense bounty of creation also appears in the creation stories of indigenous peoples.
Beth Hatton�s weavings contain an echo of the Powhatan Mantle, in particular her series Endangered and Extinct Species begun in 1994. In these works an animal�s skin is seen spread out as if it has recently been skinned and tanned. Of course this is what rugs once were, not objects made or manufactured by people but simply the skins of animals. There is something very primal about an animal rug, apart from the notion of hunting, there is also a sense in which close connection to animals is part of having such an object, being with and knowing it. In handling kangaroo fur Hatton has felt such knowledge and in writing about her artwork she has mentioned the notion of �a covenant with the animals�. The word covenant suggests a sacred promise of immense proportions. In Christian thought the rainbow is God�s covenant that he will not send another flood. A care-taking and respectful relationship between animals and humans exists in many cultures and at present is clearly urgent and vital for all people to develop with the earth as well with animals.
Hatton�s approach to her craft is both personal and historical. In it she returns to memories of her own childhood which involve both the emotional and practical aspects of recycling, growing up in rural Saskatchewan, Canada where her grandmother and aunt made rag rugs from old clothes. She has also researched early floor coverings in colonial Australia. This research necessarily has some connection to pre-colonial times in Australia when Aboriginal people made use of animal skins for clothing and for ceremony. The loss of many Aboriginal tribes, cultures and languages as well as the extinction of native Australian animals is a plangent subtext to Hatton�s work as the term �native� ineluctably refers to both the people and the animals who are peculiarly adapted to and belong in Australia. Thus many contemporary issues like recycling and animal liberation as well as species extinction, the rights of indigenous peoples and the management and design of a future for the earth that is ecologically and morally sustainable are all wound into Hatton�s weavings.
The rugs have taken several forms since 1992 when Hatton�s research began in museum vaults reeking of preservatives. Her first weavings in wool were literal depictions of animal pelts, labeled with their provenances. Hatton included the labels to assert the historical location of the animals concerned rather than treating them as timeless or decorative. The first of many contradictions that Hatton has come across in this research and which she does not deny but tries to find a way to include in her work lies in the role of museums. However much museums may be seen to be attempting to control the past it is also the case that without museums there would be no evidence at all of a lot of the past. There is a paradox within the apparent imperialism of the museum, its appropriation, its interpretations and displays contrasted with its conservation, its storage of the past in order that the future may study and appreciate objects as links that can be drawn between the past and the present. Critically these links are based not on words but on material objects and our responses to them.
Freelance Museums and Heritage consultant Kylie Winkworth has written about the potential of museum collections to act as reference and orientation points. Particularly for the study by contemporary makers of: �Historic craft objects [which] can be a focus for thinking about the past and for measuring change in the present. These objects, held in the rich collections of Australian museums, comprise a history that is still largely unknown and unwritten. Understanding these collections allows contemporary practitioners to position their craft practices in relation to particular traditions and histories and to learn their technical and iconographic languages. Once in command of these languages the practitioner can add to and depart from these traditions, using their command of the language to offer fresh perspectives on the past and the present.� (1)
Hatton�s research extended from skin rugs to the tools and weapons used in their acquisition and making. Thus she researched and wove images of both guns and skinning tools, taking an interest in the ingenuity of human design skills and technologies. Then in 1996, after a conversation with curator Grace Cochrane, Hatton got the idea of using kangaroo fur as well as wool to make her weavings, thus bringing together the native and the introduced, the smudgey downiness of the roo fur with the stout firmness of the dyed sheep wool to tell their separate and interelated stories. These works embody as well as depict the issues that Hatton is concerned to explore and thus can be seen to shift her work to a level where it moves us both haptically and intellectually. The rugs also embody the notion of contradiction in using a shaft-shifting technique in which the image is reversed on either side of the weaving. In using kangaroo fibre Hatton learned a lot about the trade in kangaroo fur and meat. She was able to play a part in recycling what would otherwise be wasted and to give a voice to the animals whose lives are represented in it. In one rug, says Hatton, there are fragments of the skins of hundreds of kangaroos.
In some weavings a fingerprint and the pattern on the fur are juxtaposed to emphasize human agency in the shape of the world, a power that can destroy or conserve. In Hatton�s most recent weavings the names of introduced animals are not woven but stenciled onto red wool that imitates the colour of the iron rich Australian soil. This stenciling, a layer on top of the material rather than embedded in it, imitates writing on wool bales thus an inkling of the extensive pastoral annals of Australia, an industry and history containing great emotional attachments and meanings for many people, appears in the simple words – cattle, sheep. Many of the native animal names which appear on both sides of the rugs – wallaby, bandicoot, hairy-nosed wombat, dunnart, hare wallaby, bettong, bilby – draw Aboriginal languages with them into the warp and weft of the fabric. The soft kangaroo fur with its grey-brown fluffiness and tough skin typifies the combined toughness and gentleness of the Australian native, whether flora, fauna or human.
I first saw Hatton�s work in a warehouse near Mildura where it was part of a large collection of artworks gathered from all over Australia for the fourth Mildura Palimpsest exhibition. Spread over the bonnet of my car, a yellow station wagon, the Tasmanian Tiger rug could have easily slipped inside the car to be a car rug, a blanket for picnics and car naps. In fact I felt that I knew the rug before I saw it, that it had some place within me. It would of course be a talking point at the picnic, bringing up questions of environmentalism and ecology, politics and science, wonder and joy: Should we eat kangaroo? Should the Tasmanian Tiger be cloned? Have lovely it is to touch animal fur.
1 Kylie Winkworth �On Mabo, Reconcilation and Preferred Futures� Object 1-94, Sydney, p 10.
Beth Hatton�s solo show SELECTION will run at Canberra Museum and Art Gallery from May 3 to July 27, 2003. In connection with this exhibition CMAG will feature two lectures on May 24,
Kylie Winkworth, exploring the place of possum skin rugs in Indigenous and European culture, and Beth Hatton, looking at the history of Australian floor-coverings.