Tag Archives: art

Maria Sibylla Merian: Nerdgirl Heroine

24 Aug


Almost 350 years ago the city of Amsterdam was home to the world’s first multinational corporation, the Dutch East India Company, the city’s bourse was akin to today’s Wall Street and traders dealt in commodities such as tea, sugar, porcelain, opium and slaves. The city had newly acquired co-ownership of the South American colony of Suriname thus securing its interests in sugar and slaves. Along Amsterdam’s network of canals stood the grand homes of the wealthy burghers whose salons hummed with news of discoveries in science and exploration.


Yet it was also a centre of cultural production where Rembrandt and others less famous were hard at work in their studios. Amsterdam had a free press (printing works by radical philosophers like Spinoza and Descartes) and promoted religious and political tolerance (allowing Jews to build synagogues) making it a magnet for refugees from persecution elsewhere in Europe, this liberal atmosphere further allowed the economy to flourish. Amsterdam had money, power, style and street cred; yeah…it rocked!

Maria Sibylla Merian as depicted on a German bank note.

Maria Sibylla Merian as depicted on a German bank note.

This spectacular city, was at that time, also home to one Maria Sibylla Marian. If you had met her on a bridge over the Amstel and she asked you back to her place to “look at her etchings” you’d have been crazy to decline. Not only was she from a rich and powerful family (so the coffee would have been great) she was one of Europe’s finest botanical artists and international explorers so she’d have had a few good stories to entertain you with too.

Maria Sibylla was born in Frankfurt in 1647 into the Merian family, famous engravers and owners of the largest publishing house in 17th century Europe. In 1630 they had published the Merian Bible, hugely popular because it was this first Bible to include hand coloured engravings alongside the text.

Tower of Babel, hand coloured engraving from the Merian Bible.

Tower of Babel, hand coloured engraving from the Merian Bible.

It wasn’t quite the same as being born into the Murdoch empire but the Merians certainly had wealth and status. Her father died when she was just three and her mother re-married to the still-life painter Jacob Marrel who encouraged Maria to paint and draw.

As a young woman she was fascinated by insects, collecting them to draw. She began with silk worms but also collected other butterflies and moths, soon having a house full of insects in various stages of their life cycles. This might seem outlandish now but at that time it was downright dangerous because the caterpillar was associated with the devil, so a house-full of them could warrant burning at the stake (remember the height of witch-burning fever in Europe was the early 1600’s with significant trials continuing into 1700’s). Because of their association with evil very little was known about insects and it was generally believed that they spontaneously appeared from mud.


Merian’s research proved this was not the case and despite her reckless behaviour, her meticulous studies of the metamorphosis of the butterfly have made her one of the most significant contributors to etymology.

Audacious behaviour in the pursuit of art and science seems to have been the norm for Merian as she was also reputed to have stolen a tulip from a neighbour in order to study and draw it, relying on her family name to keep her out of trouble. At the height of the tulip craze in the late 1630’s a single tulip bulb could fetch a price equivalent to ten times the annual wage of a skilled craftsman but by the time of Merian’s theft speculation on the tulip market had caused their value to plummet to somewhere nearer to € 500 in today’s money. Never-the-less, the theft of a tulip was no small matter.

couple with bulb

In 1665 Merian married her step-father Marrel’s apprentice, Johann Andreas Graff, with whom she had two children Johanna and Dorothea. During her marriage she continued to paint and draw and gave drawing lessons to the daughters of wealthy families. However, her marriage clearly did not satisfy her because within a few years she did the unthinkable and divorced her husband. It is likely that once again she was able to take such radical action largely on the strength of her family connections.

Following her divorce Merian relocated to Amsterdam with her two daughters and worked as a botanical artist publishing collections of engravings throughout the 1670’s and 80’s. Her publications describing the life-cycles of insects were very popular in wealthy circles because they were written in the vernacular (rather than the language of science: Latin) and thus enabled non-scientists to engage with the booming fashion for natural science.


On the strength of this work Merian was sponsored by the city of Amsterdam to travel to the new Dutch colony of Suriname in 1699 to study, collect and document the plants and animals. Scientific expeditions were at that time still rare and to receive state funding for such a venture was remarkable, all the more so because Merian was a woman. Her younger daughter Dorothea travelled with her for the two year duration of their journey before Maria succumbed to Malaria and the pair were forced to return to Europe in 1701. Upon her return Merian published a collection of her engravings about the insects of Suriname called Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium.


In 1715 she suffered a debilitating stroke from which she never fully recovered. Although Merian continued to try to work she died just two years later (aged 69) and her daughter Dorothea published Erucarum Ortus Alimentum et Paradoxa Metamorphosis, a collection of her mother’s work, posthumously.


If not for her gender I’m sure the remarkable exploits and scientific contributions of Merian would be much more widely known. Her botanical drawings and engravings are at once skilfully and accurately rendered and exquisitely beautiful. May she be celebrated as a role model for nerd girls everywhere.


At Arms Length: conceptual framework for a print folio.

28 Jul

at the wheel
At arms length; since the industrial revolution that is how Western society has interacted with the natural world. There has been a gradual and seemingly inexorable process of distancing ourselves, removing our selves and more definitively of “seeing” ourselves as separate from the natural world rather than as a part of it. Industrialisation marks a turning point in our understanding of our place in the world, as being distinct from it, not part of it.

Industrialised societies have used a variety of lenses to get closer to, yet further from, the natural world. Think of microscopes, telescopes, cameras, etc. they all seem to bring the viewed object closer, yet when viewed out of context the object, in a sense, becomes more distant from us.  Viewed via a lens our experience becomes disembodied. We privilege one sense over all others and we de-contextualise the looking we do by filtering it with a machine. For instance, when I look with my naked eye at a little patch of yellow lichen on a stone wall and I know what it is and my relationship to it. When I look at the same yellow lichen through the eyepiece of a microscope I am confronted with a mass of yellow disks isolated from any context.

lichen and tiny stone

Without prior knowledge of this object I cannot understand it or my relationship to it. The same thing happens with a telescope when I perceive a star through its lens; I loose the constellations that form its family and I cannot follow its path across the sky accompanied by the stories that would explain its dance through the seasons. How many times have you returned from holidays with the sneaking suspicion that in your endless quest for the perfectly captured moment you have failed to fully experience where you were? The entire trip viewed down the lens of a camera, the de-contextualised eye privileged above your other senses and certainly above a holistic sense of an embodied experience.

ash seed

The ubiquitous presence of cameras in our lives means that many people spend much of their time viewing the world via their smart-phone taking pictures, editing them and uploading them to another screen in a de-contextualised virtual space. When we use cameras mounted on remotely controlled drones we can so separate ourselves from the actual viewing experience as to remove ourselves from physical danger; perhaps this is a good thing? Or does it merely make it easier for us to distance ourselves from responsibility for our actions? In his novel Homo Faber, Swiss writer Max Frisch describes technology as “the knack of so arranging the world that we need not experience it.”

birch bark

Yet certainly there are benefits to be had from this technology, indeed I owe my life to the superior surgical skills of neuroscientists guided by tiny cameras manipulated through my blood vessels. However, we should perhaps be wary of privileging a disembodied viewing experience because of the lack of regard it seems to foster in us for our relationships with the world around us.

Why does this matter?

Context, it seems, is important. It’s how we make sense of our world and our place in it. It gives us spatial, social, cultural (and any number of other kinds of) meaning. Context also brings us an awareness of consequences. When one’s interactions with the world are mediated by a machine, a de-contextualising lens, we are divorced from an experience informed by contextualising meaning. Without this sense of place or relationship one cannot have an awareness of consequences. Perhaps it is because of the saturation of such disembodied viewing experiences in our culture that we so often find ourselves looking without seeing, viewing our world without an awareness of our relationship to it and with scant regard for the consequences.

checking proofs

Exploring Our Feral Hearts

3 Jul

The text and images below will appear on an academic poster that I am presenting at the Impact 8 International Printmaking Conference in Dundee, Scotland later this year. The conference theme this year is “Borders and Crossings: The Artist as Explorer.” My poster responds to this theme using my latest suite of prints, Feral Family Portraits, as a spring-board to provoke discussion about making art within a cultural legacy of colonial violence. To purchase the prints from this series please visit http://www.etsy.com/au/shop/RachelJoyPrintmaker.

Exploring our feral hearts:

non-indigenous artists and the legacy of colonial violence in Australia, a multi-disciplinary approach.

Bullocky.  Wood engraving and digital print.

Wood engraving and digital print.

From an Australian perspective the idea of exploration is, or at least should be, fraught. Exploration implies the discovery of the unknown. Certainly, there was plenty that was unknown to Europeans when they arrived in what would become known as Australia. The seasons were back to front, the animals were outrageous confabulations, the trees shed their bark not their leaves. None of it made sense to European minds but instead of asking the locals how it worked they murdered them then pretended they didn’t exist and stole their land. Today’s psychology journals would describe such behaviour as sociopathic.

Australia was built on the lie of “terra nullius” the concept of an empty land. This was a convenient lie the British colonists told themselves in order to justify their thievery. The Australian Government’s continued categorisation of indigenous Australians as native fauna until the 1967 referendum is evidence of just how far the self-deception went and for how long.

Historically European explorers set off into territory that was, to them, unknown. Many found the land hostile and difficult to negotiate, some even perished because they didn’t seek the help or heed the advice of those for whom the land was deeply known and understood.

What was the purpose of European exploration? Sometimes, perhaps to understand (for scientific purposes and to fulfil that peculiar European desire to collect and categorise) but more often it was to assess its potential as grazing land to be possessed and exploited for material gain.

Wood engraving and digital print.

Feral Family Portrait.
Wood engraving and digital print.

When thinking of exploration one might imagine crossings such as fording a river, traversing a desert or mountain range in a romantic quest for an Aussie El Dorado or equally improbable inland sea. In Australia these are the crossings our pioneers are famous for. We’d rather not talk about crossing the line of human decency with invasion, land grabs, genocide, child stealing and racism.

White Australia would do well to explore its own soul in an attempt to understand the mentality, the collective psyche, if you’ll allow, that perpetrated the evils of colonialism and then denied it ever happened. In some parts of the world today holocaust denial is again rearing its ugly head; in Australia we built a nation on it.

Printmaking has often been political and its many low cost incarnations make it a very versatile and democratic medium. Printmaking has become a powerful medium in the hands of indigenous Australians with many dedicated studios emerging to sustain this interest. However, as a white artist engaged in a multidisciplinary art making practice I see printmaking colliding with sculpture and street art to create something both beautiful and challenging. My work is an attempt to engage in a meaningful public dialogue about the constructed nature of our history and sense of community.

My latest project Feral Family Portraits explores notions of the foreign, outsiders/insiders and the feral. It posits European Australians as the ultimate feral animal. Using a combination of wood engraving and digital print technology I have created images that strongly reference and borrow from iconic colonial landscape and portrait paintings and photography. The original colonial images were created to represent a construction of truth about the colonial experience. By replacing the heads of the protagonists with those of feral animals I hope to re-present another truth regarding colonial experience.

Wood engraving and digital print

Madonna and child on the wallaby track.
Wood engraving and digital print.

This project challenges the idea of exploration as a heroic or noble endeavour and posits it, within the context of Australian colonialism, as a rather more fraught element in the construction of our national identity. Drawing inspiration from Theodor Adorno’s famous quote about the difficulties of making art after the holocaust, the goal of the project is to acknowledge the genocidal nature of the Australian colonial experience and ask how non-indigenous artists can make work that recognises this history and its ongoing implications.

Contemporary Australia has a fragile fragmented identity but it sometimes comes together in beautiful and unexpected ways. A multidisciplinary approach to making art reflects this and by opening up the process allows exciting possibilities to emerge. My own practice of colliding printmaking with sculpture and street art underscores the value of taking print out of the gallery and onto the streets. In particular the recent suite of prints and printstallations Feral Family Portraits, shows how the multidisciplinary approach of the work aids in exposing the constructed nature of our history and sense of community.

Billy Tea.  Wood engraving and digital print.

Billy Tea.
Wood engraving and digital print.

One incarnation of the project involves the works being installed as life-sized paste-ups in locations around my city (Melbourne) that have relevance to each particular image. For example, the work Bullocky has appeared on walls on the site of the former stock and sale yards in Kensington and Angler has graced the arches of the Queen Street footbridge over the Yarra River. Bullocks were the beast of burden most relied upon to pull the cartloads of materials required to open up and settle the land and European Carp were introduced to the rivers for sport, as a food source and reminder of “home.”

Angler. Wood engraving and digital print.

Wood engraving and digital print.

The project highlights the importance of the social and historical value of the sites chosen to install the work and the democratic nature of a public viewing space. It also asserts the role of humour in drawing an audience in, to consider the deeper elements of emotionally challenging works. Here I would draw your attention to Bakhtin’s theories around the carnivalesque and it’s role in upsetting power dynamics. There are many examples of subaltern groups making use of humour to draw attention to injustice and my project continues in this vein.

Wood engraving and digital print

Wood engraving and digital print.

Powerful art should cross boundaries and explore ideas. So to that end I am taking this opportunity to problematise one possible reading of the conference theme in an effort to open up discussion about the issues faced by non-indigenous artists who acknowledge an inherited legacy of colonial violence.

References and further reading

Adorno, T. Aesthetic Theory, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004.

Anderson, B. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origins and spread of nationalism, Verso, London, 1993.

Bakhtin, M. Rabelais and His World. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1984.

Grimshaw. P, Lake. M, McGrath. A and Quartly. M, Creating a Nation, McPhee Gribble Publishers, Melbourne, 1994.

Jung, C.G. Essays on Contemporary Events 1936-1946.

Lake. M and Reynolds. H. Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the Question of Racial Equality. Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2008.

Moses, A.D. ed. Genocide and Settler Society: Frontier Violence and stolen indigenous children in Australian History. Berghahn Books, Oxford. 2005.

Reynolds, H. Dispossession: Black Australians and White invaders, Allen and Unwin, Sydney 1989.

Salzman, L. & Rosenberg, E. eds. Trauma and Visuality in Modernity, University of New England Press, London, 2006.

Schama, S. Landscape and Memory, Fontana Press, London, 1996.

Tumarkin, M. Traumascapes: The power and fate of places transformed by tragedy, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2005.

Banksy in a Burqa?

2 Mar

I’d like to thank my friend Caitlin for drawing my attention to the article below.  Often male street artists are lionised for getting their work into difficult or spectacular locations and  Shamsia Hassani should certainly be celebrated for making her work in one of the most dangerous locations in the world! Go sista! You rock!

When walls can talk

Date: February 26 2012
Emma Graham-Harrison

INSIDE the blackened ruin of Kabul’s cultural centre, a spray-painting of a woman in a burqa sits at the foot of a staircase to nowhere, beside a line of poetry mourning everything that has been lost to Afghanistan in three decades of violence.

The painting is the work of Shamsia Hassani, 24, probably her country’s first serious graffiti artist.

”The water can come back to a dried-up river, but what about the fish that died?” is her translation of the line, written under gaping holes gouged through the concrete walls by shells when battles raged through the area.

”When I heard this poem, I thought how it was about the situation in Afghanistan. A lot of people died in the war; now the situation is better, but those people cannot come back,” said Hassani.

She is an associate professor of sculpture at Kabul University and draws, paints in oil and is a founding member of a contemporary art collective, Rosht, or ”growth”. She was introduced to graffiti when a British artist, Chu, flew out in late 2010 to hold a week-long course in street art.

She has embraced the discipline. Spray cans and stencils have more impact than traditional art, she says, because the latter is a luxury. ”If you have an exhibition, most uneducated people won’t even know about it. But if you have art like graffiti in the street, everyone can see that … If we can do graffiti all over the city, there will be nobody who doesn’t know about art.”

The obstacles in a city at war, policed by jittery security forces, discouraged most other students on Chu’s course, even though the high walls and giant concrete blast barriers are a tempting blank canvas. For women, there is also street harassment; even those who go out wearing the burqa can meet leering compliments on their hands and ankles.

So Hassani works in industrial yards and abandoned buildings, such as the cultural centre.

Or she does fantasy graffiti. ”If you stand in the street, you face problems; because of this I started a new style of graffiti. I take pictures of places I like in the city, open them in a program like Photoshop, and do digital designs. Or I print out a picture of the street and then do graffiti with a paintbrush. If you scan it back, it looks like real graffiti, but of course it isn’t.”

She hopes to start a graffiti class and bring art to the city. ”Art can bring change, I am sure. If people see an artwork, it will perhaps only cause a small shock to their mind, but that can grow and grow.”