On the Western coast of Madagascar live the Sakalava people, a rather diverse ethnic group; their population is in fact composed of the descendants of numerous peoples that formed the Menabe Kingdom. This empire reached its peak in the Eighteenth Century, thanks to an intense slave trade with the Arabs and European colonists.
One of the most peculiar aspects of Sakalava culture is undoubtedly represented by the funerary sculptures which adorn burial sites. Placed at the four corners of a grave, these carved wooden posts are often composed by a male and a female figure.
But these effigies have fascinated the Westerners since the 1800s, and for a very specific reason: their uninhibited eroticism.
In the eyes of European colonists, the openly exhibited penises, and the female genitalia which are in some cases stretched open by the woman’s hands, must have already been an obscene sight; but the funerary statues of the Sakalava even graphically represent sexual intercourse.
These sculptures are quite unique even within the context of the notoriously heterogeneous funerary art of Madagascar. What was their meaning?
We could instinctively interpret them in the light of the promiscuity between Eros and Thanatos, thus falling into the trap of a wrongful cultural projection: as Giuseppe Ferrauto cautioned, the meaning of these works “rather than being a message of sinful «lust», is nothing more than a message of fertility” (in Arcana, vol. II, 1970).
A similar opinion is expressed by Jacques Lombard, who extensively ecplained the symbolic value of the Sakalava funerary eroticism:
We could say that two apparently opposite things are given a huge value, in much the same manner, among the Sakalava as well as among all Madagascar ethnic groups. The dead, the ancestors, on one side, and the offspring, the lineage on the other. […] A fully erect – or «open» – sexual organ, far from being vulgar, is on the contrary a form of prayer, the most evident display of religious fervor. In the same way the funerals, which once could go on for days and days, are the occasion for particularly explicit chants where once again love, birth and life are celebrated in the most graphic terms, through the most risqué expressions. In this occasion, women notably engage in verbal manifestations, but also gestural acts, evoking and mimicking sex right beside the grave.
[…] The extended family, the lineage, is the point of contact between the living and the dead but also with all those who will come, and the circle is closed thanks to the meeting with all the ancestors, up to the highest one, and therefore with God and all his children up to the farthest in time, at the heart of the distant future. To honor one’s ancestors, and to generate an offspring, is to claim one’s place in the eternity of the world.
Jacques Lombard, L’art et les ancêtres:
le dialogue avec les morts: l’art sakalava,
in Madagascar:Arts De La Vie Et De La Survie (Cahiers de l’ADEIAO n.8, 1989)
One last thing worth noting is the fact that the Sakalava exponentially increased the production of this kind of funerary artifacts at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
For a simple reason: in order to satisfy the naughty curiosity of Western tourists.
You can find a comprehensive account of the Sakalava culture on this page.
Part of the pleasure of collecting curiosities lies in discovering the reactions they cause in various people: seeing the wonder arise on the face of onlookers always moves me, and gives meaning to the collection itself. Among the objects that, at least in my experience, evoke the strongest emotional response there are without doubt mourning-related accessories, and in particular those extraordinary XIX Century decorative works made by braiding a deceased person’s hair.
Be it a small brooch containing a simple lock of hair, a framed picture or a larger wreath, there is something powerful and touching in these hairworks, and the feeling they convey is surprisingly universal. You could say that anyone, regardless of their culture, experience or provenance, is “equipped” to recognize the archetypical value of hair: to use them in embroidery, jewelry and decoration is therefore an eminently magical act.
I decided to discuss this peculiar tradition with an expert, who was so kind as to answer my questions.
Courtney Lane is a real authority on the subject, not just its history but also its practical side: she studied the original techniques with the intent of bringing them back to life, as she is convinced that this ancient craft could accomplish its function of preserving memory still today.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am a Victorian hair artist, historian, and self-proclaimed professional weirdo based in Kansas City. My business is called Never Forgotten where, as an artist, I create modern works of Victorian style sentimental hairwork for clients on a custom basis as well as making my own pieces using braids and locks of antique human hair that I find in places such as estate sales at old homes. As an academic, I study the history of hairwork and educate others through lectures as well as online video, and I also travel to teach workshops on how to do hairwork techniques.
Hairwork by Courtney Lane.
Where does your interest for Victorian hairwork come from?
I’ve always had a deep love for history and finding beauty in places that many consider to be dark or macabre. At the young age of 5, I fell in love with the beauty of 18th and 19th century mausoleums in the cemeteries near the French Quarter of New Orleans. Even as a child, I adored the grand gesture of these elaborate tombs for memorializing the dead. This lead me to developing a particular fondness for the Victorian era and the funerary customs of the time.
Somewhere along the line in studying Victorian mourning, I encountered the idea of hairwork. A romantic at heart, I’d already known of the romantic value a lock of hair from your loved one could hold, so I very naturally accepted that it would also be a perfect relic to keep of a deceased loved one. I found the artwork to be stunning and the sentiment to be of even greater beauty. I wondered why it was that we no longer practiced hairwork widely, and I needed to know why.
I studied for years trying to find the answers and eventually I learned how to do the artwork myself. I thoroughly believed that the power of sentimental hairwork could help society reclaim a healthier relationship with death and mourning, and so I decided to begin my business to create modern works, educate the public on the often misunderstood history of the artform, and ensure that this sentimental tradition is “Never Forgotten”.
How did hairwork become a popular mourning practice historically? Was the hair collected before or post mortem? Was it always related to grieving?
Hairwork has taken on a variety of purposes, most of which have been inherently sentimental, but it has not always been related to grieving. With the death of her husband, Queen Victoria fell into a deep mourning which lasted the remaining 40 years of her life. This, in turn, created a certain fashionability, and almost a fetishism, of mourning in the Victorian era. Most people today believe all hairwork had the purpose of elaborating a loss, but between the 1500s and early 1900s, hairwork included romantic keepsakes from a loved one or family mementos, and sometimes served as memorabilia from an important time in one’s life. As an example, many of the large three-dimensional wreaths you can still see actually served as a form of family history. Hair was often collected from several (often living) members of the family and woven together to create a genealogy. I’ve seen other examples of hairwork simply commemorating a major life event such as a first communion or a wedding. Long before hairwork became an art form, humans had already been exchanging locks of hair; so it’s only natural that there were instances of couples wearing jewelry that contained the hair of their living lovers.
As far as mourning hairwork is concerned, the hair was sometimes collected post mortem, and sometimes the hair was saved from an earlier time in their life. As hair was such an important part of culture, it was often saved when it was cut whether or not there was an immediate plan for making art or jewelry with it.
The idea of using hair as a mourning practice largely stems from Catholicism in the Middle Ages and the power of saintly relics in the church. The relic of a saint is more than just the physical remains of their body, rather it provides a spiritual connection to the holy person, creating a link between life and death. This belief that a relic can be a substitute for the person easily transitioned from public, religious mourning to private, personal mourning.
Of the types of relics (bone, flesh, etc), hair is by far the most accessible to the average person, as it does not need any sort of preservation to avoid decomposition, much as the rest of the body does; collecting from the body is as simple as using a pair of scissors. Hair is also one of the most identifiable parts of person, so even though pieces of bone might just be as much of a relic, hair is part of your loved one that you see everyday in life, and can continue to recognize after death.
Was hairwork strictly a high-class practice?
Hairwork was not strictly high-class. Although hairwork was kept by some members of upper class, it was predominantly a middle-class practice. Some hairwork was done by professional hairworkers, and of course, anyone commissioning them would need the means to do so; but a lot of hairwork was done in the home usually by the women of the family. With this being the case, the only expenses would be the crafting tools (which many middle-class women would already likely have around the home), and the jewelry findings, frames, or domes to place the finished hairwork in.
How many people worked at a single wreath, and for how long? Was it a feminine occupation, like embroidery?
Hairwork was usually, but not exclusively done by women and was even considered a subgenre of ladies’ fancy work. Fancy work consisted of embroidery, beadwork, featherwork, and more. There are even instances of women using hair to embroider and sew. It was thought to be a very feminine trait to be able to patiently and meticulously craft something beautiful.
As far as wreaths are concerned, it varied in the number of people who would work together to create one. Only a few are well documented enough to know for sure.
I’ve also observed dozens of different techniques used to craft flowers in wreaths and some techniques are more time consuming than others. One of the best examples I’ve seen is an incredibly well documented piece that indicates that the whole wreath consists of 1000 flowers (larger than the average wreath) and was constructed entirely by one woman over the span of a year. The documentation also specifies that the 1000 flowers were made with the hair of 264 people.
Why did it fall out of fashion during the XX Century?
Hairwork started to decline in popularity in the early 1900’s. There were several reasons.
The first reason was the growth of hairwork as an industry. Several large companies and catalogues started advertising custom hairwork, and many people feared that sending out for the hairwork rather than making it in the home would take away from the sentiment. Among these companies was Sears, Roebuck and Company, and in one of their catalogues in 1908, they even warned, “We do not do this braiding ourselves. We send it out; therefore we cannot guarantee same hair being used that is sent to us; you must assume all risk.” This, of course, deterred people from using professional hairworkers.
Another reason lies with the development and acceptance of germ theory in the Victorian era. The more people learned about germs and the more sanitary products were being sold, the more people began to view the human body and all its parts as a filthy thing. Along with this came the thought that hair, too, was unclean and people began to second guess using it as a medium for art and jewelry.
World War I also had a lot to do with the decline of hairwork. Not only was there a general depletion in resources for involved countries, but more and more women began to work outside of the home and no longer had the time to create fancy work daily. During war time when everybody was coming together to help the war effort, citizens began to turn away from frivolous expenses and focus only on necessities. Hair at this time was seen for the practical purposes it could serve. For example, in Germany there were propaganda posters encouraging women to cut their long hair and donate it to the war effort when other fibrous materials became scarce. The hair that women donated was used to make practical items such as transmission belts.
With all of these reasons working together, sentimental hairwork was almost completely out of practice by the year 1925; no major companies continued to create or repair hairwork, and making hairwork at home was no longer a regular part of daily life for women.
19th century hairworks have become trendy collectors items; this is due in part to a fascination with Victorian mourning practices, but it also seems to me that these pieces hold a special value, as opposed to other items like regular brooches or jewelry, because of – well, the presence of human hair. Do you think we might still be attaching some kind of “magical”, symbolic power to hair? Or is it just an expression of morbid curiosity for human remains, albeit in a mild and not-so-shocking form?
I absolutely believe that all of these are true. Especially amongst people less familiar with these practices, there is a real shock value to seeing something made out of hair. When I first introduce the concept of hairwork to people, some find the idea to be disgusting, but most are just fascinated that the hair does not decompose. People today are so out of touch with death, that they immediately equate hair as a part of the body and don’t understand how it can still be perfectly pristine over a hundred years later. For those who don’t often ponder their own mortality, thinking about the fact that hair can physically live on long after they’ve died can be a completely staggering realization.
Once the initial surprise and morbid curiosity have faded, many people recognize a special value in the hair itself. Amongst serious collectors of hair, there seems to be a touching sense of fulfillment in the opportunity to preserve the memory of somebody who once was loved enough to be memorialized this way – even if they remain nameless today. Some may say it is a spiritual calling, but I would say at the very least it is a shared sense of mortal empathy.
What kind of research did you have to do in order to learn the basics of Victorian hairworks? After all, this could be described as a kind of “folk art”, which was meant for a specific, often personal purpose; so were there any books at the time holding detailed instructions on how to do it? Or did you have to study original hairworks to understand how it was done?
Learning hairwork was a journey for me. First, I should say that there are several different types of hairwork and some techniques are better documented than others. Wire work is the type of hairwork you see in wreaths and other three-dimensional flowers. I was not able to find any good resources on how to do these techniques, so in order to learn, I began by studying countless wreaths. I took every opportunity I could to study wreaths that were out of their frame or damaged so I could try to put them back together and see how everything connected. I spent hours staring at old pieces and playing with practice hair through trial and error.
Other techniques are palette work and table work. Palette work includes flat pictures of hair which you may see in a frame or under glass in jewelry, and table work includes the elaborate braids that make up a jewelry chain such as a necklace or a watch fob.
The Lock of Hair by Alexanna Speight and Art of Hair Work: Hair Braiding and Jewelry of Sentiment by Mark Campbell teach palette work and table work, respectively. Unfortunately, being so old, these books use archaic English and also reference tools and materials that are no longer made or not as easy to come by. Even after reading these books, it takes quite a bit of time to find modern equivalents and practice with a few substitutions to find the best alternative. For these reasons, I would love to write an instructional book explaining all three of these core techniques in an easy to understand way using modern materials, so hairwork as a craft can be more accessible to a wider audience.
Why do you think this technique could be still relevant today?
The act and tradition of saving hair is still present in our society. Parents often save a lock of their child’s first haircut, but unfortunately that lock of hair will stay hidden away in an envelope or a book and rarely seen again. I’ve also gained several clients just from meeting someone who has never heard of hairwork, but they still felt compelled cut a lock of hair from their deceased loved one to keep. Their eyes consistently light up when they learn that they can wear it in jewelry or display it in artwork. Time and again, these people ask me if it’s weird that they saved this hair. Often, they don’t even know why they did. It’s a compulsion that many of us feel, but we don’t talk about it or celebrate it in our modern culture, so they think they’re strange or morbid even though it’s an incredibly natural thing to do.
Another example is saving your own hair when it’s cut. Especially in instances of cutting hair that’s been grown very long or hair that has been locked, I very often encounter people who have felt so much of a personal investment in their own hair that they don’t feel right throwing it out. These individuals may keep their hair in a bag for years, not knowing what to do with it, only knowing that it felt right to keep. This makes perfect sense to me, because hair throughout history has always been a very personal thing. Even today, people identify each other by hair whether it be length, texture, color, or style. Different cultures may wear their hair in a certain way to convey something about their heritage, or individuals will use their own creativity or sense of self to decide how to wear their hair. Whether it be for religion, culture, romance, or mourning, the desire to attach sentimental value to hair and the impulse to keep the hair of your loved one are inherently human.
I truly believe that being able to proudly display our hair relics can help us process some of our most intimate emotions and live our best lives.
(Second and last part – you can find the first one here.)
In the Nineteenth Century, wunderkammern disappeared.
The collections ended up disassembled, sold to private citizens or integrated in the newly born modern museums. Scientists, whose discipline was already defined, lost interest for the ancient kind of baroque wonder, perhaps deemed child-like in respect to the more serious postitivism.
This type of collecting continued in sporadic and marginal ways during the first decades of the Twetieth Century. Some rare antique dealer, especially in Belgium, the Netherlands or Paris, still sold some occasional mirabilia, but the golden age of the trade was long gone.
Of the few collectors of this first half of the century the most famous is André Breton, whose cabinet of curiosities is now on permanent exhibit at the Centre Pompidou.
The interest of wunderkammern began to reawaken during the Eighties from two distinct fronts: academics and artists.
On one hand, museology scholars began to recognize the role of wunderkammern as precursors of today’s museal collections; on the other, some artists fell in love with the concept of the chamber of wonders and started using it in their work as a metaphor of Man’s relationship with objects.
But the real upswing came with the internet. The neo-wunderkammer “movement” developed via the web, which opened new possibilities not only for sharing the knowledge but also to revitalize the commerce of curiosities.
Let’s take a look, as we did for the classical collections, to some conceptual elements of neo-wunderkammern.
A Democratic Wunderkammer
The first macroscopic difference with the past is that collecting curiosities is no more an exclusive of wealthy billionaires. Sure, a very-high-profile market exists, one that the majority of enthusiasts will never access; but the good news is that today, anybody who can afford an internet conection already has the means to begin a little collection. Thanks to the web, even a teenager can create his/her own shelf of wonders. All that’s needed is good will and a little patience to comb through the many natural history collectibles websites or online auctions for some real bargain.
There are now children’s books, school activities and specific courses encouraging kids to start this form of exploration of natural wonders.
The result of all this is a more democratic wunderkammer, within the reach of almost any wallet.
We talked about the classic category of exotica, those objects that arrived from distant colonies and from mysterious cultures.
But today, what is really exotic – etymologically, “coming from the outside, from far away”? After all we live in a world where distances don’t matter any more, and we can travel without even moving: in a bunch of seconds and a few clicks, we can virtually explore any place, from a mule track on the Andes to the jungles of Borneo.
This is a fundamental issue for the collectors, because globalization runs the risk of annihilating an important part of the very concept of wonder. Their strategies, conscious or not, are numerous.
Some collectors have turned their eyes towards the only real “external space” that is left — the cosmos; they started looking for memorabilia from the heroic times of the Space Race. Spacesuits, gear and instruments from various space missions, and even fragments of the Moon.
Others push in the opposite direction, towards the most distant past; consequently the demand for dinosaur fossils is in constant growth.
But there are other kinds of new exotica that are closer to us – indeed, they pertain directly to our own society.
Internal exoticism: not really an oxymoron, if we consider that anthropologists have long turned the instruments of ethnology towards the modern Western worold (take for instance Marc Augé). To seek what is exotic within our own cultre is to investigate liminal zones, fringe realities of our time or of the recent past.
Thus we find a recent fascination for some “taboo” areas, related for example to crime (murder weapons, investigative items, serial killer memorabilia) or death (funerary objecs and Victorian mourning apparel); the medicalia sub-category of quack remedies, as for example electric shock terapies or radioactive pharamecutical products.
Building a wunderkammer today is an eminently artistic endeavour. The scientific or anthropological interest, no matter how relevant, cannot help but be strictly connected to aesthetics.
There is a greater general attention to the interplay between the objects than in the past. A painting can interact with an object placed in front of it; a tribal mask can be made to “dialogue” with an other similar item from a completely different tradition. There is undoubtedly a certain dose of postmodern irreverence in this approach; for when pop culture collectibles are allowed entrance to the wunderkammer, ending up exhibited along with precious and refined antiques, the self-righteous art critic is bound to shudder (see for instance Victor Wynd‘s peculiar iconoclasm).
An example I find paradigmatic of this search for a deeper interaction are the “adventurous” juxtapositions experimented by friend Luca Cableri (the man who brought to Moon to Italy); you can read the interview he gave me if you wish to know more about him.
Wearing A Wunderkammer
Fashion is always aware of new trends, and it intercepted some aspects of the world of wunerkammern. Thanks mainly to the goth and dark subcultures, one can find jewelry and necklaces made from naturalistic specimens: on Etsy, eBay or Craigslist, countless shops specialize in hand-crafted brooches, hair clips or other fashion accessories sporting skulls, small wearable taxidermies and so on.
Conceptual Art and Rogue Taxidermists
As we said, the renewed interest also came from the art world, which found in wunderkammern an effective theoretical frame to reflect about modernity.
The first name that comes to mind is of course Damien Hirst, who took advantage of the concept both in his iconic fluid-preserved animals and in his kaleidoscopic compositions of lepidoptera and butterflies; but even his For The Love of God, the well-known skull covered in diamonds, is an excessively precious curiosity that would not have been out of place in a Sixteenth Century treasure chamber.
Hirst is not the only artist taking inspiration from the wunderkammer aesthetics. Mark Dion, for instance, creates proper cabinets of wonders for the modern era: in his work, it’s not natural specimens that are put under formaldeyde, but rather their plastic replicas or even everyday objects, from push brooms to rubber dildos. Dion builds a sort of museum of consumerism in which – yet again – Nature and Culture collide and even at times fuse together, giving us no hope of telling them apart.
In 2013 Rosamund Purcell’s installation recreated a 3D version of the Seventeenth Century Ole Worm Museum: reinvention/replica, postmodern doppelgänger and hyperreal simulachrum which allows the public to step into one of the most famous etchings in the history of wunderkammern.
Besides the “high” art world – auction houses and prestigious galleries – we are also witnessing a rejuvenation of more artisanal sectors.
This is the case with the art of taxidermy, which is enjoying a new youth: today taxidermy courses and workshops are multiplying.
Remember that in the first post I talked about taxidermy as a domestication of the scariest aspects of Nature? Well, according to the participants, these workshops offer a way to exorcise their fear of death on a comfortably small scale, through direct contact and a creative activity. (We shall return on this tactile element.)
A further push towards innovation has come from yet another digital movement, called Rogue Taxidermy.
Initially born as a consortium of three artists – Sarina Brewer, Scott Bibus e Robert Marbury – who were interested in taxidermy in the broadest sense (Marbury does not even use real animals for his creations, but plush toys), rogue taxidermy quickly became an international movement thanks to the web.
The fantastic chimeras produced by these artists are actually meta-taxidermies: by exhibiting their medium in such a manifest way, they seem to question our own relationship with animals. A relationship that has undergone profound changes and is now moving towards a greater respect and care for the environment. One of the tenets of rogue taxidermy is in fact the use of ethically sourced materials, and the animals used in preparations all died of natural causes. (Here’s a great book tracing the evolution and work of major rogue taxidermy artists.)
So we are left with the fundamental question: why are wunderkammern enjoying such a huge success right now, after five centuries? Is it just a retro, nostalgic trend, a vintage frivolous fashion like we find in many subcultures (yes I’m looking at you, my dear hipster friends) or does its attractiveness lie in deeper urgencies?
It is perhaps too soon to put forward a hypothesis, but I shall go out on a limb anyway: it is my belief that the rebirth of wunderkammern is to be sought in a dual necessity. On one hand the need to rethink death, and on the other the need to rethink art and narratives.
(And While We’re At It, Why Not Domesticate It)
Swiss anthropologist Bernard Crettaz was among the first to voice the ever more widespread need to break the “tyrannical secrecy” regarding death, typical of the Twentieth Century: in 2004 he organized in Neuchâtel the first Café mortel, a free event in which participants could talk about grief, and discuss their fears but also their curiosities on the subject. Inspired by Crettaz’s works and ideas, Jon Underwood launched the first British Death Café in 2011. His model received an enthusiastic response, and today almost 5000 events have been held in 50 countries across the world.
Meanwhile, in the US, a real Death-Positive Movement was born.
Originated from the will to drastically change the American funeral industry, criticized by founder Caitlin Doughty, the movement aims at lifting the taboo regarding the subject of death, and promotes an open reflection on related topics and end-of-life issues. (You probably know my personal engagement in the project, to which I contributed now and then: you can read my interview to Caitlin and my report from the Death Salon in Philadelphia).
What has the taboo of death got to do with collecting wonders?
Over the years, I have had the opportunity of talking to many a collector. Almost all of them recall, “as if it were yesterday“, the emotion they felt while holding in their hands the first piece of their collection, that one piece that gave way to their obsession. And for the large majority of them it was a naturalistic specimen – an animal skeleton, a taxidermy, etc.: as a friend collector says, “you never forget your first skull“.
The tactile element is as essential today as it was in classical wunderkammern, where the public was invited to study, examine, touch the specimens firsthand.
Owning an animal skull (or even a human one) is a safe and harmless way to become familiar with the concreteness of death. This might be the reason why the macabre element of wunderkammern, which was marginal centuries ago, often becomes a prevalent aspect today.
Ryan Matthew Cohn collection – photo Dan Howell & Steve Prue, from Morbid Curiosities (courtesy P. Gambino)
Rethinking Art: The Aesthetics Of Wonder
After the decline of figurative arts, after the industrial reproducibility of pop art, after the advent of ready-made art, conceptual art reached its outer limit, giving a coup the grace to meaning. Many contemporary artists have de facto released art not just from manual skill, from artistry, but also from the old-fashioned idea that art should always deliver a message.
Pure form, pure signifier, the new conceptual artworks are problematic because they aspire to put a full stop to art history as we know it. They look impossible to understand, precisely because they are designed to escape any discourse.
It is therefore hard to imagine in what way artistic research will overcome this emptiness made of cold appearance, polished brilliance but mere surface nonetheless; hard to tell what new horizon might open up, beyond multi-million auctions, artistars and financial hikes planned beforehand by mega-dealers and mega-collectors.
To me, it seems that the passion for wunderkammern might be a way to go back to narratives, to meaning. An antidote to the overwhelming surface. Because an object is worth its place inside a chamber of marvels only by virtue of the story it tells, the awe it arises, the vertigo it entails.
I believe I recognize in this genre of collecting a profound desire to give back reality to its lost enchantment.
Lost? No, reality never ceased to be wonderous, it is our gaze that needs to be reeducated.
Eventually, a wunderkammer is just a collection of objects, and we already live submerged in an ocean of objects.
But it is also an instrument (as it once was, as it has always been) – a magnifying glass to inspect the world and ourselves. In these bizarre and strange items, the collector seeks a magical-narrative dimension against the homologation and seriality of mass production. Whether he knows it or not, by being sensitive to the stories concealed within the objects, the emotions they convey, their unicity, the wunderkammer collector is carrying out an act of resistence: because placing value in the exception, in the exotic, is a way to seek new perspectives in spite of the Unanimous Vision.