About Garth

Cartoonist and rock musician. Passionate about wildlife and representations of it. Lives Down Under!

Talking “Really Ugly” Stuff!

Anything – an object, a melody, an odour, taste or texture has the ability to create within us an emotional response. This is particularly true of “stuff” created to do just that, such as the works we talk about here on Talking Beautiful Stuff. I think what happens is that somewhere, between our minds and the “stuff”, we meet with and acknowledge the story that it tells us. Often the intensity of our emotional response is greatly increased if we have some invested knowledge or particular interest in its story. For me, this is why some of us are driven to Talking Beautiful Stuff. We share the stories and our reactions because I believe it is important to do so.  But what if “stuff” has been deliberately created to be ugly? What if its story were uglier still? I think that in these cases all that remains and will always be “beautiful” is the acknowledgement and subsequent understanding of the story. It was thinking about these issues that brought back a most peculiar and powerful memory of a visit to the Museum of Ethnography in Geneva during May 2008.

I was with Jenny as I entered a small, darkened gallery in the Museum. We were alone. Dim spotlights shone down vertically from the low ceiling illuminating what I can say with utter certainty were the most extraordinary objects that I have ever seen – and possibly the “ugliest.” My immediate reaction was revulsion, leaving me feeling strangely unclean by being near these objects. I would not dream to speak of another’s emotional reaction but I can say that Jenny, unsurprisingly, did not care to join me for a second look at this gallery! I, however, was being powerfully drawn back.

Bizango 1

Copyright: Johnathan Watts / Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve

Bizango 2

Copyright: Johnathan Watts / Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve

This time I stood alone amongst the objects – ranks of life-sized figures like an army of corpses staring blankly from mirror eyes. I felt almost claustrophobic and close to panic which surprised me as in my former occupation I’ve policed, alone at night, mean city streets, but this was beyond my experience. I needed to understand what these awful things were and their story. I saw clever artistry at work creating what I felt were deliberately ugly and horror-invoking faces with pure malice sneering from their mouths. Each face was built around a human skull but it seemed that the medium used to create these creatures was dictated by other forces rather than the creators’ choice. My invested knowledge told me that this force was devastating poverty. The bodies of the figures were made of old clothes, stuffed like a child’s Guy Fawkes with stuffed gloves for hands. They were crudely painted in red and black and were dirty, old, malevolent, horribly creepy and profoundly mysterious.

Bizango 3

Copyright: Johnathan Watts / Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve

Bizango 4

Copyright: Johnathan Watts / Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve

This was a small army of “Bizango” from Haiti and were part of the first ever exhibition of Haitian artifacts associated with the Voodoo religion. The exhibition was titled – Le Vodou, un art de vivre. Truly, it remains the most extraordinary exhibition I have ever had the privilege to witness, particularly as all the exhibits were of a deeply religious, ritualistic, superstitious and personal significance to their creators. Invested knowledge, from years of reading about Voodoo, made me feel uncomfortably like a peeping Tom. In fact, I learned from an Haitian guide at the museum that objects were only given up because of poverty and the fact that collectors would pay for them.

The true and full meaning of the “Bizango” figures may never be known except to those who created them in secret places in the Haitian countryside, after dark. Serious researchers meet with real fear, secrecy, misinformation and even threats of violence when trying to probe this subject. What I tell you now is what my researches have revealed but it could be off the mark. Bizango are secret organisations who operate an unofficial justice system working on secret, social levels in this most enigmatic and unusual society. Voodoo, as a religion, has little to do with Bizango except that the two are part of and mingle within the one social structure. The figures represent the dead fighters of the Haitian revolution of 1791 – 1804.  This amazing revolution in the richest slave economy on Earth, strengthened by the cohesive power of Voodoo, beat Napoleon’s powerful French Empire and created the first Black Democracy in the New World. I think that the figures represent the idea of a spiritual judge with ancient credibilty and act as the physical focus of that idea at trials. Wrongdoers are tried by the Bizango court and if found guilty, sentenced. Zombification is the worst sentence. This is a fate worse than the death penalty as it involves being killed by poisoning, being buried then dug up and resurrected to a mindless half-life of slavery to another. Please suspend forever your disbelief on this – we are talking about Haiti. I admit that I have never been there but the more I learn about Haiti the more questions I need to ask and the answers are rarely easy on the mind or the heart.

Bizango 5

Copyright: Johnathan Watts / Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve

Here I am talking undeniably and deliberately ugly stuff. Its story too is ugly, being born from the ugliness of slavery, the ugliness of a war of revolution, the ugliness of corrupt government and crippling poverty. From my research I cannot be sure that even the idea of justice meted out by the Bizango secret societies is altogether positive. So how do I justify posting this on Talking Beautiful Stuff

I looked at and considered the string holding these figures together, the old, stuffed clothes, the childish poses which the medium dictated, the skulls of forgotten Haitians but above all the need that drove the making of such hideous creations. I added what I saw to my invested knowledge and this led me to meet with and acknowledge their story. My understanding of that story, I feel, is the “beautiful” thing. I believe this because I wept with pity and I still weep when I think about it.

  • Exhibition: Le Vodou un art de vivre – 5 December 2007 – 31 August 2008 – Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve, 65 Bd Carl Vogt, CH – 1205 Geneve
  • Book/Catalogue: Le Vodou un art de vivre – Under the direction of Jacques Hainard and Philippe Mathez. Photographs by Johnathan Watts. ISBN 978-2-88474-074-6 Published by: Musee d’ethnographie de Geneve 2007
  • All photographs in the post are from this book.
  • Recommended further reading: The Serpent and The Rainbow by Wade Davis – William Collins Sons Co Ltd 1986

The World Turns by Michael Parekowhai

The World Turns 1

Michael Parekowhai‘s bronze is a life-sized Indian Elephant apparently standing on its head with its feet attached to a rock. Beside it, easily overlooked, is a life-sized, Australian, Native Water Rat grooming its bronze fur. The work stands on the South Bank of the Brisbane River outside the Art Gallery. The Elephant is smooth to touch, unlike a real Elephant and I find it a pleasant sensation to run my hands over the wonderful folds in its skin.

The World Turns 2

Both animals are portrayed in an extremely accurate way, which for me, is the most important thing about any work. I am attracted to realistic sculptures in that I appreciate the skill involved. This may seem strange coming from a cartoonist. (We asked Garth for cartoon examples of these animals and he sent us two he had used to illustrate an article on the law concerning trapping of animals – see below!) The Elephant’s massive strength is somehow accentuated by the way it is pushing back on the rock to prevent itself being turned on its back. The Rat’s fussy grooming is typically rodentious – now there’s a new word for the dictionary! So I find myself liking this unusual work very much. I walk around it and realise that its placement with the background of the impressive Brisbane skyline adds greatly to my enjoyment.

Then I read about the sculpture. “The World Turns” was commissioned by the Queensland Government in 2011. The descriptive plaque tells us that the Native Rat is a hero, a traditional caretaker, together with the Native People, of the Mangroves at Kurilpa point where the Gallery stands. This initially seems to give some geographical meaning to the work. It continues by telling us that the Rat goes about his business even though he has shifted the World, as represented by the Elephant and rock, from its axis. Oh! Dear! I am becoming confused! Not hard to do, I know, but I don’t like it. I read on about how the work “reminds us that history is often recorded to highlight specific moments, but, as the world turns, there are many other stories – and these are central to our understanding of history”. Now I am truly confused! Obscure and multiple meanings, poorly written, do not serve this wonderful work well in my opinion.

I walk away, annoyed that what I consider to be pretentious “art speak” has spoilt my complete enjoyment of the sculpture. This situation forces me to think about which is ultimately the more important, the work or the idea that drove its creation. I know that the two cannot exist without each other and the question is a difficult one. I try to find an analogy or parallel to clarify my thinking. I find it in poetry, where I am sure that any idea is given more power by words that intelligently and beautifully rhyme rather than simply being written down? Therefore the work is the greater of the two, ultimately speaking to us of its own beauty in spite of the idea that spawned it.

The World Turns 3

The World Turns 4

City Roos by Christopher Trotter

City Roos 1

Since discovering Christopher Trotter‘s ‘City Roos’ on George Street, Brisbane, I have wondered how this sculptural installation has escaped the machinations of the Health and Safety officials and avoided immediate removal as a hazard to pedestrians who might trip over them.

City Roos 2

City Roos 3

Four kangaroos, constructed of scrap, congregate on the pavement. One feeds, two are attentive to you, hoping for a snack perhaps, and one lounges on a seat with his steel scrotum catching the sun. This is how they are if you wander amongst them at a zoo and it is this accurate portrayal of character as well as form and pose that attracts me. A kinetic effect is remarkably achieved as folk walk by, ignoring the ferrous Macropods, or giving them attention when smiles are the most frequent expressions generated. This is wonderful to behold and adds to the enjoyment of the ‘City Roo’ experience! We could all do with smiling more! I also spend time finding additional interest in the shapes of the scrap and guessing the scrap’s origin and former function. In my opinion ‘City Roos’ (1999) are imaginative, well executed and thoughtfully placed in their concrete and neon, skyscraper habitat.

I find no obvious message here but I would bet that Mr Trotter and the Brisbane City Council, who own the work, are stating Australian pride, indulging in some Australian humour and deliberately adding to the wonderful, urban environment that this city offers.

The Oxley Creek Bark Canoe

I was watching Cormorants fishing at the point where muddy Oxley Creek meets the muddy Brisbane River in Queensland, Australia, when I came across a strange sculpture.

Canoe 1

Oxley Creek, near the junction with the Brisbane river.

Canoe 2

The Oxley Creek Bark Canoe.

This is a bronze which apparently is a facsimile of an Aboriginal, bark canoe that was built to ‘acknowledge the Jagara people‘s  use of Oxley Creek’ as part of the ‘First Oxley Creek Water Festival’ in 1997. Brisbane City Council then commissioned sculptor Sean Tapner to create the Bronze at lifesize.

I felt it, tapped it and looked at it. The second thought I had, after one of admiration for the sculptor’s skill, was that if this were in the UK it would have been stolen at worst or vandalised at best. In fact it would not even have been placed in a small, suburban park on a riverbank like this for those reasons. But here it was, sixteen years on, untouched and flawless.

Canoe 3

… and in the canoe!

The canoe’s edges curl inward and I imagined how precarious I would feel sitting in it. I imagined those edges cutting into my bare skin as I paddled. I imagined the smell of fresh fish, mud and sweat; for lying in the bottom of the canoe, as if the Jagara had just hauled it up the muddy bank, is the catch of Mullet and a Blue Swimming Crab, a woven basket, a fish spear and a decorated paddle. And that’s it. Simply a realistic rendering of everyday objects. A still life? No obvious message or meaning. A council funded sculpture surrounded by Council barbecue points and some children’s swings to commemorate, in some way, a Council funded festival. But this thing was speaking to me. It forced its way into my consciousness demanding me to think deeply about it.

This canoe and its contents were resonating with rythms of an unchanging lifestyle from thousands of years ago. It spoke also of white, European, national guilt and the hypocrisy of those who believe that an ‘acknowledgement’ is atonement enough for Manifest Destiny, whilst Aboriginal peoples still suffer the legacy of it. These were natural objects because they were from a time and a culture that did not separate Man from the ‘Natural World’. Their ‘beauty’ was in their efficient functionality. Handmade, utilitarian objects, their meaning and their use the difference between life and death. No wonder it resonated.

It was only when I recognised the effect that the bronze had on me that I thought it might be a suitable subject for Talking Beautiful Stuff.

Memorial to the Confederate Soldier, New Orleans

This war memorial of white marble I found in Greenwood Cemetery, New Orleans, in the Summer of 2008. I do not know who the sculptor was. The city’s cemeteries are world renowned and some are truly vast, cities of the dead, endless rows of tombs in streets with names and one-way systems. This visit was the culmination of years of interest in this strange city, so, when I found myself in this atmospheric place, amongst its dead, squinting against the glare of the blistering Louisiana Sun reflected from the white tombs, I was in an emotional state and ready for some Beautiful Stuff. It was then that I saw him, this Confederate Infantryman leaning on his rifle. Inscribed below was:


Soldier 1

I found the realism of the style, the soldier’s pose and the composition of the work faultless. The skill involved, for me, is beyond admiration. For these reasons alone it is beautiful. But there was also a haunting beauty in the emotions that lead to its creation. This was a symbol of grief for the loss of the men these ladies loved so dearly, a symbol of acknowledgment of sacrifice and courage after what had been the most terrible war that Man had experienced to date. It speaks still of love and admiration for those who died for a lost and noble cause, a beautiful way of life and culture. I knew that culture relied upon the enslavement of the Black Race as the base for its economy but that does not detract from the pureness of the emotions that lead to the memorial’s creation.

It spoke to me also of the foulness of war, the corruption and stupidity of politicians, how patriotism, masquerading as a fine principle, can be so dangerous, how religion can create the ridiculous paradox of God supporting both sides, how the use of ceremony creates the heirarchies necessary to have men go to their death without questioning the order, the paradox of admiration for your enemy whilst you kill him, the hypocrisy of sending yours to kill theirs and then complaining when theirs shoot back and finally the overwhelming sadness I feel as I acknowledge the fact that war is as Human as is peace and that we can never be rid of it.