Author Archives: TVHerrewege

Superstitious beasts

Superstitious beasts is a body of work put together as part of my research into human- animal relationships, their associations and understandings across the world throughout history. It is the way in which different people culturally have understood particular species from the animal kingdom in certain ways that I question and explore within my work.

The works on display in the gallery at Loughborough University were a selected few I made between 2014 and 2016 and the focus is on animal related superstitions and their involvement in folklore. The works chosen were from research into this subject area in the UK, South Africa and Madagascar. These are the three places that so far I had researched, visited and managed to collate information on this often poorly recorded subject area.

I intend to continue developing this ongoing project by researching and visiting particular areas of interest across the globe. By doing this I can bring together a comparison and an analysis of cultural similarities and differences in people’s understandings of the animals we encounter and live around and also I can learn more about how the human mind works in this way.

Artworks in the exhibition.

An infinite rhyme, 2015. Mirrors, table, chair, taxidermied Magpie, books, easels, typewriter and paper. Dimensions variable.

Six mirrors mounted on easels face one another with a table and chair between them. On the table is a typewriter and a taxidermied magpie that is reflected as far as the human eye can register through the infinity effect. The viewer is invited to sit at the table and to encounter the magpie’s infinite reflections created between the six opposing mirrors. The viewer is invited to interact with the artwork by adding to the ongoing infinite rhyme being typed up before them. As long as the rhyme is added to by people interacting with the work, then it remains an ongoing development of the artwork.

If I could hear as well as I see.., 2016. Oil paint and marker pen on canvas, graphite on paper on a music stand, recorded music. Dimensions variable.

In British folklore, the underbelly markings of the grass snake were said to have been a code or language that if translated would spell out the phrase ‘if I could hear as well as I see, no mortal man should master me’. It is a defensive tactic that when the snake is threatened it will roll over onto its back and feign death. When people would encounter this behaviour they would also be confronted with these strange markings.

I decided that I wanted to try and literally translate the markings from this particular specimen and so I copied the unique patterning onto a sheet of music paper whilst thinking about how this could be read as music somehow. I then asked a musician friend to attempt to make sense from this and to write a piece of music from the drawings. So the artwork is interpreted through different mediums moving from a photograph to a painting to a drawing and eventually into a piece of music.

Untitled (hypochondriac), 2016. Mannequin, clear plastic bags and varying dead animal’s/animal parts. 170x40x35 cm’s.

The mannequin that is adorned with clear plastic bags containing animal parts is a sculptural illustration of how people once carried complete, or parts of, certain animals around with them.The specific animal was to be carried next to a particular area of the human body as a cure for varying problems with one’s health. What interests me with these old ideas in folklore is why specific species would be associated with curing illnesses in people and their logical links to human anatomy. By physically placing the actual animal’s/animal parts upon the mannequin I am trying to make sense of how these ideas were developed and to get an understanding of this logic.

Foundations for a retreat, 2016. Wood, metal tray, petroleum jelly and animal bones. 280x183x215 cm’s.

This wooden house like sculpture is built to show how certain animals would be/are incorporated into the home for varying spiritual reasons through folklore in both Britain and in Southern Africa.

Earlier in 2016 I visited South Africa and accompanied a guide through the Muthi markets of Durban to gather information on how animals are used in this traditional medicine and in Zulu folklore. I wanted to compare how these ideas are to those of British folklore.

The sculpture is made quite like the most basic start one could make of a building and with the animal parts being prioritised with importance in its initial construction. It is the foundations of what would eventually become a fully walled and secured building. A place to retreat to with these superstitious ideas people cling on to to protect themselves. The horse’s hoof in Zulu folklore should be placed above the door to absorb your nightmares. The tray contains Donkey fat which in Zulu folklore should be spread under the home to protect the place. The horse’s skull would be incorporated into the building of a house in British folklore to bring good luck and the cat skeleton is present as cats were also bricked into the walls alive to ward off evil spirits.

Fragile in its construction, the work also acts as a metaphor for the human mind and its paranoia’s and how we hold onto certain superstitious idiosyncrasies that can litter, distort and even destabilise it.

Medic, 2015. Black and white digital photograph. 37×59 cm’s.

In British folklore, the donkey has been understood as being holy, due to its involvement in the transportation of Mary and Jesus to the site of his birth. People believed that the Donkey possessed medicinal powers and so they would pass their children around the animal (usually circled around the animal’s midsection) and this would be repeated for the appropriate number of rotations depending on the illness that needed curing.

Your son’s misfortune, 2014. Graphite on cartridge paper. 29x21cm’s.

The animal that is drawn here carrying a load of scribbled mass upon its back is a called a Tenrec and they live in Madagascar. The Malagasy people have strong superstitions and there is much varying folklore (fady) from region to region based around the animal kingdom on this huge island.

In the South of the Island, local people believe that if a father wishes to rid his son of an illnesses, that cannot be cured by a doctor, then he must capture a large Tenrec. Then the Tenrec is to be taken to a sacred Baobab tree and tied to it with a piece of string. He must then pray to the tree for the safe recovery of his son and then untie and release the Tenrec. The animal is believed to then return to the undergrowth and out of sight, taking the negative problems of the boy with it.

What interested me about this fady was why this particular animal had earned this association in Malagasy folklore and whether it is to do with its spiny appearance. I am interested in the set of actions required here and the involvement of the Baobab tree with the idea of a transfer of energy from man to a tree and then to an animal.

Death chart: Zebu, 2014. Colouring pencil on paper. 29×21 cm’s.

Death chart: Fowl, 2014.Colouring pencil on paper.  29×21 cm’s.

The cattle and fowl shown on these drawings are important livestock to the people of Madagascar and to the average Malagasy person they hold significant financial value. The animals have been coloured in here to show the particular colour variations of these cattle which are deemed unlucky in Malagasy superstitions with the reasoning written below each one. These animals would all be killed straight away if born with one of these colourations and this would be quite a severe loss to the owner. Despite the extreme poverty in Madagascar and need for food and money, superstitions (fady) are so closely held on to with often with higher importance than wealth.

Banded Mongoose, 2016. Graphite and ink on paper. 28×19.5 cm’s.

Eurasian Shrew, 2016. Graphite and ink on paper. 28×19.5 cm’s.

Vervet Monkey 2016. Graphite and ink on paper. 28×19.5 cm’s.

Eurasian Hedgehog, 2016. Graphite and ink on paper. 28×19.5 cm’s.

The four drawings of individual animals are chosen from folklore in the UK and from South Africa. These animals in folklore would be killed and then their body parts would be used or discarded in varying ways for different reasons. The reasons for this are printed very faintly above and below the drawing to work like subliminal texts that explain how people would use and look at these animals.

Pica pica

In September 2014, I started a three-month artist in residency at Brooke House, an independent sixth form college in my hometown of Market Harborough. I had recently moved out of London after several years and was temporarily living in the Leicestershire countryside after a family misfortune and pending a move to South Africa. The idea of being an artist in residence in the place where I grew up seemed bizarre to me, since the nature of my practice requires me to travel, but also an interesting challenge.

My practice is based around human understanding and interpretation of the animal kingdom. I examine how, throughout history, humans have responded to certain animals, and how these responses become intertwined in different cultures. It is the variety in our perception and logic that is formed from experiencing these animals that drives my practice.

The last couple of projects I had done had been in tropical rainforests and fauna-rich parts of the southern hemisphere. In England, I realised that my choice of animals to investigate might not be so diverse and abundant with the winter drawing in. I find that growing up in an area tends to make people take the surrounding fauna for granted, and this could be the case for me. I needed fresh eyes to look at what I had around that was accessible and also worth exploring.

Following on from a project investigating animal-related taboos in Madagascar, I was looking for animals with strange superstitions attached to them. The Madagascar project resulted in a book, ‘Creature Fady’, that, alongside examining various taboos attached to animals, focused mainly on the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis), a type of lemur. The aye-aye is so feared and linked to ‘the devil’ in Malagasy culture that it is often killed on sight by some inhabitants. I was looking to carry my research on from this area and I soon found one particular British creature that was surrounded by centuries of superstition and perceived in a similar manner. The Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica).

I was staying on my parents’ small, old, hobby farm and the magpies there were plentiful. Seemingly competing with – yet also in alliance with – their corvid cousin, the crow, magpies tend to dominate the surrounding sky and landscape. They mate for life and live and move around in pairs. But, on the farm, these birds were also packing together at times and there was a group of magpies of up to eight birds working as a team. This murder of magpies frequently fed on scraps from the farm and so were clearly ornithological ‘top dogs’ and not in any rush to move on.

Magpie numbers are said to have tripled in the past thirty years, owing to an increase in carrion prey in the form of roadkill. This goes hand in hand with an increasing human population and more cars on the roads. Magpies are also said to live and hunt in areas ranging up to twenty acres in radius.

Agile, hardy and regarded as one of the most intelligent birds in the world, the magpie flourishes from Europe over to the far east coasts of Asia, extending south to the northern coasts of Africa and west to the northern states of America and Canada. Its diet normally consists of insects, grain, and berries but also other bird’s eggs and nestlings. Hence, it is often unpopular with people who like garden birds to occupy their gardens. A few people, who are clearly not superstitious, will trap or shoot and kill these birds but most tolerate the infamous magpie.

So I chose to investigate why, apart from being a dominant presence in our skies, does the magpie seem to capture such a degree of our attention? Why is this particular bird so significant in British and worldwide folklore?

Creature Fady

Creature [kree-cher] noun
1. an animal, especially a non human.

fady [fad] noun
1. taboo, forbidden.

In May 2014 I travelled to Madagascar on a three week research trip to investigate Malagasy folklore and more specifically the involvement of animals within their cultural traditions. As an artist, the core of my practice is devoted to analysing the peculiar human logic or sense that is established from animals that we, as a species, encounter. This involves both visual perceptions of specific creatures and the unique, cultural associations that have been constructed around them.

My work explores the evolution of these traits from their historic routes through to contemporary society. I then create artwork’s in a variety of media to realise these ideas. After developing a body of research in this field on prior excursions to Australia and South Africa, Madagascar was the natural terrain in which to discover more.

I certainly did not expect to encounter the very bizarre things that I did, or learn of such incredible human understandings of nature.

Madagascar is a large island, so diverse in its flora and fauna, that it evokes in the visitor the feeling that numerous distinct parts of the world have been spliced into one beautiful evolutionary mess. The reasons for this become clear when the evolution of the island is traced; splitting from what we now know as Africa, India, Australia and other large land masses during the breakup of the mega continent formerly known as Gondwana.

There are creatures on ‘the great red island’, as it has been known by the Malagasy people for hundreds of years, that hold very similar features to animals we know from thousands of miles away on different sides of the world. But there are also some creatures in Madagascar that are so unique, as a result of a more Frankenstein evolutionary process, that it is no wonder the Malagasy people have developed such unusual understandings of them and associations with them.

Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost – a solo exhibition by Tom Van Herrewege at the KZNSA Gallery, Durban, South Africa. 21st May – 9th June 2013.

The title ‘Paradise Lost’ is ‘borrowed’ from the epic poem by English poet John Milton. The poem concerns the story of the fall of man, and of (our) expulsion from Paradise.

This new body of work by London-based artist Tom Van Herrewege draws the viewer inexorably, beguilingly, into the beauty of the animal kingdom…like a snare.

Van Herrewege was on a residency with the KZNSA Gallery as part of the Gallery’s Social Art in Development (SAID) Programme, supported by the National Lotteries Distribution Fund. The artist undertook a similar residency in Cairns, Australia in early 2011. He holds an MA in Fine Art and Painting from the Wimbledon School of Art, London (2005/6). The artist’s previous exhibition titles, ‘Collections’, ‘Are you Dead’, and ‘Transfauna’, provide a telling glimpse into his abiding interest in the animal kingdom – particularly the ways in which we as people (also animals, but I will get to that) collect, interpret and portray ‘our’…and here lies the rub…fauna. This new exhibition was produced over three months in Durban in the autumn of 2013.

Notes Van Herrewege, “My research is largely informed by the history of animal representation within art and natural history. I look at the ways animals are presented through the media and their display in collections and the various languages we invent and adopt to understand them. I am drawn to the abstraction of information that occurs through man’s translation and presentation of findings from natural history in museums, Wunderkammern and collections of curiosities.

“The allure of ‘the big 5’ drew me briefly to SA in 2002. But my main subject matter actually focuses more on the less celebrated creatures of the world such as insects, reptiles and other lesser known or admired fauna.” Most notably, as the artist expressed in casual conversation, “creepy-crawlies that can kill you…”

Tom’s interest in taxidermy (fraught as this art form is with a history replete with hunting and expropriating) lead him in Durban to investigate the dioramas at the Durban and Pietermaritzburg Natural Science Museums. This artist’s work often depicts features from animal forms, juxtaposed with man-made materials in order to highlight the beauty of the animal. With trepidation the artist approached these institutions with a view to placing his sculptures in the dioramas.

“It is the ways that animals are removed from their environments and understood as both objects and living beings that informs my artistic research and practise, within which no animals are ever harmed or killed for the purpose of making art.  I choose to portray animals in my work through a great admiration for them. I re-examine these subjects using the animal’s physical form as an entry point for transformation into a different physical form – placed in a reconsidered locale. These reworked images act quite like my own solutions to the complexity of the animal forms.

In his ‘Diorama series’ of acrylics on canvas the artist treats the diorama diagrams as utopian colouring books. Without the text that conventionally accompanies each diagram they become mysterious and open to various interpretations, leaving one to wonder what is happening in the scene. He includes paint and colour as a human interference, mainly taking form as waste material that the animals are interacting with.

“What attracted me to these diagrams is the simple use of lines and shapes and the bare minimum of information as drawings. Also the numbering system can suggest a process of actions once the text is taken away from the diagrams.” It provides a telling testimony to the role of colonial collectors in the debasing of the dignity inherent to all creatures that these dioramas reflect.

Included in the ‘Diorama series’ are photographic prints depicting Van Herrewege’s sculptural works placed into these utopian scenes. The artist’s innovative use of often synthetic materials provides a foil to the natural beauty of the long-dead diorama inmates, and as such the juxtapositions acquire an alien, almost apocalyptic feel.

These works do not humanise, rather they speak to inhumanity.

They appear as assemblages of litter in a constructed natural environment (the dioramas) that may have been created out in the wild. And they are placed so the animals are encountering them in various different ways.

Protecting the object, attacking the object, investigating the object…the proverbial hunted hunting the hunter reveals itself as a powerful raison d’être in Van Herrewege’s work.

Stuffed bears can be dangerous…..the photographic installation views of the artists foray into the polar bear diorama at the Natal Museum necessitated the donning of an obligatory protective ‘space suit’ complete with gas mask. This because the polar bear in question is riddled with arsenic. The key to the durability of Victorian taxidermy lies with a recipe (as a preservative) known as ‘arsenical soap’, highly effective against insect attack, arsenic is also toxic to humans. Because of its toxicity the use of arsenic is now prohibited in the museum community.

‘Everyone Against The Fucking Outback’ (Videography, 10 mins) is a chilling take on the phobias that we humans so commonly endure for venomous snakes and insects. Here the work suggests that these phobias extend to the cultural prejudices that the ‘civilised’ citizens of urbanity feel toward the uncivilised outback or ‘wilderness’.

The video presents the artist’s reaction to the segmented form of the Scolopendra centipedes (aka giant centipedes) that were common sightings when Van Herrewege spent a short time working on a sheep station in central Queensland. We South Africans typically kill them with a brick. (The crawlies here were safely returned to Burnam Bush and Pigeon Valley in Durban, from whence they came.) The text written on the segmented spines of the centipedes infer to a phrase the artist overheard in a bar, “Everyone against the fucking outback” Why is the notion of modern (human) city life so antithetical to the notion of the wild or ‘untamed’?

An extraordinary sculptural series presents four very real, very deadly steel spring ‘bear traps’, subverted by the artist to include the addition of equally real sharks jaws and teeth.

There is a videography work of a venomous snake resplendent and very much alive in a non-existent drawing of a box on the Gallery wall.

“I tried to break the spell of the wilderness, which held him in its grasp, reminding him of how he had satisfied his monstrous desires. I was convinced that his dark and secret feelings and instincts were what had brought him out to the jungle in the first place, where he could be beyond the rules of society. The terror I felt was not the fear of being killed, though I did feel that too…I tried to break the spell, the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts.” Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.

Whilst it seems that we may have been expelled from paradise, as the title of this exhibition suggests, our collective humanity is not quite out of the woods yet. A must see exhibition.

Bren Brophy

KZNSA Gallery Curator in conversation with Tom Van Herrewege


May 2013

Window space: Tom Van Herrewege

Window space: Tom Van Herrewege

Tom Van Herrewege’s drawings and sculptures will be occupying the window space at Erlang house from December 5th 2011 until January 5th 2012. Within this body of work he is looking at how design is often influenced and informed by aspects of form from the animal kingdom. Although the images and objects created take a reverse and somewhat abstract approach to this and the resulting work suggests a series of unusable or useless instruments. Tom’s work has been inspired largely by curiosities from Wunderkammer collections and other museums over the last few years and he is interested in their relationship with modern sculpture and what it is that defines a curiosity.

Tom was born in Leicester, and completed his BA at Loughborough College of Art and his MA at Wimbledon College of Art in 2006. He now lives in London and was recently artist in residence at Tanks Art Centre, Cairns, Australia.


Transfauna: Tom Van Herrewege.

Tanks Art Centre, Cairns, Australia: March, 2011.

I am a London based artist and I have been artist in residence at Tanks art centre for two months starting back on the 11th of January. I came to Australia to pursue my research and practice in areas surrounding tropical fauna.

My work is inspired by the incredible diversity of a particular animal’s physical form. I am interested in mans and my own individual interpretation of this throughout history and the ways in which the other is perceived through different aspects of cultures. It is the ways that animals are removed from their environments and understood as both objects and living beings that informs my drawings and sculptures.

I try to re-examine these subjects using the animal form as a base material and as a starting image that can then be transformed into a different physical form and placed in a reconsidered locale. These reworked images act quite like my own solutions to the complexity of the animal forms.

My research is also informed by the history of animal representation within art and natural history. I look at the ways animals are presented through the media and their display in collections and the various languages we invent and adopt to understand them.

Within my practice no animals are ever harmed or killed for the purpose of making art. I choose to portray animals in my work through an admiration for them and do not believe any living thing should die for the sake of art.

The exhibition that has come together from residency program is made up of two projects that have come together whilst I have been based out here.

Crocodiles in Christianity and western culture.

These drawings on photographs are a project that I had been researching back in England and I thought Australia would be an ideal place to develop it further. I began reading about how medieval Europeans, particularly the French, Italian and Spanish, that began trading with and visiting African countries, such as Egypt, would bring back preserved dead Crocodiles and hang them in their churches. These reptiles were hung high up and often from the ceiling in with intentions to protect the people from the devil and as a celebration of god’s greatness.

The way these animals were repeatedly hung from the ceilings of medieval churches in creative manners to me suggests more that the appearance of this grand beast would complement the gothic stone and wood work in their architecture. I am always interested in the repetition of the use of the animal as a decorative and/or symbolic object and how it is presented whether it’s the display of live animals in zoos or the preserved dead creatures in museums.

In many cultures the crocodile is understood as a protector and a threat to us or a sign of death. Yet today we also farm them and use them for education and entertainment. I find the changing relationship man and crocodile has shared through time to be fascinating.

Curio drawings.

This small series of drawings are me trying to push my practice into a more abstracted method of working to previous pieces I have made. Two of the drawings depict my own designed curio’s,’ Lizard Umbrella’ and ‘Lance for Ophidiophobia’, and suggest a specific function like many old curiosities. There are also the four works that all feature part of an invertebrate, Crab, Mantis, Rhinoceros Beetle and Butterfly, and are juxtaposed amongst other man made materials that I choose to include in order to highlight the curious and the beauty of the animals form. I am always very interested in curiosities from old collections that follow the similar principles in their reasoning. These curios are made to exist as weird and often surreal objects that glorify nature and make no attempt to make sense in their design. With these works I am looking at the relationship that these curios have to fine art sculpture and to what extent they differ in their intentions.

Once I had made these miniature objects then the process of drawing them would transform the curio further through mark making, use of scale and removing colour. I found making these works challenging in that science fiction has borrowed so much from the insect world to create its characters and when drawing these objects it is almost impossible not to see these figures or creatures emerging. So the materials I used were chosen to be domestic and familiar to avoid this connection as much as possible yet still alien enough in texture and shape to evoke something curious.

Whittled rays

Tom Van Herrewege.
August 22nd-September 11th 2009

Tom Van Herrewege’s new series of works are an exploration into the process of creating Jenny Haniver’s. A Jenny Haniver is a dried out Skate or Ray that has been folded, cut, strung together and left to dry. It then shrivels into the form of a peculiar demon-like character. The craft is an old sailor’s trick that was used to profit from naïve tourists.

The distinguishing features are caused by the sun forcing the skin and flesh to tightly accentuate the animal’s nostrils and mouth, thus creating a prominent ‘devil face’ that appears to be grinning. The sixteenth century Naturalists Ulysses Aldrovandi and Conrad Gesner chose to draw and describe these fantastical beasts within their work and claimed that the creatures actually existed.

Van Herrewege’s practice for the last few years has involved working with taxidermy as a primary sculptural medium in exploring animal subjects form and how we perceive them. Using that platform, creating Jenny Haniver’s and learning the nature of this botch taxidermy process is something the he has chosen to investigate further.

The artist has interpreted this act as similar to Animal Origami and is intrigued by how this brutal and simple process has been repeated on coastlines worldwide for hundreds of years. The sailor’s desire to whittle the Skates and Rays time and time again in such a fashion becomes a reaction to their flat diamond like form through passed on knowledge. And although Jenny Haniver’s (Jeune de Anvers to the French speaking and Garadiabolo’s to the Spanish) are created to be sold as novelty curios, they also demonstrate a contrived transformation of physically altering an animal to artefact.

Within this study the ancient process of creating Jenny Haniver’s is examined through drawing, sculpture and film. Tom has created a series of ten latex Rays stretched in a manner that refers to the language of traditional oil painting. Each individual work acts as a motif for the animal that is continuously repeated spanning the entire wall. There are ink drawings on some depicting Jenny Hanivers previously made by various craftsman so that your eye is drawn from the motif to its possible metamorphosis. Others display copies of Aldrovandi and Gesner’s original drawings of the creature to reveal how they were perceived throughout history.

There is a film piece that shows the artist performing a demonstration of how to create a paper aeroplane form using a dead Skate on a cliff top in south east England. The film shows Van Herrewege’s own taxidermic process of making such an artefact in a delivery that mimics educational television programmes such as ‘Blue Peter’. The viewer can watch and learn from this bizarre and quite savage process but the work also highlights the absurdity of the act of Animal Origami and its reasoning. The artist is demonstrating a procedure to an audience that supposedly anticipates the critical moment being ‘here is one I made earlier’. The soundtrack to the film was made by a music producer in collaboration with the artist to echo the individual stages and actions as the process develops.

The exhibition also includes a selection of drawings and photographs that describe the developments and research methods within the project.