Caracal necropsy paintings

I’ve been doing oil painting for about a year now and this was the first time I painted just for the sake of it, as all my previous works have been commissions. I took Visual Arts in Matric, but quickly moved away from acrylic to ink and mixed-media works, and only recently discovered painting in oils. It’s a very complex medium but I’ve been taking classes at Spencer Street Studio, which is a very conducive space with both students and professional artists, good light and very good teachers.

After watching some of the necropsies on the project I found myself drawn to the idea of painting one; they were completely gruesome and fascinating at the same time.

cm17_final_painting

CM17, pre-necropsy: a lactating female hit by a car on the R310 (Baden Powell Drive) outside Stellenbosch. The body of her kitten was also found.

I liked the way this first one turned out. There are a lot of things at play here… at first glance, the caracal simply looks like its sleeping, but closer inspection of the awkward body position, the limp paws, the half-grimace revealing an incisor, the puddle of blood seeping from the abdomen, dispels this peaceful impression. The photograph I worked from showed the shiny metallic surface onto which the cat was placed for the necropsy procedure, but I decided to work in a aerial view of the location of death. The patchwork quilt of farmland, into which the blood is mingled, is bisected by Baden Powell Drive: ultimately an impassable barrier. I particularly like the way the shadows interact with the aerial landscape, making the cat lie on it, and thus making her impossibly large. To me there’s the obvious tragedy of the dead mother hit by a car, but viewers will only have glimpses of her backstory.

The second painting I had reservations about doing… The source material was very macabre: a severed caracal head. This had potential to be a very dismal painting indeed.

cm20_final_painting

CM20, post-necropsy: unknown individual shot by a farmer near Stellenbosch.

Strangely the work itself has quite an uplifting feeling. For one thing, it certainly turned out a lot more colourful than I had anticipated. Particularly in the blood lining the folds of the plastic packet and in the fur and shadows of the grisly wet caracal head. The vials and packet are reminders that these carcasses provide real, valuable information to the project, particularly liver samples for testing for anticoagulant rodenticides. The expression of the cat is tranquil and resting. I added above it the dream-like fynbos landscape, this time seen from a cat’s-eye view rather than an aerial shot. I felt the addition of the natural habitat prevented the work from becoming too depressed, showing the desires of the animal and a better place than the farm on which it was shot.

These two paintings will be up today at the fundraising exhibition:

from-here-2016-exhibition-invitation.jpg

2016 exhibition invitation

The theme of this year’s exhibition at the studio is “…from here” and I feel like there are a number of ways these paintings relate. The caracals are some of the original inhabitants of the Cape Peninsula, they are “from here” in a literal sense, and because of this are threatened by many aspects of rapid urbanisation. One of the main causes of death is car collisions, but caracals are also persecuted for taking domestic animals and livestock. The latter issue is more prominent further afield in farming communities, but it happens within the city too. There is also the “before and after” between the two paintings, showing the destructive necropsy procedure. However, to me the theme tentatively questions future events: where to from here? The data gathered from these opportunistically collected carcasses will be important in understanding risks and modes of survival, thereby informing the conservation of this species and others in urban spaces. There is hope.

These works took approximately 70 hours to complete (the photos don’t really do them justice) and spending time on them each week has been a really important break from working on my MSc. It’s been difficult enough as it is… I need to find ways to stay stable and sane, even if one of those ways is painting dead wildlife.

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