I’m sitting here trying to remember what it was I was thinking when I begun this piece.
To be honest I think I had just chosen the subject (narrowed down to the male red-headed vulture, from a selection of possible vultures as they’re all sadly threatened), and unusually had a motif of a gold brocade cloak in my mind. The meaning of the two combined came later.
I knew I wanted to work the vulture portrait separately so hooped up a bit of black felt and started with this very ugly fabric collage.
I was working to my watercolour sketch, based on a photograph from the species’ wikipedia page.
And there we go:
I was pretty pleased with him. On to the next stage.
This was a case of pinning and construction and seeing what would work. I decided the best thing would be to make a sample of the goldwork I intended to add to the cloak and work from that.
I basically bought all the gold braid, grecian, russian and brocade and came up with this motif, using little pearls.
Next though I decided I’d need to create a collar to make the two elements make sense together.
That problem solved, I committed to the cloak’s decoration.
The centre strip is ready made upholstery brocade, edged either side in Russian braid, then baby grecian in loops, and finally very fine pearl purl with pearls at the end.
Then I began to attach the head with the collar, fairly open so as not to obscure so much of the neck embroidery.
I say it every time, I am a glutton for punishment.
Once I’d couched the whole halo with black passing, creating some sort of Severus Snape raptor, it all needed plunging and tieing back.
Very much worth all the work.
There are many reasons for choosing the vulture as the subject in this portrait.
The sole member of the genus sarcogyps, the Indian black vulture or red headed vulture diverged 10-11 million years ago.
Hinduism favours vultures, as cows are not consumed, so when they die their carcasses are naturally disposed of by the vulture. However the routine use of antibiotics on cattle turns these carcasses into poison, causes instant renal failure in the vulture. The decline in vultures means that the carcass rots in the field, contaminating local water supply. The digestive system of a vulture is a true dead end for pathogens, but not so for other scavengers like rats, crows and dogs who can carry rabies, anthrax and plague. As these other species proliferate, they can pass these diseases to humans and poultry, huge causes of death in Indian populations, where there is an insufficient vaccine programme.
In Parsee culture fire, earth and water are sacred and so their ancient funerary customs centre on excarnation. They believe that to reach heaven, vultures serve as holy intermediaries between earth and sky. Their dead are placed on a tower where vultures liberate the soul by consuming the body.
But these vultures are so rare now that the bodies are not consumed quickly enough, and their slow decomposition poses a pathological threat to human life, meaning these ancient holy customs have had to cease.
Global population of vultures have halved every year since the 90s, and in India there has been a 90% decrease in the last 10 years.
The aesthetic choices in this portrait, emerged in the construction somewhat. I wanted to subvert the traditional idea of a scavenger. A dirty, disease ridden animal. By taking a somewhat glamorous livery and dressing the vulture in it, rather than intending to anthropomorphise the animal, I wanted to raise questions about what role they play in reality. The associations with death and morbidity I didn’t want to necessarily steer the viewer away from, but rather, like much of my work, draw attention to the role they play as caretakers, disposers, ushers in the cycle of life and death and the vital role they play in the ecosystem.
The difficulty in photographing a piece with so much black, means that whilst I have had prints made of this piece, I’ve only had 2 made, and hand gilded the halo as a special one-off edition.
The original is available too, of course.