This is a bit of an odd final project for this year. I mean that reflectively.
I started out with my fabric ‘underpainting’.
This portrait really revolved, initially, around an idea:
I designed this collar on organdie, in chain stitch with machine thread.
Almost a third of this isn’t even visible in the final piece but I like it just the same.
It was then time for me to return to upholstery fringe.
All the pieces in place, it was time to stitch everything down.
Then the work of actually embroidering the portrait began. This was perhaps where it started to get away from me.
It was important for me to challenge myself with keeping my hand loose to describe the fur. I have to admit at this stage I thought this was a very ugly mess.
But it was the eyes I found the most challenging, as if I’ve never said that before. I never felt as though I resolved this detail and as a result I believe this piece to be my weakest work for a long time.
At the same time it was also giving me ‘Laughing Cavalier’ vibes at this point.
I think I was happier with the eyes close up, but really I never fully rectified them.
I called the face a day. I think in the embroidering it had lost some of the essential ‘hyena-ness’ that I felt I had in the underpainting, and I wasn’t able to pull it back to that. It was my first time creating fur with embroidery and although there’s parts of it I’m happy with, I felt there was more merit in not overworking it and later analysing what went wrong and what I could learn from it, than ripping out or giving up.
Anyway, onto the ears.
And that was the portrait complete.
The last stage was the assemblage – I had to render the body fur – I decided to do this fairly simply with straight running stitch, there was enough going on in the rest of it.
Also to do was a little bit of embellishment on the collar with pearls and glass drops.
Then finally, the nimbus.
I wanted the halo in this one to be a bit different than previous ones and to stand for the magic and witchcraft the hyena is often associated with in the folklore of the people they exist near. I went for a fine green metallic thread with a slight geometric motif.
So what went wrong?
In part I think when I started this piece originally I was looking specifically at the brown hyena, as the most threatened species of hyena. In the early stages though, the more recognisable features of the spotted hyena crept in to the face shapes. Unfortunately I think the portrait ended up being a sort of hybrid and so lost the impact a bit for me.
I wanted this piece to subvert the accepted narrative in popular culture that the hyena is a dirty, stupid, cowardly thief.
Hyena live in highly organised maternal/matriarchal societies, where all their behaviour is about providing for their pack. Writing them off as nothing more than a crazy scavenger is to provide a space into which the human threats that are pushing them towards extinction can take greater hold. Perpetuating this narrative allows such persecution to feel more justified, more explicable.
Hyena are some of the most uniquely intelligent mammals in existence. Highly effective hunters in their own right, some species in the genera kill as much as 95% of their food rather than stealing it. Where they are scavenging, they’re driving off much larger predators, like lions, despite their cowardly reputation.
Hyena feature prominently in the folklore and mythology of the humans that live alongside them, going back tens of thousands of years. Negative associations around witchcraft and grave robbing has cast them as demons, witch-familiars, were-hyenas, vampires and jinns, and again these myths have created a space into which their body parts are coveted as talismans in love and fertility magic.
Western perceptions have been equally negative and far more ignorant.
A hyena biologist attempted to sue Disney for defamation of character on the release of The Lion King, and another – who had organised the animators’ visit to a Field Station for Behavioural Research, where they would observe and sketch captive hyenas – suggested boycotting the film.
Ironically, hyena are at huge risk from being killed, usually poisoned, shot or snared by farmers who mistakenly believe that they have killed the cattle they are now scavenging, a ‘crime’ equally likely to have been committed by cheetah or the king of the jungle – the lion.
I made this piece almost as a companion piece to The Emancipator, as a comment on scavengers and their typical perception. Both animals are plagued by negative perceptions which lead to harmful beliefs and ultimately deadly threats. ‘Dressing’ both animals in their respective finery is a device to suggest an alternative narrative might be present, rather than an attempt to anthropomorphise on my part.