Like my last post, this serves as a transcript to the video I posted presenting this work, for those that prefer to read. I include the video at the end of this post.
I’m going to take you on a journey to ancient Egypt so stick around if that interests you.
The story goes that in 1888 an Egyptian farmer digging at Beni Hassan in Egypt, about 100 miles from Cairo, found what was described as a ‘seam of cats’. By some accounts he fell into a hole, into which eventually some 2-300,000 cats had been packed. A contemporary account is as follows:
“the plundering of the cemetery was a sight to see but one had to stand well windward. The village children came from day-to-day providing themselves with the most attractive mummies they could find. They took them down the riverbank to sell for the smallest coin to passing travelers. The path became strewn with mummy cloth and bits of cat skulls and bones and fur in horrid positions, and the wind blew the fragments about and carried the stink afar.”
The vast majority of these remains were eventually sold by weight and in 1890 a shipment reached Liverpool where they were sold at auction for £3, 13 shillings and 9 pence per tonne, ground up and spread on English fields as fertilizer. In a questionable attempt at humour, the auctioneer used a Beni Hassan cat skull as his auction hammer.
So there’s a lot to unpack here!
First of all to give some historical context about the cats themselves. Beni Hassan was one of many ancient Egyptian cemetery sites, and the reason for the vast quantity of cat mummies is that, as you probably know, cats were considered in possession of a divine energy, and the Goddess Bastet was an important deity until the rise of Christianity. Cats were one of several animals routinely sacrificed by pilgrims to the Gods for divine blessings, in fact at the Bubastis Temple to Bastet there is a 5th century BC account from Herodotus describing an annual festival there attended by several thousand pilgrims. The pilgrim would pay the priest to sacrifice the cat, mummify it, and place it in the catacomb as a way of obtaining good standing. Later Bastet became associated with Isis, who’s obviously a very significant Goddess, and it’s during this time that it’s believed cats were systematically bred to be killed and mummified as sacrifices to the Gods. Killing a cat in ‘normal’ circumstances, however was still considered a heinous crime, and there are accounts of outraged Egyptians lynching occupying Romans for killing them.
I first heard that story a few years ago and it so perfectly for me represented the intersection of a lot of things that are currently in my work, to do with divinity of animals, beliefs around spirituality with animals, how we memorialise them, and then latterly it really spoke to something that’s becoming more and more important to me to critique in my work which is colonial attitudes. But I wasn’t adequately able until now to come up with an appropriate response.
I’m going to go through the layers of the depth of the meaning of this piece and what I’ve tried to include in it. We cannot interpret ancient animal cults of ancient times within a framework of 21st century sensibilities and it’s not my intention to criticise another culture’s historical practices or attitudes. Rather it became very important to me to use this piece to turn the lens more on Britain’s Imperial practices both in history and today.
The first aim for me was to use this piece to memorialize the cat and cats themselves, the lives of these animals used as sacrificial objects and the subsequent treatment of their remains as actual shit used on a field in England thousands of miles away from where they’re from. If you’ve been following this piece on instagram, you might have seen a post a while back that I did where I took the flowers and did a mini performance of laying them on the grave around the body of the cat, and I wrote a poem which I’ll include here.
The intersection of divine and sacred with memorialising animals is something that’s very central to my work so my gut response when I heard the story was quite complex for me to unpick those different levels.
Egypt was occupied by Britain at the time this took place and Egypt and the artistic style was very fashionable in Victorian Britain. The British Empire was extremely powerful and wealthy globally.
One aim of this piece is to present a wider critique of African treasure stolen and looted by colonial forces. In this piece I’ve used the golden collar and the rings to symbolise the material wealth stolen from colonized land, where the cat is symbolising the spiritual cost. The collar and the rings are based on a statue of Bastet that I’ve seen in the British Museum several times, and a large part of the research around this piece became about repatriation of antiquities. I learnt that approximately 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage lies outside of the Continent.
So the question was raised for me – why is it that the argument defending keeping art and cultural artifacts outside of their culture of origin often rests on the assumption that more people are able to visit the ‘Great Museums’ of Europe or the United States. But why are those country’s institutions more visited and by whom?
I realise you may ask what this has to do with a dead ancient cat ground up for fertilizer but stay with me.
It’s relevant because the countries housing these diverse global collections largely are, or were, colonial powers, and their wealth and therefore power-over and ability to take and keep these items comes from oppressing and weakening these countries, either in the past or still today.
As Britain grew wealthy by exploiting her colonies, greater personal wealth and therefore leisuretime for the new middle and upper classes was created. A highly popular pastime was needlepoint and cross stitch (also made possible because of the increased availability of cotton from plantations). I chose to include these cross stitch floral motifs as this cat’s grave offering to connect the dots of colonial wealth and the reference to the mummies being fertilizer – literally making rich England’s land. I imagine these flowers growing from the bodies of these prayers – which these animals were.
During this era, flower language – the romantic Victorian practice of using flowers to send a message, individual flowers representing love or devotion or whatever – was hugely popular. I looked up some of these correspondences and chose these specific flowers with the following meanings.
Nasturtium which represents patriotism and conquest;
Marigold for grief, despair and sacrifice;
Rose but specifically a dark rose represents death and yearning;
Sage which represents salvation and virtue;
Tansy for hostility and immortality.
Everything those flowers represent is what this piece is about for me.
What is it about for you?