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Cat skin rug and thylacine pelt

Cat skin rug and thylacine pelt

Artwork showing the outline of an animal skin
the unquiet heart, by Amanda Stuart, 2014.

Reimagining the unwanted

Amanda Stuart is a visual artist with an interest in the fraught relations that sometimes emerge in Australia between people and other animals.

Amanda, who worked as a park ranger in Tasmania, explored the National Museum’s collection and discovered two objects that especially fascinated her: a rug made of cat skins and the tanned pelt of a thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger.

In response, she produced a series of artworks that reimagined the unwanted creatures whose furred pelts are now cared for by the Museum.

Here, Amanda explains the story behind her work, including tracking down 97-year-old Ena Harris, the woman who made the cat skin rug; finding a quoll skin among the cat skins; and using wattle bark, dingo urine, lanolin and soil as metaphors for colonisation and place.

Reawakening stories in animal objects

By Amanda Stuart

The complexities that Australians experience with our less loved or ‘other’ animals, both in a historic and contemporary context, reveal much about our relations to place. I am a visual artist deeply committed to representing contested relationships between animals and humans. Primarily an object maker, my area of intrigue is with feral or unwanted animals and how they occupy our cultural imagination.[1]

In this project I have been supremely privileged to have ongoing, intimate access to two animal objects in the National Museum’s National Historical Collection that represent the unwanted animal ‘other’. These two objects are a cat skin rug made by Ena Harris in the early 1940s and the pelt of a thylacine shot by surveyor Charles Selby Wilson in about 1933.[2]

Zoom in to see the detail on the thylacine pelt

Thylacine pelt, Charles Selby Wilson collection, National Museum of Australia. This pelt is believed to be from a thylacine shot by Wilson in the Pieman River region of western Tasmania in 1930. The region was earmarked as a thylacine sanctuary. Photo: George Serras.

Secret stories of time and place

The cat skin rug and thylacine pelt are of a similar vintage, and both are from animals once shot, manipulated and used by European settlers in Australia. The thylacine skin is from the Pieman River area of western Tasmania, and comprises part of the remains of a native animal, now considered to be extinct. The cat skin rug is from the sub-alpine Monaro region of southern New South Wales, and is made from the pelts of cats whose feline ancestors came with the ‘invaders’, and whose kin continues to thrive today. 

Both animal objects reflect human attitudes towards these species at the time, and record that they were considered unwanted, albeit with practical applications. The objects tell stories of colonisation and natural history, and provide vivid insights into settler relations with the perceived animal ‘other’. And, both continue to reveal much about our collective cultural attitudes towards animals today.

In my work I strive to create a visual language that gives form and materiality to some of the historical layers and cultural associations that I sense to be imbued in objects. For me, these layers and associations hold secret stories of time and place and provide luminous insights into how we imagine country and ourselves. Though ultimately a personal response, I aspire to give voice to a multitude of perspectives, which quote the interwoven lives of humans and animals of a particular place, through time.

Zoom in to see the detail on the cat skin rug

Cat skin rug, Arthur and Ena Harris collection, National Museum of Australia. The rug was made by Ena Harris from 24 feral cat skins prepared by her husband Arthur on the Monaro Plains of New South Wales in the 1940s. It also includes one skin from the now vulnerable spotted-tail quoll, bottom row, second from left. Photo: Sam Birch.

Cultural invasions and inversions

Introduced cats (Felis catus) once had a most positive and visible association with European colonists, who treasured their ability to keep vermin at bay whilst providing a source of ‘low-maintenance’ companionship. However, with the rise of nationalism and eco-consciousness in Australia, feral cats have become the scourge of the environmental movement. They are hardy survivors in a range of terrains, and as superb hunters are reviled for the destruction they wreak on native animal populations.

By contrast, the rarely sighted native Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) was increasingly demonised by the white settler. From the onset, thylacines were associated with stock predation, a claim never really substantiated.[3] Thylacines sadly inherited the baggage attributed to other feared top order predators such as wolves and tigers. With a bounty on their heads, they were declared an enemy to the British Empire and obliterated from the last stronghold they possessed, Tasmania. The thylacine’s true demise is attributed to humans in post-colonised Australia.[4] Today, they have become emblematic of native fauna extinction, and their passing is mourned as just one of the bitter repercussions of colonisation.

My challenge was to make artwork that recalled an echo of these animals, but which also alluded to the historical paradoxes embedded in each of these animal objects, whose values have shifted in the human psyche and heart, with time.

Fieldwork and research

The initial part of the project entailed spending time studying the animal objects first hand, drawing and documenting them, researching their stories on file, and ferreting through secondary resources to flesh out my understanding of them.

A woman taking a photograph of a specimen in a clear container, alongside an image of a person sketching a specimen.
Documenting wet specimens in the National Museum's collection store. Photos: Emma Johnston.

Cat skin rug, plus quoll

My interest in the cat skin rug went into hyperdrive when I realised it harboured a fascinating infiltrator from the native fauna ranks. Close inspection revealed that one of the 25 skins that make up the rug bore an uncanny likeness to a native spotted-tail quoll (Dasyurus masculates), an animal once plentiful in the Monaro region, but now considered vulnerable. The quoll skin had been referred to in the collection file, but remained unconfirmed.

So it was a tremendous pleasure to gain confirmation of this, with the generous assistance of native fauna ecologist Dr Andrew Claridge, from the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage.

Thus confirmed, I began to trace the story behind the rug, and extend the known details. Initially this occurred through the donor’s son, Bill Harris, who had grown up in the Monaro region, with the rug firmly planted in his childhood memory.

However, by a twist of fate and a few fortuitously timed phone calls, I was destined to meet the maker of this intriguing object and record her story for the Museum.

A long stretch of paved road with paddocks on either side.
On the road to Jindabyne. Photo: Amanda Stuart.

Rug maker Ena Harris

Mrs Ena Harris, 97 years and maker of the cat skin rug, is almost blind and lives alone in the house she built with her husband Arthur, in new Jindabyne, in 1963. They built this house when they moved from their split-level home on the river, in the ‘old town’, or original Jindabyne, due to imminent flooding by the rising waters of Lake Jindabyne.

I was honoured to spent a day with Ena in March 2014 and hear her thoughts on cats, making the rug, and living in the Monaro region since her birth at Numeralla in 1918. She sewed the cat sin rug when she was pregnant with her fifth child, from the feral cats that her husband Arthur had shot, at the historic sheep property Springwell, where they worked as station hands.

Arthur skinned and tanned the hides using black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) bark. This occurred in the difficult wartime years, as a practical solution both to keeping their children warm and ridding their home of the nuisance cats that were killing their poultry and sheltering in nearby sheds. The cats’ domestic forebears had been abandoned when their owners had gone to fight in World War Two.

Ena Harris interview

Listen to Amanda’s interview with Ena, recorded at Ena’s home in Jindabyne in March 2014.



Duration: 50:32. Transcript coming soon.

An elderly lady with a crochet blanket.
Ena Harris with one of her more recent creations, a crocheted blanket, March 2014. Photo: Amanda Stuart.

Thylacine

The Charles Selby Wilson thylacine skin is one of fewer than 20 in museum collections around Australia. This skin is particularly significant as it is thought to be from one of the last animals shot in the wild (by Selby, a land surveyor) and in an area earmarked to be a thylacine sanctuary in the 1930s.

The skin’s story in the hands of humans is obscure, however, as it was held privately until the 1980s. Believed to be from a three-quarter grown adult, the skin functioned at one time as a domestic floor mat. The opportunity to have a close encounter with part of one of the last thylacines caught in the wild was both emotionally devastating and irresistible.[5]

A black and white photo of a thylacine holding a bird in its mouth.
Debate continues as to whether this photograph shows a living thylacine, or a taxidermied specimen. Photo: Harry Burrell. Courtesy Australian Museum.

Much has been written, discussed and theorised about this most emblematic of extinct animals. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the abundance of material that reflects the potent position it held, and continues to occupy in the human imagination, and from a legion of viewpoints: scientific, political, environmental, historic, philosophical and ethical, to name a few.

Most of what is known about thylacines has been speculated from scant biological remains and historical accounts and images made by settlers. The authenticity of some of these images is still heavily debated, like the image above, taken by Harry Burrell and held by the Australian Museum.

Recent scientific evidence reveals that thylacines were unlikely to be the sheep killers they were vilified as, because their large jaws were only capable of small stress loads. A thylacine of 30 kilograms would have struggled with a prey weight of five kilograms. I believe the thylacine was exterminated due to the threat it posed to the colonial project, a fear that was never substantiated. To the Europeans, they occupied a symbolic position similar to that of wolves in Britain and Europe, despite their behaviour being more accurately aligned to felines.

However, what intrigued me most about the thylacine skin was that despite the mystery and hype surrounding this species (that serves to alienate it), I was clearly in the presence of a powerfully ‘individual’ being. Therefore, my gut response to the thylacine skin was to represent it as a once living and very much sentient individual life.

Marinating the imagination

My methodology typically involves a ‘cross-pollinated’ approach in which I marinate my imagination with firsthand research around the object of enquiry. I read, drive to associated areas, talk to insightful folk, listen to and record oral histories, and generally embed myself in as many perspectives as possible.

A paddock with trees in the background.
Springwell paddocks, Cooma district, January 2015. Photo: Stuart McMahon.

Materiality is crucial to my working process as an artist and maker. I vacillate between a range of familiar and unconventional strategies. It is an organic and inherently fluid process, and I like to work instinctively, observing, and ‘thinking with my hands’ across a number of fronts.

By drawing, sampling, journaling and making test pieces, I gain insight into the formal and conceptual languages evoked by the materials used.

For me, certain materials always elicit a strong personal gut response. I respond to their sensory aspects. Smell, sound, touch and taste all provide input.

Tannic acid connection

Whilst researching the cat skin rug and thylacine skin, I found myself hunting for a way to visually link their oral and written stories. The Museum files revealed their common practical use, as domestic floor rugs. But in terms of cultural, ecological and philosophical implications, these ‘cats’ were poles apart.

The answer for me lay in ‘the world beneath’[6]. With close observation and confirmation by Ena, the link between the materiality of these two disparate animal skins emerged. It lay in their common method of preservation. Tannic acid became the core material that I used to develop my ‘sculptural drawings’.

Boiling blackwattle bark
Boiling the black wattle bark collected near Springwell. Photo: Amanda Stuart.

Animal skins have always held a valuable position in human cultural tradition. Fur skin cloaks and rugs used by white settlers and indigenous peoples in Australia are well represented in the National Historical Collection.

The preservation of pelts is traditionally linked to a simple process, dependent on the extraction of tannic acid from plants.

In Australia, black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) bark was commonly used for this procedure. Both the thylacine skin and the cat skin rug were originally preserved this way and are forever biologically bound to the wattles endemic to their local habitats.

The tannic acid used in my drawings originated from acacia bark collected from around Springwell, the Monaro property where Ena Harris lived with her family, and where she made the rug.

Tannic acid is extracted from the bark through a simple process of chopping and boiling. I set up a camp stove outside my workshop, and produced a multitude of brews that ranged in colour from light tawny washes to rich treacle browns. These provided a test palette to guide the final works and were applied to archival watercolour paper, selected for its absorbency and resilience.

An artwork with a series of vertical brown stripes.
Tannin washes applied to watercolour paper. Photo: Amanda Stuart.

Skins and place: sculptural drawings

After several sessions accessing both the skins, as well as viewing associated wet specimens[7] also held by the Museum, I had built up a reference base of photographs, notes and drawings.

A woman's arms extend either side of a thylacine heart specimen.
Thylacine heart specimen from the Museum's collection. Photo: Amanda Stuart.
A closeup of a thylacine pelt, showing some patches devoid of fur.
The Pieman River thylacine pelt up close. Photo: Amanda Stuart.

However, after much testing, I favoured a more abstracted drawing approach. This decision also evolved from the luxury of quiet contemplation, of sitting still with these animal objects. The more time I spent with them, the more I recognised them as remnants of once sentient individual beings that had prowled their terrains in search of sustenance and kin.

The thylacine is an animal whose image is encoded with the politics of extinction. In contemporary Australia, it symbolises the failings of colonisation – at least from an ecological perspective.

Heavily loaded and frequently replicated imagery has transformed the thylacine into something of an icon for the environment movement, and I was well aware that it would be difficult to find a fresh way to visually represent it.

I struggled with how to do this particular animal justice. My instincts eventually guided me away from more literal translations, towards a methodology that spoke to this animal's more esoteric essence. I saw it inherently belonging to country.

From the onset, I was transfixed by how evocative of landscape the skins appeared. Their textures and hues read like territories, a revelation emphasised through the process of photographic documentation.

I wanted to create drawings that had a sense of palimpsest – of layering to suggest a multitude of histories and experiences that still had a temporal quality. I was fortunate to locate topographical maps that described the areas from where both of the skins had originated.[8]

I liked the notion that an animal could reflect something of its habitat in this way, but wrestled with how best to work the patterning of their coats into the human derived contours of their country. The layering up and erasure of landforms was an idea I knew would translate well conceptually in these pieces and so I drew upon my skills as a sculptor.[9]

The resolution of my struggle came about via a ‘happy accident’ during my final observation of the thylacine skin. As I closely scrutinised it in its clinical archival storage box, frustrated as ever that I couldn’t touch it, I noticed there was what appeared to be a shadow underlying it. To my wonderment, I realised that the original tannic acids that had preserved the thylacine skin, were slowly leaching into the crisp white sheeting that supported it.

For me it was an epiphany. This once free roaming animal come lounge room rug dust catcher and now rare and cosseted relic of a lost species, was making a drawing.

A posthumous drawing, over time. This was the drawing I knew I needed to make, on its behalf.

A number of artworks depicting various parts of a thylacine
Test pieces created prior to the final work. Photos: Amanda Stuart.

Dingo urine

My previous research into wild dogs and dingoes revealed that thylacines had once been plentiful on mainland Australia, up until the introduction of dingoes.[11] The white settlers associated thylacines with stock predation. Paradoxically, like the dingo, the thylacine was doomed to inherit the human baggage of another feared predator, the Northern Hemisphere wolf. Ultimately however, the thylacine’s true demise is attributed to humans, as the animal became the colonists’ scapegoat for stock loss.

A metal jar labelled
Bottled dingo urine. Photo: Amanda Stuart.

I wanted to represent the animal’s perspective in the final suite of drawings. Humans continue to be a dominant presence on the land, so I chose to represent the absent, yet dominant coloniser, in a material and metaphorical sense.

I did this by incorporating another successful colonising animal and drawing on my precious store of dingo urine.[12] As humans had introduced the dingo, a creature also implicated in the thylacine’s disappearance from the mainland, this material worked powerfully in formal and conceptual ways. It created a uniquely hued medium and a beautiful metaphor for the colonising act of ‘pissing on territory’.[13]

Lanolin and soil

What better way to represent the ‘golden fleece’[14] than by the characteristic oil it exudes? In these works, lanolin becomes a metaphor for the resilient and retentive presence of the Australian sheep industry, a jewel in the colonial project’s crown.

Soils from around Springwell are incorporated into the palette of these artworks. They function as a practical pigment device and as a metaphor for place.

Zoom in to see thylacine triptych: spirit

thylacine triptych: spirit (third panel), by Amanda Stuart, 2014, mixed media on paper, 1000mm x 570mm.

Zoom in to see the detail on the unquiet heart

the unquiet heart, by Amanda Stuart, 2014, mixed media on paper and felt, 1830mm x 1195mm.

Thylacine triptych

A suite of drawings comprises the final body of work to emerge from this unique residency. They are sculptural, multi-layered drawings that evoke the sense of skin, country and map, whilst cross-referencing both of the animal objects of my artistic enquiry. They incorporate imagery and materials that refer to these animals, their terrains and to the human attitudes attributed to them since colonisation.

The first suite is entitled thylacine triptych: body, mind, spirit. Three large works engage the silhouette of the thylacine skin, to scale. The first is a composite of three watercolour papers that fit together like a map. Cartography is suggested throughout the works, as the missing animal is evoked by a first concrete, and then ever-diminishing presence.

The ‘lost’ piece of the map refers directly to the skin of the thylacine. Its absent ‘body’ is painted in multiple layers of tannic acid and dingo urine. These layers are built up and sanded back, to suggest the laying down and obliteration of human narratives. The animal ‘landscape’ floats in a ‘sea’ of tannins, which is in turn overlain with diminishing contour lines. These lines are faithfully replicated from current topographical maps of the area in western Tasmania, where this particular thylacine was shot.[15]

The second and third works in the sequence are on a single piece of watercolor paper. They represent ‘skins’ and are worked with tannic acid, dingo urine, lanolin and soil pigments in a system of building up and erasure of tones.

The unquiet heart

The second suite of drawings, the unquiet heart, is comprised of 25 watercolor works that reflect the cat skin rug.

Transfer prints of each individual cat skin have been made using tannic acid, soil, graphite and dingo urine. The shadow of the thylacine pelt is cast over the assembled matrix.

The composite drawing rests on a red felt base, which quotes the original felt backing to which Ena Harris anchored her cat skin rug. The drawings are marginally separated to allow the red felt to show through.

The cumulative effect is the shadow of a native animal skin superimposed over the 25 cropped cat skins, which, like memory, are in varying states of clarity and erasure. The gridded red lines of the underlying felt function as ‘bloodlines’.

Tailpiece

My residency with the National Museum of Australia has enabled me to find ways of reimagining two objects in the National Historical Collection, and of reawakening their stories. It has also allowed me the space and time to confront some difficult aspects of my own European ancestral lineage, face to face.

The photographic documentation, writing, sculptural drawings and journals that have ensued from this project are testimony to the privilege of spending time with these enigmatic  ‘animal objects’. This wonderful opportunity has reminded me of the value of many unspoken voices, the wonderment of imagination, and to trust my instincts. For this, I am indebted to the cat skin rug and the thylacine pelt, and to the animals they once were.

About the author

Amanda Stuart is a visual artist with deep interests in the fraught relations that often emerge in Australia between humans and other species. Amanda completed a PhD in sculpture at the Australian National University (ANU) School of Art in 2013. She received an inaugural ANU Vice-Chancellor’s College Visiting Artist Fellowship, which provided an opportunity to work as an artist-in-residence at the National Museum. Amanda’s public commissions include the bush pack wild dog sculptures in Canberra. 

Notes

[1]My PhD work at the Australian National University focused on the difficult relations between humans and wild canines in south-eastern Australia. Historically a contentious area, my research revealed much concerning the complexity of contemporary opinions that continue to be heavily influenced by negative historical narratives associated with wild dogs, but also created an opportunity to reflect on these narratives.

[2]This thylacine was caught by Charles Selby Wilson in the Pieman River area of north-western Tasmania in 1930, where Wilson worked as a surveyor. The Pieman River area is central to the history of the thylacine. The earliest of the thylacine bounty systems was initiated on the nearby Surrey Hills land grant by the Van Diemen's Land Company, in 1836. When in 1928 the Tasmanian Advisory Committee for Native Fauna recommended that the thylacine be protected, it was the area between the Arthur and Pieman rivers that was recommended as a potential reserve for thylacines. This skin represents one of the last wild thylacines and is attributed to an area central to the story of the thylacine and its extinction.

[3]Recent scientific evidence from the University of New South Wales concluded that thylacines were unlikely to be the sheep killers they were vilified for, as their jaws though large, were only capable of small stress load.

[4]Hunting by colonists was probably the leading cause of the thylacine's extinction. The Tasmanian government paid a bounty on each scalp. However, other factors such as competition from introduced dogs, disease and habitat fragmentation probably contributed to the thylacine's rapid decline and eventual extinction.

[5] I was drawn to this skin as it hit a personal chord, having lived in Tasmania. I remember holding a secret flame for this animal, and like many, being devastated by its tragic demise, but I quietly hoped to capture a glimpse of it in my remote travels.

[6] The World Beneath, by Australian writer Cate Kennedy is a work of fiction located in Tasmania that concerns the ethical dilemma of the sighting of the last thylacine. Cate Kennedy and Richard Flanagan are writers who I greatly admire, especially in their skill for weaving facts that concern Australian history with imagined narratives. Their stories are astonishingly present and relevant in a contemporary sense, and yet they seamlessly engage with complex cultural, social and psychological issues.

[7] Wet specimens are animals or animal parts preserved in liquid. The thylacine heart in particular captured my imagination, steeped in its historic amber juices. Its teardrop form spoke to me of its restless isolation at the hand of its nemesis, and will be formative in a new body of work.

[8] Stuart McMahon from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage was instrumental in helping me access the right people from his agency that could assist in this task. I would like to acknowledge Callan Pearson and Stephen Thornton who graciously transcribed the topographical maps for me.

[9] The final drawings were worked through a process of building up materials and erasing them by hand and by using tools such as orbital sanders.

[10] This is thought to have occurred 4000 to 6000 years ago, by Maccassan traders from the north, (Dingo, Brad Purcell, 2013).

[11] Yes. Dingo urine. Obtained through the generous assistance of Rob Hunt, Research and Advisory Officer (pest animals), NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, Queanbeyan, NSW.

[12] Dingo urine is a very concentrated source of urea with an acrid odour, not unlike ammonia and fish.

[13] ‘Golden fleece’ was a term often used to refer to the Australian wool industry's booty, in the lead up to Federation.

[14] The artist acknowledges the assistance of Callan Pearson in the acquisition and digital formatting of these maps.