Scrimshaw: elaborate illustrations hand-etched into bone, teeth or shell

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The exhibit includes a rare early example of a scrimshaw: an ostrich egg from 1775, decorated with ships crossing the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Photo / Provided

Everyday art carved into eggshells, whale teeth and ox horns is the focus of a new exhibit opening Saturday, February 19 at Hamilton’s Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato.

The exhibit, titled Scrimshaw: Scratching the Surface, features elaborately illustrated objects handcrafted by sailors, whalers and prisoners throughout the 19th century.

A scrimshaw work is made by hand engraving and inking designs into the bone or shell, a common practice for people at the time wishing to share the sights of their travels.

The exhibit includes a rare early example of a scrimshaw: an ostrich egg from 1775, decorated with ships crossing the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

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Developed by Waikato Museum curator Dr Nadia Gush, Scrimshaw: Scratching the Surface features nearly 30 gathered scrimshaw objects from the Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, MTG Hawke’s Bay Tai Ahuriri, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and Waikato Museum Collection Te Whare Taonga or Waikato.

“Scrimshaw is an everyday art born out of the most extraordinary circumstances,” says Gush.

“Traveling for months at sea or settling in a distant land, the usual artistic materials were simply not an option. Etching into the surface mundane and durable objects like shells and horns was the solution. their own ink by mixing carbon with whale oil, or tea, or berries, or even squid ink.”

A scrimshaw was not a work of art meant to hang in a gallery – it was a memento or memento, made by an ordinary person, rarely a professional artist.

“Each scrimshaw tells a story – about an experience or a place, or even about the scrimshander himself.”

Waikato Museum Director Liz Cotton welcomes the opportunity to shine the spotlight on this overlooked historic art form.

“It has been a pleasure to collaborate with museums across the motu to show these scrimshaw works as a group,” says Cotton.

“It shows how the items in our collection here at the Waikato Museum are an important part of Aotearoa New Zealand’s history as a nation and the connections we can make through the collections.”

Scrimshaw: Scratching the Surface is at the Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato until Sunday, June 26, daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free entry.

Also at the Waikato Museum, a handcrafted silk artwork captured hearts and won the prestigious Campbell Smith Memorial People’s Choice Award for the 2021 National Contemporary Art Award.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers 2 is a work by artist Rozana Lee, made from wax drawings using tjanting (a traditional pen-like tool for applying hot wax) on dyed fuchsia pink silk handmade, draped over a wooden frame.

Blending oriental or Islamic scrollwork patterns, Chinese silk satin and exotic wood, Lee’s work draws on ideas around cross-cultural mobility, identity and displacement.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers 2, a handcrafted silk artwork, won the Campbell Smith Memorial People's Choice Award for the 2021 National Contemporary Art Award. Photo/Supplied
Hope is the Thing with Feathers 2, a handcrafted silk artwork, won the Campbell Smith Memorial People’s Choice Award for the 2021 National Contemporary Art Award. Photo/Supplied

“Wow, that’s wonderful news!” said Lee, who is of Indonesian-Chinese descent and has been based in Auckland since 2010.

“I am so honored to have my work the recipient of this award. Thank you to everyone who voted and thank you to the family of Campbell Smith.”

The Campbell Smith Memorial People’s Choice Award is sponsored by the family of Campbell Smith (1925-2015), artist, poet, playwright and former director of the Waikato Museum. It includes a cash prize of $250.

“Rozana Lee’s magnificent work is a worthy winner of this prestigious award,” says Cotton.

The closing date of the exhibition of the National Prize for Contemporary Art has been postponed to Sunday, February 20. Free entry.

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