Reflections on Charles Darwin’s South Pacific

In 2008, I developed a solo exhibition, Generate, for the Australian National Botanic Gardens to coincide with the bicentenary celebrations of the 19th century naturalist Charles Darwin (the project was funded by artsACT). My inspiration was drawn from Darwin’s five-year voyage in The Beagle, the impact this exotic journey had on his ideas of social and natural history, and the controversy surrounding his publication On the Origin of Species (1859). In response, I created a collection of highly decorative works, which reference the 18th and 19th century fascination with scientific exploration, botanical and zoological specimen collection and the appropriation of the ‘exotic other’.

After reading Darwin’s diary from The Beagle journey, I became interested in his observations about the indigenous inhabitants of the lands he visited. Of particular interest was his journey from Tierra del Fuego through the Galapagos Islands and across the South Pacific to Australia, which he eventually reached in 1836. In Darwin’s opinion the peoples of Tierra del Fuego were ‘savages’ because they were dirty, did not wear clothing or live in houses replete with the furnishings of civilized Victorian society. But contrary to the racist polygenistic theories of the time, Darwin firmly believed that human beings were all of the same species. His encounters with these ‘savages’ eventually lead to his publication The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex a book that sets out his concepts of human evolution and sexual selection, including the differences between human races and sexes and the relevance of evolutionary theory to society.

These facts led me to explore a fascinating aspect of Darwin’s own life: his genealogy and the intermarriages between the Darwin and Wedgwood families.  Both Charles and his sister Caroline married their first cousins (Emma and Josiah III) thus sharing a mutual grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood I, founder of the Wedgewood pottery company. To illustrate these concepts I created two sets of triptych ‘portraits’ exploring Darwin’s family, and then the many indigenous peoples he encountered on his voyage with The Beagle.

The first triptych, Generate: Emma, Charles and Josiah, is constructed from thousands of hand-punched leaves, both native to Australia and introduced. I meticulously rearranged the leaves onto tapa cloth to form abstract ‘portraits’ of Charles, his wife Emma and their mutual grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood I. Tapa cloth was deliberately chosen as the base for the collages because of its use as wearable or ceremonial cloths by peoples from South America right through the Pacific Islands that Darwin encountered. Leaves became perfect metaphors for the way Darwin, and other explorers of his time, amassed botanical and zoological collections from around the world. To create the works the leaves – free, abundant and able to be collected and hole-punched – were sorted by size, shape and colour and stored in petri dishes until reassembled with archival glue on the tapa cloth.

Redesigned historical textiles provided the starting point for each ‘portrait’.  The intricate leaf collages are bordered on the top and bottom by piercings into the tapa cloth that reference the tattoos and body decorations of the Mocovi, Tahitian and Marquesa Islands peoples that Darwin recorded on his journey. This reference to influences that are skin deep, or lie just beneath the surface, is apparent in the meeting of two cultures, whether consciously acknowledged or not.

The other triptych ‘portraits’ are not of individual people, but are symbolic of the indigenous societies Darwin came in contact with. Pollinate: Originate, Infiltrate and Eliminate represent the effect of colonisation on another culture: the eradication of traditional values and beliefs, languages, customs as well as sacred and symbolic objects and imagery. The three works carry a tapa cloth design from Samoa that is slowly being supplanted by an English damask design rendered with actual grains of pollen, adhered to the tapa cloth with archival glue. 

My use of pollen as a medium references the theory of pangenesis (the process of hereditary transmission) that was advanced by Darwin in his book Variation of Plants and Animals under Domestication (1868). The pollen used in Originate is from Acacia pycnanthus; Infiltrate it is a blend of Acacia pycnanthus and Acacia genistifolia, and in Eliminate I have used pollen from an introduced plant, the Oriental Lily, to reference the introduced culture overtaking the indigenous one. The pin-pricked borders of these works reflect the Victorian textile designs from the Generate triptych.

In the series of digitally printed textiles re-generate: 1808, 1835 and 1859, I explore the avenues open to textile designers to produce or ‘generate’ patterns and designs. The dates in each title refer to specific events: the year of Emma’s birth; the year Darwin arrived in the Galapagos Islands; and the year that ‘Origin of the Species’ was published. Images and motifs are re-worked to form new meanings, each one being generated from the cloth before it. As with our understanding of life, it is a mixture of the past, the present and the future. The blue colourings of three textiles reference the tones found in the famous Wedgwood jasperware pottery, founded by Emma and Charles’ mutual grandfather Josiah Wedgwood I.

Generate reflects my ongoing fascination with nature as a way of understanding our inner and outer worlds, challenging perceptions of chaos and control, perfection and imperfection, and questioning concepts of beauty and veracity.

[Editor's note: this essay was originally published in Cultural Threads: Transnational Textiles Today, edited by Jessica Hemmings].



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