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Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Artist in Residence Helen Snell's 'Punitive Neck Piece'

Punitive Neckpiece 
Helen Snell 2012

Laser cut cardboard & spray paint, 98cm x 110cm

At first glance, Punitive Neckpiece appears to be decorative costume, reminiscent perhaps of Maori neckpieces with their concentric circles of coloured beads. It can be exhibited as a stand alone piece or as wearable sculpture.

The spurs radiating from the centre suggest ivory tusks, serrated blades or dug out canoes.
On closer inspection the imagery reveals themes of, “massacre, burning, looting and persecution of native peoples, with boats piled up with pots and stolen goods. Hands clutch keys, grain and necklaces of trade beads that are in fact, human heads; cadavers hang limply from the end of spurs”.

Punitive Neckpiece was created as part of an on-going collaboration with the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth. After scouring the vast collection stores, a specific object resonated with Helen – the Benin Tusk, which remains, to this day, shrouded in controversy.

In 1897 the Royal Naval Brigade mounted an expedition to Benin City, a strategic retaliation to avenge the killing of a British Officer who had consciously violated their customs. As a result, Benin was sacked and purged of its cultural identity. Highly prized ivory carvings, rich in spiritual significance, were captured and hoarded by the British Naval Forces. Those that weren’t destroyed were shipped to Britain in their thousands, to later be sold by Queen Victoria's government - an event that marked the establishment of the British colony, Nigeria.

Historic events like the Benin expedition rouse conflicting opinions on an international scale. Therefore, notions of British Empire and colonisation, particularly in a museum context, must receive ample attention. Punitive Neckpiece stages the meeting of numerous perspectives. Helen comments on the irony in Victorian society seeing itself as:

“…decent and philanthropic, as exemplified by their hero David Livingston, yet the voracious empire builders greedily raced to carve up Africa [in light of this] this neckpiece is also a yoke, a head restraint…”

The artwork is made of narrative snapshots where, “…the red at the outer and inner extremities of the neck piece suggest areas of conflict, flash points, disputed boundaries, blood loss and pain. The inner edge of the neck piece is serrated in sharp points, like a blast hole from a shell.”

Furthermore, Helen locks symbolism into the artwork through a calculated colour scheme, “the red, white and blue can be seen as emblematic of blood, sea, peace, the Royal Navy and a target area”. The artwork, with the vigorous rotations of its 19 laser-cut limbs, is charged with dense and frantic imagery.

When worn as a costume piece, Punitive Neckpiece bites the protruding head of its model. The spurs hang precariously from a rigid brace; an artwork that responds to gravity.

In its original context the Benin tusk was the totemic epitome of spirituality, revered as transcendental, it was the African’s mode of cultural preservation; a window to their sacred past. These icons, with their ceremonial images, linked the Oba (Emperor) to his ancestors and Benin to its future. On seeing the photographs of the tusks in situ Helen said, “The configuration is rather like an altar, very powerful and quite intimidating”. Now, in British hands, in a museum context, this irreplaceable object is an “exotic” cultural trophy, set to engage and intrigue visitors.

The seizure of Naval trophies such as the Benin tusk was not uncommon. In fact, to this day, splinters of British colonisation fill museums and galleries, leaving them inundated with similarly displaced cultural remnants. The ethical grounding for possessing such objects faces endless scrutiny and remains the source of extreme controversy in public and private collections. In the same way that the tusk stood as an emblem in Benin, Punitive Neckpiece now stands as an emblem in itself, inviting viewers to encounter, explore and lament the feats of British history.

Punitive Neckpiece also acts a stark and timely reminder of the bleak consequences of territorial ambitions; the same political motivations that shake the world today. Helen’s Punitive Neckpiece can promote new perspectives on the art of collecting, whilst encouraging the re-evaluation our Colonial past, finding new ways to make heritage relevant to visitors.