Interview by Jones Grey
Photography by Claire Rosen
This interview was featured in Sinical #16. Print copies can be purchased here.
Who says death has to be morbid? For taxidermy artist Divya Anantharaman, art comes in the form of girly, gorgeous, and even cheeky displays of life after death. “I love storytelling, and I think my style is a reflection of the way I experience stories, and the way I would like to share them with others,” she says of her genre-crossing creations. A native of Miami currently living in Brooklyn, Divya, owner of Friends Forever Taxidermy, teaches classes on preservation techniques and mixes traditional practices with an often humorous or light-hearted twist. She is the taxidermist-in-residence at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum, and her resume boasts of everything from BBC Science publications to Los Angeles art galleries. “Science is a way of making sense of the world, and art is a way of making sense of the world-the two overlap graciously, and that is a beautiful place to be,” remarks Anantharaman. Divya’s art brings a welcomed lightness to a typically noir-esque genre. “Where some would think it is morbid to surround oneself with death, I see it as a constant reminder of how valuable life is.”
Jones Grey: How old were you when taxidermy first struck a chord in your artistic taste?
Divya Anantharaman: I always think back to when I was 5 or 6 years old, and seeing a tiny lizard crawl into our outdoor bug zapper lamp. I was horrified, but intrigued. I had an red and orange cookie tin of my collected rocks, seashells, plants, and other little treasures from walks outside, so I felt the urge to do the same with the lizard. Although the life force had left his body, I thought somehow he would be happier resting in a bed of treasures instead of being forgotten. I quickly learned about decomposition, since he stunk after a few days, and my mom threw it out. From that point, I was intrigued by that liminal space between life and death. Another big impact was my mom being a biology teacher-she always presented anatomy and science as something beautiful and natural, not gross.
JG: What kind of audience is usually drawn to your creations?
DA: The uniting characteristic in the audience is curiosity! I’ve had all sorts of people drawn to my pieces-oddity collectors, artists, Wall Street types, I really can’t think of just one type of person, as everyone who owns one of my pieces is so totally different. One of the coolest things is a first time buyer-someone who says “I never thought I’d buy taxidermy, but I’m really drawn to this” or “This will be the first piece in my collection of curiosities”. That gives me butterflies!
JG: What is the strangest piece you’ve ever transformed?
DA: As of now, the strangest thing I have ever worked on was a two faced kitten-or Janus kitten. This was a pet commission, from a client whose cat had given birth to the little fellow. I usually have very long conversations with people before taking on pet commissions because, as a pet owner myself, I know that even if I capture every single anatomical detail, I still can’t re-create the personal connection and emotions that we create in a human-pet relationship. So you could say this was a special case in that manner too! The poor kitty did not live very long due to the obvious physical complications. The client decided to have his pet preserved in order to pay tribute to and respect the life lost, and preserve a memento of nature’s mutations and rarities. Although very small (a bit less than 4 inches nose to tail), this was probably one of the most intricate pieces I have worked on since we wanted to preserve all of the physical deformities.
JG: From whom do you draw inspiration?
DA: I draw inspiration from so much, and I’m really lucky to be surrounded by it. Each piece is first inspired and informed by the animals, which are often forgotten or overlooked. Other than my friends and family, I am inspired by the strong community of taxidermy artists and enthusiasts, and by very inspired by strong women. Bjork, Siouxsie Sioux, Isabel Allende, Delia Akeley, Nina Simone, Jean Roll, but really, all the brave and bad-ass women who don’t let anything hold them back from being, and loving, themselves. And I love to read-storytelling has a special value in my heart and so it is hard to narrow down books or authors, but Alice in Wonderland, Murakami, Poe, Lovecraft, and Rumi are a few at the top of my mind.
JG: How does your art echo moments in your life?
DA: I grew up in Miami, and unlike what most people think, it is a city that extends way beyond the scene of South Beach. When my parents moved to the U.S. from Jamaica/India, they worked their way up in what some people call “the old fashioned way”, focusing on building a good life and a happy family. Some of the early years were spent living in rough neighborhoods, so they instilled the importance of a sense of awareness. They were also very strict about discipline and respect, but not at the expense of living freely with joy and passion. They were also very adventurous and friendly, always welcoming new friends and new experiences, and making things work whether they had $1 or $100 in their pocket. These traits have stuck with me the most, and as I grew older and began to explore the world on my own. I love life-the outdoors, dancing, beaches, jalepeno poppers, spiking the punch-but I know it is a limited experience. Taxidermy is a meditation on mortality, and it has helped me realize that, at my best, I am a fairly meditative person.
JG: How do you think the modern popularity of taxidermy art is changing the landscape for death-inspired creators?
DA: I hesitate to say taxidermy is having a”comeback” or anything like that since I don’t see this as a trend, but as part of a larger societal shift. One part of me sees it very much in step with eating sustainable food and questioning where your food comes from, or keeping house plants, or enjoying pets-we are humans, and we love nature. Ever since we have been living indoors, especially as we have been moving to cities, we seek ways to bring the outdoors in. Keeping reminders that help us appreciate and study the wonders of the natural world. Another part of me sees it as a new frontier of exploration. We live in a time of increased accessibility and ease of sharing information and ideas. Things that were once very exclusive have now become very inclusive-and available. I encounter so many people who are discovering taxidermy now-buyers and creators- that would not have had the opportunity to discover it as recently as 20 years ago. For those who make art, we have so much technical information available, from traditional and non traditional sources. The landscape for creators means more room for exploring intentions, innovation, and sharing, and less of a reason to feel as though one is sounding off in an echo chamber. It is a good thing that we are now asking questions about, meditating on, and confronting death. But for those who scoff at it as a “trendy hipster hobby”-I think they are just uncomfortable with the questions or ideas they are faced with, or are too lazy and close-minded to entertain a different perspective than what they are used to. |
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