Work on paper
Of Palimpsests and Erasures
Maria Sybilla Merian
In June 1699, at the age of 52 and separated from her husband Merian, Sybilla traveled from Amsterdam with her 21-year-old daughter Dorothea as a research assistant to Suriname. Her sketched studies of the developmental cycles of various species and insects and plants would eventually appear in Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium in 1705.
Less well known is Merian’s status as a slave owner. To carry out her studies of Plants and Insects, she was completely dependent on enslaved original female inhabitants of Suriname and African women. Merian’s popular depictions sidestep the politics of sexual reproduction under colonialism and slavery and ignore the context in which Merian undertook her research. Instead, Merian is positioned as a strong independent woman, a sublime female scientist who, admittedly, has produced beautifully illustrated books, and thereby gains the right of contemporary scientists to take a neutral stance.
As a starting point for Of Palimpsests and Erasures I have chosen images from the original edition of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, by Maria Sybilla Merian which has been digitized by the Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen.
Through the chosen images I show a complex story of oppression, exploitation and migration in multiple layers.
The images in the original book appear to be printed recto verso*. The original colored drawing shines through on the back of the paper like a blind embossing. It is this twilight, this vague image that caught my attention and that I saw as a metaphor for the black women and women of color who have been “dissolved” in history, as it were. Their names are unknown while Maria would not have been able to realize much of her work without their knowledge and cooperation. I have incorporated images of women into these pages creating a visual manifestation of a palimpsest. Emerging from the past, they form an image made up of many layers that react to each other without one of them being able to dominate the rest. The layers are like a galaxy of meanings. The bodies of the women ‘disrupt’, as it were, a dominant history and thereby at the same time claim a place in a history that has actively wiped them out or Erased. When the viewer views the works from a one-sided hierarchical perspective, the work will not unfold……..”
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© 2015 Patricia Kaersenhout
Made by Frederick Calmes