Carving skulls in Zimbabwe
Getting skulls is never easy. But getting the skulls of domesticated animals such as cattle is possible. All you have to do is go to the abattoir and arrange with someone in charge to get one. Of course, your request for a whole skull instead of one chopped in two as is usual in southern African countries may be considered a little out of the ordinary. Your request may be regarded as even more extraordinary when you are a blonde mother of two young children standing among the blood and gore, and the skulls still have flesh attached to them. But if your name is Beckwith Kraft and you are married to a Zimbabwean, you tend to be a little out of the ordinary, especially when it comes to your artistic expression.
From when she was small, Beckwith has thought about death and as an adult realized how short life is. In an attempt to confront death, deal with the meaning of life and issues of ecocide, Beckwith started carving. The most revolting day of her life was when she went to the abattoir, with her two small children, to get her first skull. The men who worked there were covered in blood, a dead dog lay in the grounds outside, and the stench of blood and death was overwhelming. It was an immersion in death and decay. When Beckwith drove home, with the smelling skull in the car, she had her children hang their heads out of the window to avoid the stench and to stop them from vomiting.
The Balinese centuries-old practice of carving skulls and bones, the Tibetan kapala (a scared cup made of the top part of a human skull) bone carving and, most importantly, the perfection of the natural world in all its imperfections inspire Beckwith. Her form of expression involves a lot of experimentation and learning about taxidermy. As Beckwith progressed from domesticated cattle to the skulls of wildlife, she found that she needed a trophy dealer’s permit to obtain the skulls and bones and export the finished work. As we, humans, continue to decimate other species and commit ecocide, Beckwith only buys skulls from ethical sources: an important principle for her.
The complexity of her work has moved from the intricate skull carvings to using other bones from the animals and crafting delicate flowers and shapes from them. There is an interconnectedness of her work, reflecting the natural cycle of life and the beauty of death. Her works are simultaneously striking and saddening. It is quite difficult to accept that such beauty comes from a dead animal, that was once so beautiful. It is not really important whether that animal was domesticated or not; the animal is dead and therein lies the poignancy and sadness and beauty. Beckwith manages, through her work, to capture the interconnectedness and interdependency of all species and organisms on our planet.
Beckwith’s art has been on display at the Everard Read Gallery in South Africa and was on display as part of an exhibition for Greenpeace at Fellini in Berlin. One of her favourite galleries is Native Visions, in Florida, USA. I met Beckwith at the Art Festival in Harare in June, where her work entranced me despite the high quality of the other works of art there.
I leave Beckwith’s work to speak for itself.