EMBODYING ETHICS : ENDANGERED
Project caption by Dr. Stephen Hayward
For a Victorian anthropologist, like Sir James Frazer, sympathetic magic was a hallmark of primitive thought. The idea that one thing was connected to another simply because both things looked similar, or that one thing was the cause of another, because the two events happened in succession, was a way of conceiving the world that would eventually surrender to the authority of science.
However history has proved more complicated, for in the 21st century there remain many pockets of magical belief. One of the more surprising, because it concerns an agent of the state-the military- is the wearing of animal skins.
Think of the bearskin hat, or the aprons made from the pelts of tigers or leopards as worn by pipers and drummers on ceremonial occasions. The official explanation is that the custom evokes the glories of warfare before khaki and camouflage, and in practical terms serves as a cushioning device. And yet, as the armies of ancient Rome recognised, a man dressed in an animal skin, in some way takes on the properties of that animal. He feels empowered, while his enemies feel intimidated. This is the principle of sympathetic magic and it continues to apply not only in military ceremonies, but in many aspects of non-Western medicine, not least the belief in the therapeutic powers of ivory.
And this is one of the starting points for Rohan Chhabra’s project. Illegal poaching and human population pressure are threatening the survival of certain iconic animal species, the rhino, the tiger, the gorilla and the antelope. Now while the conventional method of engaging with this issue is via statistics, or references to a living national heritage (because these species have become emblematic of certain regions and cultures) Chhabra has adopted a different, more psychologically nuanced approach. By designing a series of hunting jackets that turn into representations of the animal under threat, he reminds us of our complicity in the problem. For these jackets are (almost) as enchanting as the animals they represent.
To begin with the jackets remind us of the skill and tradition that is invested in this ‘classic’ garment: the fitness for purpose and craftsmanship that has produced the special arrangement of zips, tabs, pocket and patches. From the sympathetic magic point of view, this heritage empowers, and it may explain why the hunter jacket has regularly influenced mainstream fashion as a symbol of masculinity and purposefulness.
As merely a fashion item, there is a sense in which the hunter jacket empowers without guilt, but then Chhabra reminds us of the ultimate source of this potency- the act of slaying a living creature and transforming it into an object, a decorative accessory, a trophy. This accounts for the ambiguity of Rohan Chhabra's work. The hunter jackets are variously intriguing, enchanting and perplexing. Rather than condemning the poacher outright, they enable us to recognise the poacher in ourselves. It is a disturbing experience that moves from aesthetic appreciation to moral reflexion. There is a sense in which these objectified creatures, neutered by the taxidermist’s art, come back to haunt us. Rohan Chhabra's ‘animals’ carry a sting in their tail.
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