Wildlife objects in jewellery exhibition raise storm

2008-12-26 00:00

Conservationists this week questioned how authorities could prosecute those responsible for hunting and trading in elephant tusks or rhino horns, but bypass an art exhibition in central Durban that features jewellery made of “found objects” such as wild dogs’ and hippos’ teeth and snakes’ vertebrae.

Besides asking “how anyone would even want to wear parts of an endangered animal, one has to question how these materials were collected in the first place”, an infuriated art lover said.

This reopens the debate between conservationists and cultural bodies over the right to use endangered species for both traditional medicine and cultural practices.

The exhibition, entitled “Divination”, at the African Art Centre in Florida Road, raised the ire of nature lovers last week when pieces created by designer Fiona Simmons featured prominently in local newspapers. By the time Weekend Witness approached the gallery, many of the controversial pieces — including one which used wild dogs’ teeth and beads and another that featured hippo teeth and coconut shells — had been sold.

Simmons recently completed her masters degree in anthropology. Her jewellery designs, which are influenced by traditional healers in West Africa and Mpumalanga, contain objects used by healers when they “throw the bones”.

Simmons, who is abroad, said she never intended to offend. She said the divination theme means different things in different belief systems.

“My choice of material for this show was informed by three years of research among traditional healers in South Africa and 20 years of study of West African artefacts. The use of this material is not new and in many instances constitutes part of the multi-million-rand trade in traditional healing. The difference, perhaps, is introducing some of this material as possible alternatives to what is currently considered mainstream jewellery.”

She said she grew up near Kruger National Park and sees conservation as a priority.

A spokeswoman for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife said the matter will be investigated. She said the main concern is whether the gallery or the artist have permits required in terms of the Threatened or Protected Species regulations, which came into effect in February. The regulations are pertinent to threatened species such as the wild dog.

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