Interview: Catherine Martin - Our Exquisite Corpse
In early October we paid a visit to Catherine Martin, artist and founder of Our Exclusive Corpse, in her Whitechapel-based flat. When we're entering the inimitably decorated apartment, we encounter a striking lot of exceptional head objects - a huge padded moose head, Mexican papier-m^ach'e masks, portraits of men, beaded skulls and even a beaded giraffe.
Canadian-born and London-based Catherine Martin studied Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art and worked at Antique Markets following her interest in interiors and objects. 18 months ago, during a trip to Mexico, she discovered the beading skills of a Mexican tribe called Huichol and fell in love with the beaded objects. She managed to communicate with this very private tribe and luckily brought their beautifully beaded skulls over. After two more visits she took a step further and is now developing her own designs for the skulls which are hand-beaded by the best of the Huichol beaders.
Catherine took some time to speak to us and told us how she first discovered the skulls and how she plans to proceed collaborating with tribes in Mexico.
LN-CC: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Catherine Martin: I came over from Australia and did a postgraduate in Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art and then I was making work for a while but I guess it's probably been the last couple of years that I've moved more away from Fine Art into going to Antique Markets and being more interested in interiors and objects rather than art works. I'm quite interested in finding pieces that are unique and handmade and that come from an artistic background and working with the artists and then also finding objects myself and I guess changing them into something else, like the moose which turns into a toilet roll holder. Playing on ideas, being ridiculous but also having these objects for a practical purpose.
I'm working on a range of products that are for the home, mainly sculptural products that evolve around bones and animals. I'm getting these bones cast in aluminium and they are going to be turned into candle holders and I've got some old Czech Republic gym mats that I'm getting turned into coffee tables with bone hooves at the bottom. The title of my company is All Exclusive Corpse, which comes from the Dadaists and which was basically a game they used to play where somebody draws a picture on the top of a piece of paper and then they fold it and then they pass it over to the next person and they draw the body and they pass it over to the next person and they draw the legs, so it's that idea of collaborating with artists and chopping things up and changing them.
LN-CC: How did the connection to LN-CC come about?
Catherine Martin: I knew of LN-CC and I was actually going to approach you but I thought I was going to get the website up first and waiting for packaging. I took a couple of the skulls out to Spitalfields antique market which is a really great London-based antique market which I used to do on a Thursday and I took a couple out just to see how they go and to see what response they get. It was not because I didn't want to sell them at the market but I just wanted to get an idea and a friend of John saw them and she just said "I love them and I know someone else will love them" and she just passed over his details. So that was quite easy.
LN-CC: When did you first discover the skulls?
Catherine Martin: It was about 18 months ago, I went to Mexico on a holiday but also was quite interested in the work and what I could find. I quite like their old religious objects and obviously the whole Day of the Dead stuff. I was coming down the side streets, there's a lot of beaded art in this part of Mexico called Puerto Vallarta, it's amazing but it's all quite tourist orientated and then I met a guy there who had been living in Mexico for a long time and he was more interested in traditional art and authentic work that wasn't necessarily directed straight to the tourists. He said he knew these two artists who he felt did the best work in the area and so I hooked on to this little tribe that does the best work there. One of the guys is called Santos, he's a Shaman up there, so they're quite seriously into their religion and the beading is a big part of their religion. I've been back twice since then and I hope next time I go away I will be able to go up to the mountains and spend a little bit of time up there.
LN-CC: So you didn't have a previous relationship to Mexico?
Catherine Martin: No, it's just a place that I've always wanted to go and I really like the art and I find their celebration of death really interesting. I just wanted to go and spend some time there. So the first time I went I was there for a month and went back and I'm intending to spend about a month every year there to keep with the skulls and hopefully I get to know the country a little bit better and be able to move into some tribes that are making different kinds of works.
LN-CC: Since when are you importing these skulls? Why did you start to do so?
Catherine Martin: I just saw them and thought they look amazing. The Huichol don't actually speak very good Spanish, they speak Huichol, so it's quite difficult to communicate with them directly. I got some of their work in as samples and then I've sent over some of my own designs to be interpreted by the Indians there. Do you know the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco? He does such beautiful work and he did a chequerboard skull, so I've sent them over an image of that and then I sent them over some of my own geometrical patterns.
LN-CC: So some of the skulls are solely their work and some are a collaboration?
Catherine Martin: Yeah and I was quite tentative with the collaboration because I wasn't sure how it would go. I'd like to push that and see how far I get with it actually being my own design and I think that for me this is more interesting because I'm obviously more involved. I think just importing skulls wouldn't be that interesting after a while, so at least I'm involved in the creative process and feel like I'm working with them. At the moment it's just basic geometric patterns and then I thought I just send over some drawings of some more organic figurative stuff. It's sort of a gamble, because I don't know what's going to come back. Their notion of time is very different to London, they may not be able to send it for a couple of weeks because it's corn planting season, that's quite interesting to have to work with.
LN-CC: Can you tell how they're made and what materials are used?
Catherine Martin: The skulls are made in Mexico City and they're made from a type of resin. They're made up in batches in Mexico City and then the skulls are taken to Puerto Vallarta. The Huichol come down from the Sierra Madre mountains and pick them up and take them back up to the mountains. They coat a layer of beeswax over the top and then hand-bead it, so they use a little needle and they just thread the needle with these tiny little beads and just painstakingly bead it, one by one. The beads are actually pressed in, that's why you have to be really careful with them, they can't be near the sun or a heater or a fire. It's a vulnerable surface so you have to be super careful.
We've gotten onto a guy in the Czech Republic who makes really beautiful glass beads in metallic colours, purple, silver and gold, because the beads that are available in Mexico are mainly primary colours, just reds, greens and blues. That is more expensive, so at the moment we're mixing it up with using those beads and just using the primary colours as some people really like the primary colours.
LN-CC: Can you describe your relationship to the Mexican craftsmen?
Catherine Martin: Well, they're not terribly interested in me. It's a very private tribe, you can't go and visit them unless you've got an In and I've got a friend of mine there who has been living there for about twenty years and he has contact with the Huichol. He knows these particular artists who are doing this work and who live in the mountains. To actually access them, I know in Puerto Vallarta, they allocate I think two days a week where you can go up in a helicopter and they drop you in a tribe of Indians and you can stay for a limited period of time and then you can jump back in the helicopter and get back down again because the route is supposedly a nightmare. My relationship currently is just through my friend, which is fine for now, and he said that hopefully next time we will be able to go up together and he will be able to introduce me to them and translate for me.
LN-CC: Are they not interested in getting their work out?
Catherine Martin: They are not really. The beading is important to them, but their main focus is growing corn, so beading comes after corn. It is an important part of their world and their artistic heritage and they found a way to make some money through it whereas most of the stuff of Puerto Vallarta is horrible and American-centric. All of the Huichol are taught to bead and I think the majority of the beading is not necessarily that great or all sort of looks the same. But these three artists that I'm working with are doing something quite differently there and I think their audience is not that tourist-centric.
They really prefer me not to be there, they just tolerate it. To establish any sort of relationship with them I would probably have to move to Mexico and live there for a number of years and learn Huichol, because they're very conspicuous of us and very guarded with their religion and don't want to be invaded by Christianity.
LN-CC: As you mentioned before this tribe is very private. How come they actually agreed to a collaboration?
Catherine Martin: Oh, it's through my friend. I send it to him, he gives it to them and then they take it off.
LN-CC: But they know it's for you and for the Western world.
Catherine Martin: They know it's for the Western world. I asked my friend if they would mind doing this or if that is offensive to them, he said there was a little bit of eye-rolling but they're fine with it, because they need to make money. I've made sure that I paid them the best that I can, and that they are treated with respect and I checked that they're ok with doing the geometric patterns. I ended up giving them the giraffe to bead it and made sure they are okay with doing it. They're not terribly precious about what it is they're beading, it's more about the patterns and the symbols.
LN-CC: Can you explain how skull art is embedded in the history of Mexico or especially of the Aztecs?
Catherine Martin: I think the relationship with the skull filters all the way through Mexico with the Day of the Dead celebrations and acknowledging and celebrating death and giving themselves two days to pay homage to dead relatives. I think the human skull is quite important. Looking at a skull you're quite aware of your own mortality, particularly when it's human size. So for them to bead it with such vibrant colours and symbols is basically just how they approach mortality and dying. They are doing it in a really beautiful way. It's acknowledged and it's not a spooky thing, it is celebrated and they make lovely papier-m^ach'e skeletons, you see a lot of skeletons and skulls all through Mexico, and so I guess with celebrating death we're celebrating life.
LN-CC: Can you imagine doing this with different craftsmen in other regions?
Catherine Martin: This is the plan. There is another tribe that do really amazing papier-m^ach'e and they're creating crazy masks. I heard in the last two years they've had television introduced, they haven't had television before. So the masks have got this weird, tribal, kind of cartoon character, like a weird cartoon mickey mousy. That's quite interesting and I'd like to spend some time investigating how I would approach that, how I could work with that. I'm definitely interested in continuing to work with the Huichol. I like the idea of presenting them with the giraffe skeleton and different types of skeletons, so I'm still using parts of the anatomy and then pushing my own design and seeing what comes from that. Expanding, working with the papier-m^ach'e mask people, who are as well in Mexico and then I'm quite interested in moving through South America. But you really have to go there which takes time, so it's definitely an on-going project.
I find it quite interesting to collaborate with people that come from a different place than London, having to wait an extra six weeks for the order to come through because they're planting corn or there is some Shamanistic practice on and I just have to wait. I really enjoy that. Having this understanding of worlds that exist outside of London and that this isn't the only way and not necessarily the best way. I really enjoy it because it slows me down and makes me a little bit more mindful.
Interview by Lilli Heinemann
Photography by Ben Benoliel