Rebecca Jewell is currently Artist in Residence in the Oceania Department of the British Museum. Like her namesake, Jewell’s art, finely rendered on actual bird feathers and other delicately modelled surfaces, has the lustre and polish of cut gems. Brilliant hues alternate with dove grey and subtle taupe, on tiny feather “canvases” and constructions. The brilliant, miniature birds that Jewell depicts are printed on to Goose and Swan feathers, ethically collected. The artist achieves amazing accuracy, subtlety, and detail in rendering her bird portraits, in spite (or perhaps because) of her unconventional printing surfaces. Having perfected her unique process of printing, with a heavy, hand pulled, traditional printing press directly on to the delicate-seeming feathers, Jewell underscores the amazing resilience of these small miracles of avian anatomy while simultaneously evoking the need to treasure and preserve the endangered wild bird species that have historically contributed feathers to arts, artefacts, furnishings, and regalia.

Human interaction with wild birds has been disastrous for many species. Large-scale predation on migratory wild birds, for both their brilliantly coloured plumage and as a source of food, is of great concern to conservationists like Jewell. This is a passion that informs the way her miniature works of art, assemblages or collages emphasize the preciousness of the plain or brilliantly feathered birds, and the great loss that their extinction would represent to the world. In Mediterranean regions such as the island of Malta, the birds are captured in sweeping nets and traps, greatly endangering their reproduction and migratory patterns. The collection and curating of bird feathers – for fashion, ceremonial regalia, writing implements, and so much more – has been a commercial preoccupation and cash cargo since the Age of Expansion. The small, exquisite but morally challenging works of art evoke precedents in the “miniature cabinets” and curio collections of 18th- and 19th-century empire builders. For these early connoisseurs of the “exotic,” the small trophies were similarly caged, killed, catalogued, or tagged, as for display or sale.

Jewell’s imagistic essays come not a moment too soon; a new report says 37% of all 1,154 migratory bird species on the North American continent are at risk of extinction. This is not only due to bird hunting for food and plumage, but also due to sea-level rise, coastal development, general, destructive human activity and oil spills. The report, by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, noted that birds living in ocean environments face the most risk, due to overfishing, pollution and climate change, as do birds living in tropical and subtropics forests. But these dire concerns are not the only focus of Jewell’s exquisitely finessed visual deliberations. Quite apart from Jewell’s emphases upon the dangers faced by avian species is the artist’s frank appreciation of the sheer, aesthetic beauty of all birds, and their astonishing, marvellously engineered feathers. There are also visual deliberations on the traditional uses of brilliant plumage for self-adornment, sacred ceremony, and talismanic magic. In the Oceanic cultures with which she is familiar, Jewell’s bird subjects are revered, their feathers conveying the spiritual wisdom of their hosts, which – like birds in traditional cultures everywhere – are seen as divine messengers.

The Greek god Mercury was given access to all the realms of heaven and earth on account of his feathered helm and heels, and so was able to courier messages from humankind to the gods and goddesses of Elysium and vice versa. Orpheus, that divine singer, harpist and muse, was said to have been most inspired by the beauties of avian flight and serenades of birdsong, elegant movements of the spirit he sought to emulate. The Roman Emperor Julian thought Orpheus “squandered his talent on wild creatures,” but to the divinely inspired artist and messenger, the birds were the best of Creation – were in fact the animistic representatives of disembodied souls. (New Zealand has just recently declared all creatures sentient and entitled to the rights usually reserved for humans, so perhaps this antique world-view is making a comeback.)

There is definitely something magical in Jewell’s miniature bird figures. They not only give the illusion of three-dimensionality, but also seem to contain a prescience or spirited aliveness. They gaze at us with an air of patient waiting, uncannily present, suspended in an ephemeral, fragile and fleeting moment. Our visual connection with the bird images finds them focused upon our response. They look back at us as if through time, with their gentle, conscious awareness of us, suspended here, looking on. 

Soaring High, Landing Hard: The Veneration and Exploitation of Birds New Works by Rebecca Jewell
Alcheringa Gallery, Victoria
June 4— July 6, 2016