Wonderfully beastly: In conversation with Michaela Younge

To try and decipher a hierarchy to Cape Town artist Michaela Younge’s felt tapestries is an exercise in futility. The Hieronymus Bosch-like tableaux are governed by a dreamlike logic, where swans wear top hats, pigs speak on cell phones and a green alien peruses the meat isle in a supermarket. In this world, nothing is as it should be, but that, we’re led to believe, is a perfectly normal state of being. Nudity, anthropomorphism and ultra-violence are as commonplace as having a drink or mowing the lawn. Dead bodies, severed limbs and carcases are scattered about casually. There’s a fabulous ambivalence to violence and carnage. In this world, bodies are merely meat; a man reposes in a butcher’s window—just flesh on display.

The popular trope in fairy tales and folklore of one’s true identity being hidden within a beastly outward appearance is here inverted and turned inside out. When the mask comes off or the animal sheds its skin, it’s not Prince Charming who appears, but another animal or some indeterminable creature. Should we read this through a psychoanalytical lens? Is this a comment on human nature? Or is this merely a fantastically curious world where up is down and down is up?

Michaela’s work is an incongruous mix of playful and macabre, dark humour and whimsical aesthetics. Wool and embroidery have historically been associated with female domestic crafts. Michaela’s devilish tapestries reimagine this medium in a wholly contemporary and subversive manner, all the while retaining a wry knowing glance backwards. Pastoral scenes are now populated by cowboys and cute animals have run amok. In her recent solo exhibition ‘Nothing Bad’, adolescent daydreams, fantasies and questionable life decisions play out in bedroom scenes. But beneath the Sweet Valley High façade and pop-culture nostalgia trouble lurks…

AMM: Hi Michaela! When we last spoke you had recently graduated from Michaelis School of Art in Cape Town. How has your approach to your work and career developed since then? What have been some of the things that have influenced you and led to you working in wool and felt tapestry?

MY: I first started using commercial felt while I was at Michaelis, combining it with leather and animal skin. This was when I was making horse heads, and bladders etc. Since then the animal hasn’t left my work, but the medium has evolved into wool tableaux (for lack of a better word). There are a few characters that have popped back into my works along the way, such as the hobby horse and the lone horse head.

While I was using the commercial type wool, I guess that’s when it occurred to me that I’d like to create my own. It made sense. I’ve always loved medieval tapestries, and in a way this is my interpretation of a modern tapestry.

AMM: What is your process of working?

MY: I don’t have a process of working that works every time, sometimes I know exactly what I’m doing, and then like everyone else—sometimes it feels like I’m feeling around in the dark. Generally I start off with an idea, whether that be a place or even a character and I work from there, either with sketches or writing things out. Basically I have lots of scraps of paper on my desk.

AMM: You’ve recently had a solo exhibition at SMITH Gallery in Cape Town titled ‘Nothing Bad’. What ideas and themes were you exploring in this body of work?

MY: In my show ‘Nothing Bad’, that opened 9 May at SMITH, I didn’t focus on one idea or theme, rather there were a few underlying the different works. Nothing Bad begins with a half-moon work titled ‘Butcher’s Hooks, Baked Goods and Romantic Candles’. The title references the nursery rhyme Rub-a-dub-dub. The butchery is seen again, in ‘Canned Ham & Prime Cuts’, where a plucked chicken runs free across the frame, and a duck hangs sadly in the backroom. The butchery is an interesting space, the head of the animal is generally removed from the body, creating a separation between the meat and the identity of that particular animal, allowing us to maintain a guiltless conscience.

There may be some reference to hidden identity in the work as well, the customers don’t seem to be interacting with each other. A man with a cane looks away from the viewer while a man in a green screen outfit walks into frame from the right. The green screen man’s face is completely covered, you could rob a bank in this outfit basically! His green outfit is glaringly conspicuous in the outside world, however when he’s on set he is invisible, a nobody.

Nothing Bad comes back as a sort of mantra between the works, however there are bad things happening. In ‘Equine Peep Show’, a cowboy has been shot, bleeding as he lies on the ground, and in ‘I was forced to order Italian food, which is unfortunate, as I hate Italian food’, the restaurant chef chases an escaped lobster into the dining room with a knife.

As you walk through the space into the second room, the works turn more to a theme of domesticity and the everyday, with high school scenes, and home interiors. In ‘The vinyl might be sloppily done, but the room always smells pine fresh’, a man reads the newspaper as he sits on the toilet. There is a sense of domesticity, the colours are warm, and yet the man’s expression is somewhat confused to be caught at such a time. At first glance, the piece seems almost friendly, and then you notice that the sink is overflowing, and the fat cat has killed a rat on the vinyl, and a hand-mirror lies cracked in the corner.

The back wall of the show is painted baby blue with red roses, mimicking the wallpaper of the work hanging there titled ‘Are you looking for an excellent investment?’ in an attempt to expand the work into the space. That work is almost the epitome of domesticity and family, as you can see that it is the night before Christmas. A fire burns in the grate, next to a decorated tree over a pile of wrapped presents. However all is not well, as Santa drank too much red wine and his willy hangs out, while Krampus crouches next to the tree, waiting to punish naughty children.

Canned Ham & Prime Cuts, merino wool on felt, 59 x 64 cm

AMM: Do you feel like this exhibition closes a chapter or lays the ground for further exploration in your work?

MY: I feel like my exhibition Nothing Bad is only the beginning of more exploration and play with the materiality of wool and fabric. I love working with wool. In the last two years, I have also been experimenting with found materials and mixing in elements of embroidery. And I’ve definitely become a lot more proficient.

AMM: In your felt tapestries, everywhere you look there’s something bizarre going on. Does each work tell a single story, or perhaps many stories at once? What role does narrative play in your work?

MY: In my works, there are generally multiple storylines happening simultaneously. For example, in ‘Trinket, Basket, Grandpa’s in a Casket’, it appears at first glance to talk about domestic felicity—a loving wife bringing in a tray of biscuits for her husband, and yet there he is, tied up on the floor. The large expanse of lime green wall—almost sickly—and a shadow that is cast over a green armchair and up onto the wall behind plays into this malaise. There is the narrative of the wife, and there is the husband’s narrative, which are very different.

In the woman’s right hand, she has a glove puppet or doll, which cites a ventriloquist’s dummy. A dummy or puppet draws the attention away from the ‘puppeteer’, or the one pulling the strings. A person is able to speak through the dummy, transferring responsibility away from oneself, for instance, if you tell a bad joke that falls flat.

The communication breakdown between the two people is emphasised by the fact that the man’s teeth sit in a glass of water by his head, thus further muting him— perhaps the red rose in his hand is his last-ditch attempt to speak.

AMM: The divide between animals and humans is blurred and permeable in your work. Can you tell us more about this and what interests you in this in-between anthropomorphic space?

MY: In culture, folklore often references creatures that shift the boundaries between human and non-human characteristics. This is seen in the multitude of stories about werewolves, the Yeti etc. The Yeti appears almost humanlike in stature and yet he is covered in animal fur, while the werewolf loses his ‘humanity’ as he shape-shifts, becoming more ‘animalistic’ and ‘wild’. I think what frightens us about werewolves, is our fear of being othered, which situates us on the outskirts of humanity, and the idea that animals are irrational and therefore untrustworthy. This can be seen in how the actions of serial killers are also often described as ‘beastly’ or ‘animalistic’, as we think of them of having crossed over in some sense. I think that we fear losing ourselves in this realm, as it questions the idea that we are different from other animals and that it is only our ‘humanity’ that keeps us from murder and destruction.

Michaela Younge They Always Say ‘Its In Your Blood’, But Now There’s Dust In Yours, merino wool on felt, 45 x 57 cm

AMM: Your tapestries bring to mind and invert the recurring motif in fairy tales and folklore of one’s true identity being hidden and then revealed—such as the frog prince, the beast, etc. What psychological understanding might we draw from this?

MY: Well I do love a good disguise! I suppose this goes back to the reference of the theatre within my work. In plays, villains are often hidden in plain sight from the viewers until the point of unmasking thus revealing their true identity. The disguise allows them to interact without suspicion from the other characters. This is repeated in fairy tales, and children’s books. In previous works, when the figure is shrouded in fabric, or a mask, there is often some reference to him becoming animal-like, and shifting into the realm of the anthropomorphic being. In the work ‘Lost: Season 53, 2027’, (2017) there is a figure that resembles a hobby horse, with a skull for head and a blanket covering its body. Human hands peek out from beneath the fabric, and yet he is the wrong shape for a human. He exists in a space of limbo between horse and human, imitating both and yet is neither.

AMM: Despite the dismemberment and seeming casual violence, your work has an undeniable playfulness and dark humour to it. Please tell us more about this duality and finding the right note with dark humour?

MY: I can’t put my finger on it, but if a squirrel is stabbing a duck it’s somewhat more palatable than if a child was doing it. I don’t really know what it is, but I suppose that the soft materiality and the bright colours of the work juxtapose the violent act. At first glance, sometimes you miss all the details. In the work ‘Are you looking for an excellent investment?’ it took a while for people to notice that Santa’s penis was peeking out of his pants. In reference to the dark humour, I can’t speak for my own work being humourous but I do have fun with the titles.

AMM: Scrolling way back on your Instagram feed to several years ago, you were making flat digital drawings. Although distinctly different in medium and style, the subject matter foreshadows your current work. Please tell us a little about how your work has changed and evolved over time?

MY: The transition into working with wool, and creating felted scenes came from a desire to merge the flat and colourful characters from my prints with the tactility of my sculptures. In the past, I used a range of materials such as leather and vellum which, along with the wool are all animal by-products. Within my woollen works, I really enjoy how the materiality offers both a flatness and a textuality with its surface depth and softness to touch.

AMM: In what ways do the mediums that you’ve worked in, such as leather and wool, relate to the ideas and subject matter of your art?

MY: It does seem that I have an affinity to animal by-products, but I’ve also always been surrounded by it. Growing up, with my dad being a sculptor, multiple objects in our house were covered in vellum by him, so it’s normalized. During my fourth year, the use of leather and skin tied in to the theme of my body of work ‘In the Stables’. Horse paraphernalia is often made from leather, such as bridles and saddles.

Wool is obviously also an animal by-product, although usually not a fatal one, as one can sheer a sheep. By a strange coincidence, I stayed at an Airbnb where the owner was a butcher, and he explained the process of sheering, and the marked differences in the treatment of animals that are marked for slaughter and those for use of wool.

Gray Hair Could Cost You Your Job, merino wool on felt, 32 x 50 cm

AMM: Your studio is currently in your bedroom. How does living so closely with your work influence or affect you?

MY: There was no strategy to having a home studio other than saving money, but in many ways it is more difficult to separate ‘down time’ and ‘work time’, as you’re constantly surrounded by your work. But on the other side, you can multitask and do your laundry while you’re working!

AMM: What is the art scene like in Cape Town right now? What’s exciting, what needs to change?

MY: This is quite a difficult question to answer. I think that in some ways, the Cape Town art scene has become more globalized with social media and art fairs, but in other ways it remains small and sometimes difficult to ‘crack’. There also seems to be a split between commercial art including design and less commercial art. I think it would be great to see more collaborative spaces, which could be hired, or used so that artists could curate their own shows, whether that be performative or otherwise. There is also a lack of residencies in South Africa that are based here, or nearby, which would allow artist peers to work more closely with each other. But basically, I don’t have all the answers.

AMM: Do you have any exciting projects coming up that we should know about? What’s next for you?

MY: 2019 has been wildly exciting, and very satisfying as it marks the opening of ‘Nothing Bad’, my first solo show at SMITH. I hadn’t fully considered what it took to put together a show, and there were many things that I didn’t think about until a week or two before. However, I feel like some of those last minute decisions played a big role in the final product. It wasn’t until we were starting to hang the works that I decided we should paint the back wall, and that became a big curatorial decision, which helped both anchor the room and expand the work into the space. SMITH were hugely helpful and supportive throughout this process, as were my parents. Later this year, I am being represented by SMITH at the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair that takes place in London. So I am currently working on pieces that will form part of the body of work booth. The 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair takes place at the beginning of October.

Find out more about the artist: www.michaelayounge.tumblr.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

She wants a pony but she cannot ride, merino wool on felt, 43 x 53 cm