Monday 29 July 2019

Sculptures Telling Stories by Susan Price

You might well have heard of the Kennis brothers before.

If you have, never mind. An excuse to look at their work again is always a good thing.

The Kennis brothers, Adrie and Alfons, are unsettlingly identical

Dutch twins. They refuse to call themselves artists, though they are. They are also anatomists and anthropologists and they create the most startlingly original portraits of ancient people that I’ve ever seen.

I was unaware of their work until my brother (and illustrator) Andrew, started outgrabing about a programme we were watching. It had one of those forensic recreations based on a medieval skull. The result always looks much the same, whatever skull is being used: a bland, expressionless face, rather like that of a shop-window dummy.

“Don’t waste our time!” Andrew said. “Send for the Kennis brothers! There should be a law that only the Kennis brothers are allowed to do reconstructions!"

I had never heard of the brothers Kennis, but once directed to their website, I could see Andrew’s point. When you look at one of their recreations, it looks back. It almost speaks. You feel that if you could catch it at the right moment, it would tell you a joke or the story of its life. And I would be all ears.

I think the Kennises refuse to call themselves artists because everything they do is based on research and evidence. Their approach is meticulous. Each of their sculptures is based on an individual skeleton. After much research into the anatomy of that individual and its species, they first build a skeleton -- a neanderthal skeleton or an erectus skeleton. They even build it a flexible spine.

They add muscles of clay. They add rope for arteries. They layer on the skin in translucent layers of silicon, as an oil painter does with layers of coloured pigment.

They don’t guess at the colouring. DNA analysis provides them with the most likely eye, hair and skin colour. One of their most controversial – and beautiful – sculptures is based on the skull of a young man found in Cheddar Gorge. Often known as ‘the oldest Briton’ he dates from 10,000 years ago. (Though one of his direct descendants was found living just down the road. And it's reckoned that 10% of modern Britons are descended from him. That's about six and half million of us.)

The Kennises portrayed him as having dark, wavy hair, quite dark brown ‘black’ skin and blue eyes.

Some people were simply surprised, especially by the contrast between the dark skin and light eyes. But there was the usual ‘political correctness gone mad’ reaction from the usual sources, with the insulting implication that the Kennis brothers had given their subject this colouring on a whim, to gain publicity or kudos for being ‘woke’ and ‘progressive.’

The truth is, they gave him that colouring because that is what their research and the DNA analysis of his bones indicated. The DNA results are never absolutely definitive but they indicated something like a 75% probability that his skin was dark and his eyes light.

What struck me most forcibly when I first saw the sculpture was not its colouring but its personality: its expression and liveliness. These sculptures change with the angle and lighting. From some angles, Cheddar Man seems about to burst into laughter. His face conveys warmth and friendliness. I don't like the expression but, god help me, he has 'a twinkle in his eye.'

Since it’s moulded around a reconstruction of his skull, he must have looked something like that. Maybe in life he was a miserable so-and-so without a good word for anyone. We'll never know. But even if the personality given him by the Kennises is completely wrong, their sculpture strongly conveys a great truth to us in a way more direct and compelling than words: that these ancient bones we dig up were once living people, as vital as we are.

This post has been all text and no pictures because the Kennis brothers work is copyright. However, here you can read an article about their work, which has many photographs.

And here’s a link to their website, with many more photographs of their work. I’m particularly fond of the Neanderthal grandmother, with the child hugging her.

I think their recreation of Australopithecus Lucy is astonishing — she isn’t human and yet she is, in spades. Chin up, arms on her hips, she looks down her nose at us and stares us out. She has personality all right: she has Attitude. And sass. Looking at her I feel that, any moment, her mouth is going to open and the voice of one of my great, great, great, great, great grandmothers is going to tick me off.

Turkana Boy, too, is an amazing piece of necromancy. (Click down through the pictures on the right of the Moesgaard Museum page.) There he is, stave across his shoulders, head cocked, giving someone some cheek. Looking at them all, I think each one holds a story — is telling us a story — if we could only hear it.

I leave you with a film of Adrie and Alfons at work.

Susan Price won the Carnegie medal for The Ghost Drum


The Guardian Award for The Sterkarm Handshake.

Her website, with reviews, writing tips, short stories and book extracts

is here.


Mary Hoffman said...

I'm sorry this has gone up late!

Joan Lennon said...

They're amazing - everything that is missing from so many of the reconstructions - thank you for pointing us their way! (And that is ABSOLUTELY art!)

Sue Purkiss said...

I remember seeing the brothers in one of Alice Roberts' programmes. And the reconstruction of Cheddar Man is great isn't it? Adrian Targett is a friend, and believe it or not, his ancestor looks really quite a lot like him!