Bringing the backwoods to Brooklyn
Taxidermist Divya Anantharaman injects urban flair into a traditional art form
Eighteen students sit around a table and chat while they roll clay into almond-sized lumps. The teacher, Divya Anantharaman, walks around them and observes their work. She stops to help a woman raising her hand.
“It’s like putting on a pair of pants,” says Anantharaman as she unrolls an inside-out mouse skin onto the clay skull the student had made.
Anantharaman is a taxidermist. She creates sculptures by stuffing animal skins and teaches others how to do it at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Gowanus, Brooklyn. While the stereotypical taxidermist preserves museum specimens or makes big trophies for hunters who nab a deer, she didn’t see any of those animals while growing up in urban Miami. Instead, she’s a so-called rogue taxidermist who creates non-traditional mounts using the animals she’s familiar with.
Anantharaman might not look like someone who specializes in an art form popular with older hunters. The short 31-year-old, who has purple hair and wears dark lipstick, rejects the flannel-and-jeans look in favor of a baggy black top and leggings. Jeans hurt her crotch, she says.
While she may not look like a hunter, Anantharaman is clearly someone who’s seen, felt and smelled lots of corpses. She littered her class lecture with phallic and fecal jokes. She recalled decaying snake carcasses hanging from hooks at a commercial tannery, joked about eating yogurt made with bacteria from vaginal discharge, and described the scent of rotting flesh as “poop and roses – like leaving ricotta and honey out on a hot day.” All while happily munching on tacos at a trendy Brooklyn restaurant.
Anantharaman credits her initial interest in taxidermy to her mother, a biology teacher. One night, when she was five, Anantharaman was eating dinner outside with her mother and saw a lizard electrocute itself on a mosquito zapper. She decided to keep the corpse for herself. Her mother found the animal rotting in a box two days later. She told her daughter that if she’d like to keep it, she’d need to learn to preserve it. But she forbade Anantharaman from stuffing bodies in the house.
It wasn’t until twenty years later that Anantharaman finally created her first taxidermy mount. She had recently graduated from the Pratt Institute and spent her time designing shoes and going to parties, when one weekend she found a dead squirrel on a hike. She stuffed the animal by following the instructions in a taxidermy how-to guide.
“It wasn’t a great mount,” she said. “But it inspired and stimulated the part of my mind that was fascinated with art as a science.” She started to incorporate animal parts in her shoe designs, including a pair of high-heeled “bunny slippers,” pored over taxidermy books, and apprenticed under a traditional taxidermist in upstate New York who taught her how to stuff deer and turkeys.
But Anantharaman’s work is very different from the traditional mounts she learned while apprenticing in the woods upstate. In the mid-1800s, John Hancock, a British taxidermist, pioneered a style that showcased anatomically accurate animals in realistic settings; this became the standard in the field. Today, Anantharman, along with a group of artists who call themselves rogue taxidermists, subverts that ideal by combining parts from different animals or by injecting humor and fantasy into her mounts.
Anantharaman doesn’t see herself breaking from any tradition, though — she’s just bringing her own perspective to the field of taxidermy.
“I’m this young city brown girl who, growing up, hadn’t seen wild animals except in a natural history museum and hadn’t seen a real deer until I was 20,” she said. So she prefers to stuff the animals she grew up with in Miami: mice, rabbits and birds.
The rogue taxidermist influence is apparent in her classes. While teaching students to stuff lab mice, she encourages creativity. The eclectic group of twenty- to thirty-year-old, mostly female students put their mice in costumes; many crafted mice with two heads and one student made a two-butted mouse riding a toy skateboard.
And while Anantharaman is a woman in a stereotypically male-dominated field, she doesn’t think much about it. After all, she points out, women have been doing it for a long time. In the 19th century, Ada Jane Rohu and Jane Katherine Tost, two Australian taxidermists, successfully fought for pay equal to their male counterparts. Today, taxidermy continues to grow in popularity with women and many of Anantharaman’s students are female.
Regardless, she still occasionally clashes with the older rural male artists who don’t understand why a young woman from a big city would mount a sheep wearing a dress. Back in 2005, The New York Times discussed rogue taxidermy in an article entitled “Head of Goat, Tail of Fish, More Than a Touch of Weirdness.” It quoted Bill Haynes, then vice president of the National Taxidermists Association, delivering a scathing criticism of the movement and refusing to acknowledge the new mounts as art.
But now, an increasing number of older taxidermists embrace the rogue movement. “It’s a breath of fresh air for me, a guy who’s been in the trade for over 40 years, to see people thinking out of the box,” said Russell Knight, vice president of the National Taxidermists Association and star of the History Channel taxidermy show Mounted in Alaska. Knight had seen Anantharaman’s work shared on social media. “Yeah, there are probably some guys grumbling about it, but I’m for anything that will put a good light on the trade.”
Like Knight, Anantharaman is a hunter. But she does not kill animals just for fun, nor does she think most other hunters do. When she shoots a deer, she uses all of the meat for food and the carcass in her art. Hunting has also helped her understand her relationship with the animal she’s eating. “It’s the circle of life feeling,” she said.
Moving forward, Anantharaman will continue creating commissioned pieces and teaching her class. She also hopes to enter more mounts into taxidermy shows.
She even has a plan for her own body.
“I want it all to go to science, and what they can’t use – I want animals to eat whatever sludge is left.”