The artist uses beauty and familiarity to challenge unease
You need to take a deep breath before looking at Emma Witter’s desk. Scattered across its surface are polished animal bones – a cow’s knee here, a pig’s head there – half-formed into sculptures. Tiny chicken legs have been glued together in flower-like formations protruding on metal wires from what look like hollowed-out shin bones. Beneath the desk, the scene is no less startling. Hundreds more bones have been meticulously organised by size and stacked into transparent boxes.
Across the room is a kitchen, where Witter cooks up her ingredients: boiling the bones, before bleaching, drying, salting, sealing and sorting them – a process perfected through trial and error, since the bones react and change as she works on them. Only then does she start gluing them to build her sculptures. ‘The prep takes forever, but I find it quite therapeutic and ritualistic,’ she says. ‘I’m interested in the idea of funerary rituals.’ The larger bones come directly from restaurants, hauled back to her studio and living space in London’s Hoxton in an inconspicuous duffle bag, while many of the smaller ones are leftovers from her own meals or those of her friends. ‘When we go out for dinner, my friends pass bones down the table to me,’ she says. ‘I tell the waiters they’re for my dog.’
If Witter wasn’t so cheerful, you might run a mile from this theatre of the macabre in a London home. But really there is nothing grotesque about her sculptures. They have an eerie, ethereal grace that treads the line between the prehistoric and the living. When Peter Ting – whose gallery Ting-Ying will show Witter’s sculptures at Collect art fair at Somerset House in February – first heard about her, he assumed she was updating scrimshaw (carvings or engraving in bone). ‘Then I saw Emma’s work and my first response was a huge smile – it was beautiful and joyful,’ he says. Ting-Ying’s reputation is for exhibiting porcelain, but it also aims to offer a platform to emerging artists. ‘We can’t wait to see what Emma will create,’ says Ting. ‘It will be unique, surprising and exquisite.’
This conspicuous beauty is her way of confronting the negative reactions about bone, as well as people’s attitudes to where their food comes from. ‘Beauty is the worst word you can use in art, but if you make something beautiful, you can change people’s minds about what they’re looking at,’ she explains. ‘That’s why I’m obsessed with floral shapes – forms that are familiar and gentle.’
Witter’s sculptures polarise viewers, eliciting both fascination and horror. She partly attributes this to differing cultural norms and people’s varying levels of disconnect from the sources of their food – observing the difference in attitude between the British and Jamaican sides of her family. ‘My dad’s family would cook goat curry with the meat roughly cut and left on the bone, and my mum wouldn’t eat it; but if it was taken off the bone, she would,’ Witter says. ‘The UK is one of the worst places for me to work because it’s so prim and proper – in many places in Africa, Asia and South America, the attitude is completely different.’
Bone has a bad rep, she adds, but it has long been used in industrial processes – as dust in bone china and tattoo ink, as oil in sweets – as well as for furniture repair. Her aim is to normalise what she sees as an organic and abundant material at a time when plastic waste and diminishing resources are among our biggest concerns: ‘People are always going to eat meat. If an animal has to die, it’s respectful to use the entire thing.’ Witter started out studying performance design at Central St Martins, where one of her group projects was a series of immersive dinners in a former Victorian psychiatric hospital in London’s Bethnal Green, where guests were tied together under a huge tablecloth, seated opposite pigs’ heads grotesquely caked in make-up and served elaborate meals inspired by historical feasts. When she graduated in 2012, the university awarded her and a friend seed funding to set up Beast and Burden, a ‘food sculpture’ business that took on editorial and commercial commissions.
She soon set her sights on less ephemeral materials – the bits of food, such as shells and bones, that last. ‘I remember seeing an oxtail and thinking it was shaped like an orchid, perfectly symmetrical and sculptural,’ she recalls. ‘Bone is an amazing material because it’s so lightweight and incredibly strong. You can work into it, carve it and make shapes.’
In 2014 Witter was featured in a group show as part of the Hix Award, given to artists by the chef Mark Hix. She went on to do a three-month residency at his Shoreditch restaurant, culminating in a solo exhibition in 2018. Shortly afterwards she applied for a year-long residency at the Sarabande Foundation, the London institute and studio space set up by the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen. Here, she was surrounded by like-minded makers and had access to a revolving door of individuals in the arts, building a network that has sown the seeds for success since her solo show there in September 2019, where she presented sculptures as well new 2d work – photographs of her artworks, fossil-like dead flowers pressed in bone dust, and a series of canvases painted using ketchup, brown sauce, mustard, salt and pepper.
A few months later, curator Brian Kennedy featured her work in Florid, a group show at London’s Mason’s Yard celebrating extravagance with work inspired by the floral kingdom. More recently, she has been scanning and 3d-printing bones in nylon, experimenting with copper-plating using the process of electroforming. Next, she hopes to print the bones in ceramic and to use the electroforming process to coat actual bones, once she’s found a way to control their reaction to the metal. ‘It’s interesting because the bones are dead, but in a way they’re still alive,’ says Witter. ‘I’d love to keep exploring them because there’s so much you can do.’
By Debika Ray