Simon Starling


The canoe I have on my head is part of a group of works I made in relation to the Congo, specifically to the expedition by Herbert Lang and James Chapin who set out in 1909 on the first biological survey of the largely unexplored northeastern Congo. They were sent by the American Museum of Natural History on a two-year outing that was finally completed six years later. They gathered numerous samples of the flora and fauna of the region, and Lang, an accomplished photographer, made thousands of photographs with his cumbersome plate camera. Perhaps some of the most celebrated of these were the first photographic images of the then-mysterious okapi, an ancient relative of the giraffe, which had remained undiscovered by Western science in this secluded part of Central Africa until ten years before the explorers' arrival.

The canoe takes its structural design from the traditional "strip canoe," built in North America since the 1850s and based on the Native American birch-bark canoe. Through the use of African walnut (lovoa klaineana), however, along with its stripped markings that allude to the jungle camouflage of the elusive okapi, the canoe becomes a kind of hybrid object—part African, part American, part working canoe, part refined sculptural form, part pantomime costume.