Mummy Dearest: on Francis Upritchard

Pavement Issue 57, February/March 2003


“My drawings of snakes don’t even look like snakes,” shrugs Francis Upritchard. This is not quite true. On a piece of white paper, a lumpy blue outline coils into an impressive portrait of a carpet snake – the fat frumpy kind made to lie in front of closed doors. She then points to two taxidermy snakes I hadn’t noticed. in her attic studio, their skins disappear into the wooden floorboards and dirty white wails, where we sit, in the cold, eating fried parsnips.

It occurs to me that The Snake of Aurabourous (Upritchard’s stuffed interpretation of a serpent eating its own tail) is a similar colour and shape to a parsnip: fat at one end, tapering away to nothing at the other. In its sock-like head, the beady white eyes seem small and out of kilter. Upritchard says these works embrace the idea of snake-ness rather than the reality because “in New Zealand, you know, you don’t have snakes”.

We are not in New Zealand, however. We are in London’s East End, above the Bart Wells Institute, the gallery the former Aucklander runs out of an abandoned warehouse with artist Luke Gottelier. It is a massive rambling space and Upritchard both lives and works upstairs. Outside, winter is setting in and the hand-painted gallery sign swings above a deep, grey puddle.

Upritchard set up The Bart Wells Institute at the start of 2002. On the opening night, a scrawny waif-like mummy lay on the floor, moaning and vibrating, while a large fire crackled in the background. Rugged up in my raincoat, drinking a bottle of beer while still wearing gloves, I stood above the mummy and its thin rectangular arms reached out to me. “I liked the character of the mummy,” says Upritchard, who has a knack for making her macabre subjects sympathetic and endearing.

Like the stuffed snakes, the mummy is creepy and cute.It peers out of a single glass eye, permanently startled, a packet of cigarettes fastened to its tiny linen torso. “Weirdly, it looks exactly like this old toy of mine called Dead Cat,” she pauses. “I was obviously thinking about that when I made the mummy but I didn’t realise until later.” Upritchard rummages around in a box and pulls out an old photograph. The resemblance is uncanny. Dead Cat’s elongated body has the same odd proportions and is the colour of an off-white bandage. “I remember tying its legs around my neck and wearing it as a shawl,” says Upritchard, adding: “I have made sculptures of dead cats before.”Indeed, the first work I saw of hers was a badly botched taxidermy of an enormous ginger tabby.

This year, Upritchard is one of nine young artists nominated for the Beck’s Future Award. The exhibition has a high public profile (Bjork presented the prize in 2002) and will open in April at London’s Institute for Contemporary Art. “Wow, you must be pleased with yourself,” I exclaim, approaching her workbench. Three shrunken Pakeha heads stare out with empty eye sockets. Made of foam, these sculptures have real hair pasted onto their crowns and jutting false teeth. One has a large splotch of green on his face. Maybe it’s gangrene, I think, gawping at his painted shriveled flesh.

“I wanted to do some portraiture,” she explains, leafing through her book collection to show me a real life example. “I think shrunken Pakeha heads are much funnier.”

Upritchard’s studio is full of curious characters. I pick up a deep purple monkey head made out of an old fur coat. It fits perfectly in my palm and feels like a paperweight – a paperweight with glistening white teeth. Nearby, a flock of clay animal skulls sit in the fading afternoon light. “A friend told me they look like stillborn lambs heads,” she laughs.

Upritchard likes using non-toxic materials and the clay heads are boiled and baked.I am surprised to see a group of tikis made of Fimo. At a glance, they look like the real thing. Sitting in quaint old jewellery cases, the Fimo glows like ivory. “I like remembering what things look like,” says Upritchard. “1 made the mummy before I went to the Egyptian House at the British Museum.” She was teaching art to school children at the time and got her class to draw hieroglyphic scrolls from memory. Upritchard loved the pictures because they were “all tucked up and wrong but really right as well”.

Upritchard has created a small army of Egyptian-inspired animal heads. These heads are lids for a collection of 1970s German pottery. Haughty cats, birds and dogs peer over loud, colourful vases, looking pleased with themselves. Each one is painted to blend in seamlessly with its matching pyjama pot. “So many people think I have made the whole thing,” she remarks. However, the lids are fashioned from foam. Upritchard made the first seven urns in Berlin for a show last year but they have also been seen in London and are currently on display at the Govett-Brewster Gallery in New Plymouth.

“If you were going to describe your work, what would you say?” I ask. We have polished off the fried parsnips and the rain taps on the attic roof. It is getting dark outside. “I like the idea that some aliens came down to earth and took things away but everything got mixed up on the journey back,” she replies. On the table facing me is a small, flat sculpture of Great Britain. Attached to the bottom are four racing car wheels. “I made it one day when I was bored,” the artist says.