Published  27/11/2017

Pamela Schilderman: ‘I really wanted people to think about what it is that makes a portrait’

Pamela Schilderman: ‘I really wanted people to think about what it is that makes a portrait’

What makes a portrait? What defines a person’s identity? These are questions at the core of Schilderman’s practice, and are questions she hopes to make her audience ask as well


Born in Holland to a Dutch father and Brazilian mother, Pamela Schilderman (b1982) spent her early years in Rwanda before moving to Rugby in the Midlands when she was five. Questions of identity and language thus played a key role in her formative years and it is unsurprising that they now permeate her artistic practice. Her current project, Casket (2017), comprises a Victorian-style wrought iron and glass jewellery box (bespoke, as, indeed, is everything in this work), containing the artist’s thumbprint, DNA profile and hair follicles, a drawing of a photograph of her retina, and a copper cast of her teeth. Each item has been painstakingly handmade and carries with it symbolism on numerous levels. Created as a self-portrait, the work has been shown anonymously in most of its venues: Schilderman hopes this will raise questions about identity and portraiture and what it is that defines each of them.

Pamela Schilderman. Casket, mixed media, 2017. Installation view. Image courtesy of Leicester City Council.

Schilderman talked to Studio International to explain the ideas behind the project and how it ties in to her practice as a whole.

Anna McNay: You describe Casket as a self-portrait. When and how did the idea to make a forensic portrait like this come about? Did you conceive of all of the elements in the work at once?

Pamela Schilderman: It started when I saw the BP Portrait Award in Aberystwyth in 2015. I was on a residency there and the award came on tour. I’d always wanted to see it, so went along, and I noticed that every single entry was a painting focusing on the face or the body. It was really quite traditional and I thought there must be a more contemporary way, or another way, of tackling it.  That’s what gave me the idea, really, because I thought I’d see if I could come up with something different.

Pamela Schilderman. Casket, thumbprint: silver, glass and print on paper, 2017.

The first thing that came to mind was the thumbprint, because everybody recognises this and understands it as a form of identity and signature – and as something unique. I decided to use the thumb of my right hand, because I’m right-handed, and so that’s my “artist’s hand”. I wanted to do a print on paper, but I wanted it to feel like a drawing, and something precious and special, so I played around with different papers and decided to go for a precious material – silver – for the frame.

AMc: Why silver? Does this symbolise something in particular?

PS: Yes, it’s symbolic of aspects of my personality: vision, focus and strength.

I didn’t just want to present the print in a frame, however, because a frame is too conventional, so that’s where the idea of a box came from. It’s a wrought iron box, with clear glass, and it is supposed to be something like a jewellery box. I got a blacksmith to make it and had the details from my birth certificate engraved on the inside. Everything in this project is handmade and bespoke. That became really important to me, because of the idea of every person being unique. I did a lot of research, online mainly. I saw very few boxes that were how I would want them, and so I decided to have it made and combine different styles that I liked, giving it that historic feel, with the lion’s paws.

Pamela Schilderman. Casket, thumbprint, silver, glass and print on paper, 2017.

AMc: The thumbprint is made with blue ink. Is there a significance to this as well?

PS: I just think that blue ink looks more beautiful than black, really. The black felt as if I were a criminal, whereas the blue takes that connotation away. I discovered later, by coincidence, that blue is supposed to tie in with science, so that fitted nicely as well – the pieces were coming together.

I showed the thumbprint first, as a trial, at an artist-run gallery, Stryx, in Birmingham. They had a group show on identity. But it just didn’t feel right. I realised it was probably because my work is generally done in multiples, or series, and so that’s when I began to consider how I could develop the project further, and I began to look into forensics.

It was pure coincidence, really. I’m hooked on the TV channel CBS Reality and I knew, from that, that hair follicles are really important for an accurate DNA picture, so I went to the hairdresser to ask him how I could pull my hair out and keep those follicles intact. I thought I could do something with that. Then I discovered a branch of forensics that looks at jewellery, and that gave me the idea of associating the hair, loosely, with jewellery. But I didn’t want every piece to be made with silver. I thought it would be nice to have the different colours. I picked gold largely because I thought the yellow gold would look good with my dark hair.

Pamela Schilderman. Casket, hair: gold, tanzanite and hair, 2017.

Afterwards, I began to consider more closely why gold was pertinent, and I realised it could also be symbolic of my Brazilian nationality. The yellow part of the Brazilian flag is gold, and there are towns named after it, too, so it’s really culturally significant in Brazil. A lot of the wealth came from gold – it still does, for better or worse.

My first plans for the hair piece were really basic. It was just going to be a plait with a gold ring on the end, with the follicles, but it wasn’t quite fitting with the rest and it seemed too simple in comparison. I got in touch with a curator from Nottingham Castle after watching a TV programme about Victorians and mourning. Nottingham Castle has this incredible collection of mourning jewellery. It isn’t out on display, because it’s too fragile, but they agreed to let me see it. It’s just so beautiful – some of it doesn’t even look like hair. It is really elaborate.

I realised my idea had to improve drastically after that! Because a lot of the brooches were geometric, I thought I would make a circle and use a basket weave. I’d never done basket weaving before, but I figured: “Oh, why not?” I actually had this notion in my head that I could have the family gold melted down and transformed, but this didn’t happen in the end because I went to see a jeweller and he said I’d basically just end up with a gold nugget. So I figured out how I could change my ideas and incorporate the gold in another way. In the end, I used gold wire for the structure, an old pocket watch for the gold dome in the middle, and a bracelet for the outer circle.

AMc: And you learned how to do the basket weave yourself?

PS: Yes. It was really difficult because my first trial was with thread, and then I tried to put the hair under and over, but I had a foam base, and it wouldn’t stay. I changed it and used wood instead, and nails, and that worked. Ultimately, with the gold wire as well, I think it was more secure, so the hair could stay in place. You just weave the hair under and over the wire, as you go around, with jewellery tweezers, which are very long and thin. It took me ages.

AMc: Another object in the box is a set of teeth, cast in copper.

PS: Yes. I found out that your teeth are essential to speech and so I figured, because copper is also a transition metal, the teeth could symbolise my transition from Africa to England as a five-year-old child. My father is an architect and was working in Rwanda in development aid, helping people transfer their skills to other people, so they can sustain themselves long-term. But we moved from Rwanda to Rugby, and it was a big, big shift for me. I couldn’t speak any English and, in terms of culture, I didn’t even know what pavements were, or traffic lights, or anything like that. It was bewildering. I had a lot of catching up to do in school. I was born in Holland, then we moved to Rwanda, then briefly back to Holland, then to Rugby. My dad is Dutch and my mum is Brazilian.

Pamela Schilderman. Casket, teeth, copper, 2017. Photograph: Kerem Cetindamar.

AMc: Do you think the influence of all these different nationalities plays a part in your interest in identity?

PS: Yes, I think it’s one of the reasons why I’m interested in identity, or why it crops up in my work a lot. I’ve not been in one place all the time, I’ve moved about a lot. When I go back to Brazil, it’s like I’m not Brazilian enough, or, when I go back to Holland, I’m not Dutch enough. I did a residency there and everyone kept saying: “You can’t ride a bike! That’s shocking!” I spoke French as well because of being in Rwanda, so it just feels like this weird mix in my head, and when people ask me what my first language is, I really don’t know how to answer. Is it the one I learned first, or is it the one I speak all the time now? So it does influence my work, even if not consciously, it comes in.

Even my tastes have been influenced. I really like Delft Blue, for example – you know, those Delft Blue tiles? I really love them. In Holland, around about Easter time, they celebrate the Queen’s birthday, and they have these jumble sales everywhere, and I always pick up pieces of Delft Blue. They have absolutely no value whatsoever. I put them all over the place when I was on my residency and this woman came to do an interview and was appalled. She said: “You don’t really like this, do you?” and I was, like: “Yes!”

AMc: Is it that it’s a thing that’s so typically Dutch that the Dutch don’t like it any more?

PS: Yes, maybe. Or it’s just considered old-fashioned or something. I don’t know, but to her it was ghastly. Similarly, I’ve got a friend who always asks me why I like dark furniture. She thinks it’s morbid. So, you know, I think elements of nationality do creep into my tastes.

AMc: Since you mention “morbid” – is there an element of this in Casket at all? I read somewhere that it was in part a memento mori, and, of course, the title itself carries connotations of death.

PS: The idea has come in, again sort of unconsciously, really. Or maybe it’s inevitable because I’m working with forensics. I don’t really think of death as something grim, anyhow. I don’t know why. So I guess I wanted to try to make something beautiful, so even if the topic doesn’t seem appealing, you can get past the “ugh” bit.

AMc: Using precious metals makes it beautiful.

PS: Yes, exactly.

AMc: And valuable as well.

PS: Yes. It was also about looking at the different aspects of value, which I’d done before, but I revisited that here.

AMc: There are a couple more objects in the box, and I’d like you to tell me about them, if you don’t mind. How did you go about making the drawing of your retina?

PS: I went to the optician and I had it in mind to draw the iris because they had just put in iris technology at Birmingham airport and that had given me the idea. I made a checkup appointment and asked the optician, and he said: “Why don’t you use your retina instead?” The retina typically remains unchanged from birth to death, so it’s better as a form of identity, and more accurate than the iris. I also liked the fact that there are bits of you that people can see, like your teeth and your hair, but the retina is hidden. I wanted to play with that, because a lot of my work is about that, in terms of perception, revealing bits and hiding others. I chose the right retina to represent the creative side of my brain.

AMc: Did the optician take a photograph?

PS: Yes, they take a photo before you have your appointment, so I just asked to have that photograph. Apparently, you’re not supposed to be given it, but I persuaded the optician. I had the same problem with the teeth. You’re apparently not allowed to have the cast of your teeth. They keep them all in a locked cupboard. Can you imagine, all those teeth? It must be brilliant! I’d love a sculpture of that, all those teeth! Anyhow, I asked the optician when I had the appointment and he wouldn’t give me photograph. Luckily, afterwards, he posted it – he changed his mind. It was just 2.3cm, the average size of an adult eyeball.

Initially, I had thought of using one of those round glass paperweights, but it was too bulky and it didn’t have the right magnification. My maths is rubbish. I tried to understand the formula online, but I couldn’t. In the end, I came across a company in London, Instrument Glasses. They do glass for all sorts of scientific things and the man there said just to send him a photocopy and he would figure it out for me. It was bespoke again. Every part was bespoke. A jeweller made the platinum coil in the base. He also did the carbon rod on the scroll.

AMc: And this is the final object in Casket – a scroll on which you’ve hand-drawn your DNA profile?

PS: Yes. I did it as a drawing, with watercolour. I had to figure out how to use the watercolour, without any pencil guidelines, because it was all wiggly lines, and I couldn’t have the pencil underneath because it ruined the colour. It was really important to get exactly the right tone. Also, watercolour was the only thing I could use to get that really fine line. Everything else was either grainy or too thick.

Pamela Schilderman. Casket, scroll: carbon, diamonds, watercolour, biro, pencil on paper, 2017. Photograph: Kerem Cetindamar.

AMc: And it had to be completely accurate.

PS: Yes, it had to be completely accurate. In the end, it was a combination of materials: red ballpoint pen, pencil, and then the watercolour. Oh, and gouache as well. I used gouache to get the right colour. Then I had to figure out how to roll the paper. I wanted really good-quality paper, which was smooth, and which would roll. If the paper is too thick, it gets all these horrible creases, and if it’s too thin, it doesn’t take the watercolour. So, it was quite a job. I had to do paper research. I ended up with Arches hot press paper. I think it was about 180gsm, something like that.

AMc: Are all five of these objects now permanently in the box?

PS: Yes. Although, I am thinking about how I could take them out of the box and maybe extend it. I haven't figured out how yet. I’m thinking about how I might use my nails and make that attractive. It’s something I’m looking into.

AMc: So Casket isn't necessarily a closed piece as yet?

PS: No, it’s not. But, for the moment, I’m just showing it like that.

AMc: Obviously, it is a self-portrait, or, at least, that’s what it grew from.

PS: Yes.

AMc: But in some of the venues, you have shown it anonymously.

PS: Yes. That’s how I envisaged it. At Leamington, it accidentally got shown with my name, but this turned out to be quite a useful experiment. I have a feedback box next to the work, and I have designed a postcard for it, asking whether people think Casket is a portrait: Yes; Don’t know; or No. And: Do you like it? Yes; Don’t Know; No. On the back, I have a thought bubble, so people can write their comments. I found that, in Leicester, where it was shown anonymously, I got a higher level of response than in Leamington, where it was shown with my name. And I got a different type of response, which was odd. In Leicester, people’s curiosity was piqued by who this person was – that kind of thing. In Leamington, the comments were more directed at me, personally. Overall, most people think it is a portrait. Although you do get ones that say: “Oh, it’s more an identity profile than a portrait”, or: “It’s more a biography than a portrait.” Sometimes you get quite funny comments, too, or children going: “Oh, no, a portrait has to be a painting, or a sculpture. A face.”

AMc: What was the idea originally behind doing it anonymously?

PS: I’ve always been interested in the paintings in galleries where there’s no name attached, or where you don’t know who is sitting for the portrait. People seem generally to walk past these and go to the ones that say: “This is a Renoir, or a Picasso.” Suddenly, that piece is more important, more valuable, because they know who it’s by. It’s not that the work of art is necessarily less of a work of art, it’s not less beautiful, or less worthwhile to look at than the next one. I guess I like the mystery around it as well – making people wonder who made it. So I wanted to do that, too – to question that. If you remove the name, and the context, then maybe people will consider the work itself. My last piece was about that as well. I did a piece where I simulated a Victorian botanical collection and inserted it into natural history museums so that it looked like part of the museum.

AMc: That was under the name of Harold Thomas?

PS: Yes, I invented this Victorian collector, Harold Thomas. The whole idea was about how I could present a piece, without presenting it as contemporary art, and then see how people would react to it, judging it purely on what it was, and nothing else. As I mentioned, I’m interested in the idea of value. Nowadays, it seems to be so much more about the celebrity of it, or the monetary value, rather than the work itself.

The Harold Thomas Collection, watercolours and salt crystals, 2009–2014.

I was watching a programme – I think it was Panorama – and it shocked me because there were all these immigrants who had destroyed their identification papers because they didn’t want to be sent back. But then, after they have been here for a while, living on the streets in rotten conditions, some of them are so desperate, that they would love to go back. But now, because they have no paperwork, they’re like non-people almost. It really shocked me that it was this paperwork that makes you a person, almost. That’s what was going through my head. So, when you have a portrait, somehow putting that name on it makes it easier for people to identify. It’s easy to put in a box – that is that. Whereas I really wanted people to think about what it is that makes a portrait and so, by removing the name, I was hoping that more people might question this.

AMc: The name is also a kind of linguistic labelling, so, by taking that away, you are going beyond language, which we were talking about before, in terms of your own native tongues.

PS: Yes. In some ways, I’d like a lot of my work to have no text, precisely because of that. But I realise that you have to give the viewers something alongside it. But it bothers me when you see people going around the big galleries, like the National Gallery, and they have those audio sets, and they start repeating what’s on the audio set to one another.

AMc: They are not actually thinking for themselves.

PS: Yes. I guess I’m trying to work with – or against – that.

AMc: Have them look and think first …

PS: … and maybe, afterwards, provide the information.

AMc: This is something you did with The Harold Thomas Collection (2009-14).

PS: Yes. That was totally anonymous and it had to stay anonymous because, otherwise, it would have totally ruined the experiment.

AMc: The collection comprises 45 watercolours and salt crystals presented as undiscovered parasitic plant species found in the Congo by the fictitious anthropologist Harold Thomas. You have described it as “an experiment in seeing”.

PS: I used salt carried over from a previous project, where I had made more than 3,000 salt crystals. I had them individually sealed in glass and, when the exhibition was up, I got a comment from a member of the public, who thought that one looked like a giraffe and another like an elephant. I began to wonder if I could get away with pretending they were actually undiscovered species. I’ve always been interested in those really scientific, accurate drawings and so I thought I’d just make some really detailed drawings myself, and then make them look old with tea. I got some help with foxing them – you know the brown spots that you get on old paper? I spoke to a conservationist about this and practised getting it just right – not too many, because that would have given the game away. Then I made the paper much thinner and it’s amazing, if you have really dim light, which most of these museums do, then people don’t really notice that these are modern pigments. And if you create the whole setting, the old labels, people believe what they think they see. I had help from scientists and botanists to create the classifications with the scientific characteristics of the species. I did it all properly and it’s amazing how many people really believed it.

I felt sorry though because, in Oxford, a girl sent me an email, via the website I had set up, and asked me to tell her a bit more about Harold Thomas because she had gone to the Bodleian Library and couldn’t find anything and wanted to do her thesis on him. Up to that point, I was fine, I didn’t feel guilty, but then I began feeling guilty. But I had to wait, because I had a seminar planned for the end of it all, where I was going to reveal the truth. I had speakers invited, who also didn’t know anything about the project. The only people who knew were the chair and the museum staff.

AMc: What did the speakers think they were there doing then?

PS: They were each giving a 20-minute presentation on deception – but nobody twigged! I called the seminar ARTifice and yet no one had twigged at all. I had Sylvia Lahav from Goldsmiths, University of London, because she was interested in perception, particularly in museums, and [the artist] Robert Pepperell, who was also into perception, but more along scientific lines. Then, after they had spoken, I got a film-maker, Peter Reagan, to do a short film. It starts off with old black-and-white footage, like an expedition, with the old writing on the screen and the right type of narration, where Harold Thomas sets off on his voyage. Then it goes into colour and reveals the truth. I thought people were going to get really angry with me for not having told them but, overall, they reacted really well. The audience was less sympathetic, but it was nowhere near as bad as I expected.

AMc: It is not like anyone has the right to be angry with you. It is art, after all.

PS: Yes, it’s art. I think the people who were angry had this preconception that museums are there to present facts, and so is science. I was challenging this and pointing out that, actually, museums don’t always present fact, and they don’t always do it intentionally, but there are often fakes on show as well. And what is fact today can change. A lot of people got annoyed with the idea that what I was presenting was fake, but it wasn’t really fake because they were my own drawings.

AMc: It was just the story you were presenting that wasn’t real.

PS: Yes. I find it interesting that, in literature, somehow, it’s acceptable, but once you stick it in an art setting, the reaction is: “Oh, but you can’t do that.” Why not?

AMc: It is about making people realise they should question things a bit more.

PS: Yes, and realise, also, if you think about it, that history is edited. Everything is edited. We can’t help it. The curator edits what we see in a museum.

AMc: Absolutely. The selection of objects are put together to tell a specific story.

PS: Nothing is neutral.

AMc: And that story is just someone’s view of things.

PS: That’s it, whether we like it or not.

AMc: Where did your interest in science come from, because most of your work, to some degree or other, incorporates elements of science?

PS: It just happened really. It started as early on as Goldsmiths, where I got quite interested in atoms, purely because I liked the idea of lots of invisible things, making up what’s visible. Then it became more concrete, or, I guess, I wanted to make that relationship more evident. A lot of my work was influenced by natural history. The idea for the paper dots, for example, came from looking at plants. I wanted to have a drawing that was 3D, as opposed to flat. Then it was the salt crystals, and then it was the plants. Now it’s more biomedical, I guess, with the forensics. I’ve got another piece I’m working on at the moment where I’m hoping to look at the human brain. I’m seeking advice from a scientist because I’m getting very confused. It’s mind-boggling, and I really do not want to present something scientifically incorrect. I want the viewer to feel the same bewilderment that I feel, or the same confusion that I feel – in a positive way. Because I couldn’t possibly know what a neuroscientist knows, and the viewer can’t either, but we can still be fascinated by that. I am interested in this whole idea of being uncertain about something, but having that uncertainty as a positive. Again, it’s that whole questioning process.

AMc: It seems like there’s a huge element of curiosity in your practice, and a desire to spark that curiosity in others.

PS: Exactly, yes. I guess my science is a little bit like that. I don’t really know it in depth, I just go online and then try it out, a little bit like a mad scientist. I test out different things and play.

AMc: Has anything ever gone horrendously wrong?

PS: Yes. A salt crystal is supposed to be a perfect cube and you’re supposed to scrape it off and make it have the same constant temperature. Obviously I couldn’t do that, nor stop contaminates coming in. But I actually became interested in the imperfections in my crystals.

AMc: It is that which makes them all the more intriguing, and more beautiful, I guess.

PS: Yes. The imperfection is what I really like.

AMc: Most of your work is sculptural or installational but, especially with the dots, you’ve done drawings as well.

PS: Everything usually starts off as a sketch or a drawing, because that’s how I think, with a pencil, or pen, on paper. I don’t have ordered sketchbooks like some artists though. I can’t work in sequences, it’s just loose pieces of paper, gathered about all over the place.

AMc: So, to you, that is not actually part of the work, it is just your thought process?

PS: Yes, it’s my thought process, and I’ve never really thought of presenting it as part of the work. Each medium I decide to use is because I think it fits the idea.

AMc: You must undertake a lot of research, both in terms of the science, but also the materials.

PS: Yes, there is quite a bit of research. Also, into the meanings of the different materials.

AMc: You use quite unconventional materials, too. For example, the hole-punched paper holes that you threaded together in Punctum (2004).

PS: Yes, that’s another aspect of my practice. I like to play with materials, especially when I don’t know how they’re going to turn out. I like the surprise, when you don’t know quite what’s coming.

AMc: You just made reference to atoms. Is that what these tiny paper dots represent for you?

PS: Yes, I just really like the idea of lots of tiny things making up a bigger thing. Also, I noticed, with the paper punched holes, because I took them from different sources, that there were some with handwriting on, and some with highlighter, and I like this whole concept of repetition and difference. I was really keen on that early on in my work. I still am, I think. I also like working with materials from both ends of the spectrum: wood and paper, but also carbon and diamonds. With the cheaper materials, I like the notion of transformation, transforming them into something beautiful, or unexpected. And then, with the more expensive materials, it’s the challenge to keep them as beautiful as they are, not to downgrade them, if you like.

AMc: And, ultimately, once integrated into your work, the materials end up of equal value to one another.

PS: Yes, they do, and isn’t that great?

Casket is at Maidstone Museum until 16 December 2017. It will then be at Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth, from 23 January to 25 March 2018.

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