Damon Albarn's sister Jessica on giving creatures a new life through art (From East London and West Essex Guardian Series)
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Damon Albarn's sister Jessica talks to Amie Mulderrig about her work featuring dead bees, butterflies and spiders.
It began with a dead rabbit buried at the bottom of the garden. Unable to understand why her beloved pet was no longer around, its owner, a little girl aged just five, dug it up.
What she discovered had a profound effect upon her.
“I’m not into rotting corpses or anything like that,“ stresses Jessica Albarn, as she recounts the memory. “I just wanted to bring it back to life, to hold onto what had been lost. I didn’t understand what had happened.
“But what I found, I was really disturbed by and it’s stayed with me, all of this time.“
Jessica is talking to me from her studio, “a glorified shed“ she says, built by her ex-husband’s father and nestled at the end of her garden in Stoke Newington.
You could say she’s something of an entomologist – what with the innumerable collections of dead and dried insects, pinned and preserved to be admired, positioned along the walls.
But in fact, she’s an artist, with a new show entitled Resurrection.
Featuring intricately drawn images of bees and butterflies drawn on glass, hexagon-shaped beeswax and paper, the show pays tribute to creatures under threat of extinction in the modern world.
“I’ve always been obsessive with animals and nature, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve been particularly drawn to insects,“ explains Jessica, 43.
“I started drawing bees a few years ago, I was always finding dead ones in my studio. Then, one summer, I noticed there weren’t many bees about. I became conscious of their plight and connected up with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. People are a lot more aware now about bees and how important they are to us.
“So, I suppose that in my mind the show’s a play on bringing the dead back to life, resurrecting something of that past creature and celebrating it in some way. Giving it a new life through my work. And in the case of bees, raising awareness.
“When these creatures are dead and dried out I get very drawn into the detail.“
It’s not the first time the works have been exhibited – to coincide with Easter Sunday, earlier this year, Jessica showcased the works at a crypt in Bristol. This time around it’s a gallery setting in central London. And there are some new pieces in the exhibition – four glass works subtly lit in the centre, giving an ethereal quality to the work, and a magnificent card tower – put together by the nimble hands of Jessica’s teenage daughter Lola.
Glass and cards have huge resonance for Jessica, so it’s fitting, perhaps, that she’s included them in her exhibition.
“When I was ten I had pneumonia and I was hallucinating a lot,“ she says. “In one of the hallucinations I was a tall thin shard of glass, the other a tall tower of cards. I would imagine I was teetering and if I was the glass I would fall and smash, if I was the cards, I would scatter.
“At secondary school I started doing biology, working with slides, and the look and feel of them made me feel weird, queasy, it would bring me back to the hallucinations. It’s a feeling that still haunts me to this day.
“Working on glass for this exhibition was sort of therapeutic and I suppose in some way I’m getting to the bottom of what really bothers me about glass.“
This exhibition is being touted as something of a comeback for Jessica, who took time out to have and raise her youngest daughter Etta, now three.
A fantastic draughtswoman, with a keen eye for detail, as well as these images of insects, Jessica has painted a whole host of famous faces including Banksy (masked, to protect his identity), collaborated with designer Helmut Lang, and written a book: The Boy in the Oak – which is being made into a feature film.
Despite all of these accolades, with Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn as her older brother, she has on previous occasions been referred to, unfairly, as the other Albarn.
“I think the fact I can’t be pigeonholed as an artist is why I’ve been quite slow to flower as an artist,“ says Jessica.
“But I don’t compare what I’m doing with Damon as he’s on a massive scale and I’m not.
“I’ve accepted the fact that people will ask me about him and it’s nice to talk about and celebrate what he’s achieved. I love him. He’s my brother.
“We are very individual and interested in doing our own things though. The work I’ve done, I’ve done on my own. I accept people will look at me more because of Damon, I just hope people don’t think I’m riding on his coat-tails.“
If the show receives the critical acclaim it deserves, it’ll be something of a family celebration for Jessica, as Damon is enjoying huge success with his first solo endeavour, album Everyday Robots.
“I suppose my parents are feeling a bit giddy now,“ she chuckles. “But what can I say, it’s the year of the Albarns.“
Jessica Albarn: Resurrection, Lawrence Alkin Gallery, London WC2, until June 28. Details: 020 7240 7909, lawrencealkingallery.com