Perhaps leather’s close affinity to the human skin as a protective and insulating material has made it seem too primary, too foundational to serve as ornament: as an enhancement that acquires its attractions partly because it is functionally superfluous. Perhaps leather’s susceptibility to wear and tear makes it feel too ephemeral to embody the kinds of projected desires for perfection that precious objects generally reflect. Perhaps leather is simply too common a substance to be charged with any significant symbolic meaning, except in the case of certain animal pelts, jaguar or leopard, for example, in which the leather itself remains concealed beneath colorful patterned fur. For whatever reason, leather is an oddity in ornament. Used by humans for thousands of years, perhaps even before our full evolution into humanity, leather as a wearable material is perpetuated in our shoes, belts and purses, but it almost never infiltrates our jewelry, except in the subordinate, utilitarian role of a watchband or a cord on which to string rustic beads.
For Dallas, Texas artist Tamar Navama the seemingly inevitable lot of leather to be a wearable substance routinely relegated to functional duties, even when dyed and varnished to a high gloss, has entailed both challenges and opportunities ever since she began exploring the material as the mainstay of her jewelry. One of her key concerns has been to overcome longstanding prejudices against the idea of leather as a precious material, or, more accurately, as a material precious in its own right rather than as a consequence of its incorporation into Gucci handbags or Jimmy Choo boots. To address this concern she has followed a two-pronged strategy in which leather sometimes asserts the inherent physical qualities, pliability, for example, that make it so useful as a functional material and other times transcend its physicality to become an inspiration for design and even a template for production of elements in other media. Regardless of whether her works incorporate actual leather or merely the traces and impressions of it, she has made leather the focus of her work with the consistency and determination of an advocate.
The foundational series for Navama’s engagement of leather, Second Skin, is also the most varied, embracing leather both as a material to be appreciated in itself and as a source of visual and conceptual abstraction. The series title, a seemingly straightforward reference to wearing animal skin over human skin, is ambiguous enough to allow for at least three other interpretations that have opened fruitful lines of artistic exploration: the use of scraps of leather ordinarily devalued as commercial seconds; the relationship between real skin and its synthetic imitation; and, most conceptually complex of all, the temporary transformation of the wearer’s skin from its primary condition as a site for ornament to a secondary state as representation, a transition occurring, for example, when the heavy, textured surface of a bracelet is lifted from a wearer’s wrist and momentarily leaves its physical traces behind in the form of impressions in the skin.
The first and most direct interpretation of Second Skin, the concept of an animal skin serving as a kind of prosthesis for or duplicate of the human skin, has been explored by Navama in a series of brooches, rings and pendants incorporating small pieces of dark alligator hide. Mounted on silver or plastic backings, the bits of animal skin generally do not lie, as clothing would, directly against the wearer’s own skin, nor do they serve any functional purpose. Irregularly shaped, like pieces from an eccentric jigsaw puzzle, they play formally against elements of silver or gold in an organic-and-geometric dynamic. Lest the scaly network of the leather’s surface become too easily abstracted into mere pattern, Navama reminds the viewer of the material’s nature as animal skin by tacking it to its backing with tiny gold pins that recall the process of stretching and curing hide as well as shaping it over blocks.
In other instances, as in the case of a pendant with the appearance of a torn watch band, the raw side of the leather remains visible, a reminder that the material has been stripped from an animal’s body and preserved for human use. “I deliberately show the backside of the skin, the ugly side that people want to hide,” Navama explains. “There is the process of transformation between animal, a live creature, to an object. In our minds we forget this process and I’m trying to bring it back and show it.” No implicit judgment is conveyed by this action. Navama does not moralize over an industry that, by its very nature, depends on death. She does, however, wish to underscore the fact that leather is worthy of respect and admiration as a precious material that cannot simply be mined from the earth like diamonds or gold.
Another potential reading of the series title Second Skin concerns both the industry’s focus on particular sections of alligator skin—those in which the scales are most regular and the skin is fitted to the flattest areas of the animal’s body—and its rejection of the remaining irregularly patterned and contoured parts as seconds. The titles Armpit Ring and Armpit Necklace might convey an immediate impression of vulgarity, but in fact they are merely descriptive of the location over which the pieces of leather they incorporate once lay on the alligator’s body. Difficult to use, unlike the hornback or belly skin of the alligator, these sections are, in effect, industrial discards. For Navama, the process of incorporating them into jewelry is not so much an act of aggrandizement, of raising the mundane or abysmal to an exalted status, as of vindication. In ornament, a piece of alligator hide can be as visually luxuriant and formally vital as any precious gem, regardless of whether the clothing and accessories industries would classify it as primary or secondary skin.
A third strategy through which Navama has explored the concept of a second skin involves both the body of the wearer of a piece of jewelry and reference to animal skin incorporated, as material or as image, into that jewelry. Here, the second skin is largely metaphorical: a trace, a pattern of evidence, left behind after the surface, or “skin,” of a piece of jewelry is removed from where it rested on the body. In part, works in this vein are about the nature of jewelry and how the maker can utilize it as a link between the surface of the body and the larger material world. A good example is a bracelet in which a raised pattern of granulation relates to ray skin. “The inspiration for this is looking at the skin and trying to imitate it, but the imitation is coming from my metalsmith world,” Navama explains. “It’s a sheet that has been drilled, and then there are granules on the inside that are meant to create impressions on the wrist. You’re left with the skin while this object is sitting on the table, so there is kind of a shift from the bracelet to what’s happened on the body.”
A fourth potential meaning of Second Skin—as a reference to a surrogate or stand-in for real leather—is suggested by such works as the Climbing Brooch, in which simulated alligator scales stamped into metal plates serve as integral parts of the compositions. More illusionistic than this is the black-plastic alligator skin incorporated into Eruption Bracelet #1 and Eruption Bracelet #2. These hollow-formed-silver, c-shaped cuff bracelets—aesthetically dramatic contrasts of light and dark, smooth and rough, geometric and organic—recall expensive fashion objects that incorporate actual alligator skin, but at the same time their inclusion of a synthetic material associated with mass production raises questions. Should these works be seen as sophisticated decorative-art objects that elevate the aesthetic status and monetary value of ersatz alligator skin to the levels associated with the real thing, or are they, on the contrary, high-end objects conceptually brought low by the infiltration of imitation? Another interpretation, more consistent with Navama’s expressed views on alligator hide, is that the skin itself, abstracted into a scale pattern in the plastic substitute, is responsible for its own elevation. In other words, alligator skin has an intrinsic, rather than merely contextual, value as an abstract design element.
Exploration of this abstract design element in a purely formal context led Navama to develop a related line, or rather sub-series of jewelry encompassed by the Second Skin series: the Fresh Brooches. In these works, she has employed digital files created with Illustrator software as the basis for brightly colored acrylic jewelry. “Those files are coming from images of an alligator skin that I traced then adjusted by shrinking and expanding parts,” she explains, “but here, instead of trying to create a memory for skin, it’s okay for the forms to have their own lives. I got these imitations of imitations of imitations, and then at some point they became these laser-cut acrylic shapes in different colors.” These often serve as components in unique formal arrangements that include brushed silver plates, various stones set in bezels, and silver link chains, but Navama has also employed them in production jewelry by attaching simple findings to create bracelets or large earrings. She has also experimented with laser cutting the designs in other materials, such as paper, rubber and—in a cycle from material to abstraction and back again—leather.
The title Fresh Brooches conveys something of the vitality and vibrancy that Navama associates with the jewelry of this series. “It’s more playful than my other work,” she notes. “I have two babies in my world, so I started making things in yellow and red.” Like the colors, the shapes are exuberant, partly because they arise from a genuine curiosity about what might result from stretching, contacting, or otherwise altering the original designs in Illustrator and partly because those designs have originated in characteristics of the scaling of an alligator’s skin that evolved specifically to facilitate a lively interaction with the physical world. “As I alter the patterns, I try to leave one of the things that is most important and interesting for me,” Navama says. “That’s the change of the pattern on the animal. Some parts of the skin need to bend, so they’re different from the parts that will be constantly rubbed against something. Around the eyes the scales get smaller so that the skin can have the wrinkles that it needs in order to move. The shapes change based on the use of that part of the animal. For me there is something amazing in that, and I’m trying to take it and use it and show it in my work.”
If the Fresh Brooches convey the energy and elasticity of life, Navama’s series Black on Black acknowledges that life is inevitably and eternally linked to stasis as well. “I lost my mom a few years ago, and it’s something that I had on my mind,” she explains, “so I consider the Black on Black necklaces to be mourning jewelry, though they’re not necessarily meant to be used for that purpose.” Deriving from her practice of manipulating scale patterns in Illustrator then laser-cutting these to create web-like pendants, the Black on Black works are quieter, more poignant and more intimate counterparts to the Fresh Brooches. Suspended on silver chains that are sometimes partly or wholly darkened with liver of sulfur, the pendants convey melancholy but also the serenity that comes with detachment from the material world through spiritual or philosophical acceptance of ephemerality. The medium, plastic layered over laser-cut paper rather than acrylic, is crucial to the Black on Black works in this respect. In the imperfections arising from the process of creation—the membranes that randomly close some of the holes and the tiny knobs and trailings that occur within others—the frailty of life is written with poetic simplicity. Here, the affinity of alligator hide to human skin, brought out by Tamar Navama through the process of abstraction peculiar to art, transcends the functional and ornamental and broaches the existential.
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Glen R. Brown is a Kansas State University professor. Drawn to media underused in contemporary jewelry, he noted a vital issue raised by the alligator-skin brooches and pendants of Dallas artist Tamar Navama. “When it incorporates alligator-hide scraps incongruously with geometric silver components, Tamar’s work conveys the melancholy of a fragile nature subjected to industry,” he remarks, “but when her work involves alligator-hide patterns invading the realm of digitally generated design, then nature—as an idea, at least—reasserts itself within the artificial to remind us of things we can’t really do without.”