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New textile display highlights the beauty and vulnerability of coral

A collection of multi-layered textile pieces will highlight the beauty and vulnerability of coral in 'Coral: Fabric of the Reef', a new display opening at the Horniman on Saturday 9 December.

  • CoralFabricoftheReef (c) KarenDodd. Photo by SophieGladstone_, Karen Dodd's woollen coral intrigues and delights in equal measure, Sophie Gladstone− © Karen Dodd
    Karen Dodd's woollen coral intrigues and delights in equal measure, Sophie Gladstone

Inspired by the Horniman’s Natural History collection, Aquarium, and pioneering Project Coral research, artist Karen Dodd’s latest work uses woollen fabric – dyed and sculpted, and intricately bound and stitched – to replicate the shapes and patterns of coral and coral reefs in this small display. 'Coral: Fabric of the Reef' will simultaneously celebrate the beauty of these fascinating animals, and raises awareness of the crisis they face due to changing ocean temperature, acidification, and pollution. 

Exploring Karen’s fascination with coral and drawing on its many forms and colours, its lifecycle and sensitivity to environmental change, 'Coral: Fabric of the Reef' will feature a series of large circular works evoking the vibrancy of a living reef. Other pieces are crafted to illustrate bleaching and deterioration caused by threats to coral habitats.

Karen’s use of wool – a naturally produced protective organic material – draws comparisons with coral’s own calcium carbonate skeleton. Each piece of work is subject to a series of processes in which colour is added and partially stripped away, analogous to the life and growth of coral, and to the bleaching caused by changes to its environment. Fragmentation, holes, stitches, and shadows present in some pieces represent loss, degradation and fragility.

Karen Dodd says: ‘The unusual and special combination of the Natural History Gallery, Aquarium and coral research project all under one roof at the Horniman has played a key part in my thinking and development of the work, influencing my choice of content and materials. When dyeing and manipulating the fabric to build organic rhythmic structures, I am reflecting the complexity of these beautiful and extraordinary communities about which I feel such awe, affinity, and heartbreak. My choice of the circle motif, uneven structures, fragmentation, bleached areas and the materials and processes I use reflect the natural ongoing cycle of life and death on reefs, and the loss and deterioration of fragile coral due to increasing disastrous environmental changes.’ 

Joanne Hatton, Keeper of Natural History says: ‘Coral reefs are one of the most biologically diverse environments on Earth. They are also amongst the most vulnerable to global environmental change. Karen Dodd’s work reflects both her fascination and love of coral and coral reefs, but also her concern for their future. The diversity of her work – some pieces bright and vibrant, some pale and scarred – guided by the different forms and shapes of coral species on display in our Natural History Gallery and living in the Aquarium, encourages us to think more deeply about that. Karen’s compassion and that of others – including in our own Aquarium – working to conserve and highlight the beauty and function of coral reefs, also gives us hope for the future.’

'Coral: Fabric of the Reef' is part of the Horniman’s 2018 programming marking the International Year of the Reef. Through films, talks, written and photographic web content, displays and special events, the Horniman will celebrate the beauty and diversity of coral reefs around the world, showcasing their special relationships with the plethora of animals that depend on them. The International Year of the Reef has been established to demonstrate how and why they are so valuable to us as humans and explores what we can do to help minimise the ongoing impact climate change is having on these integral, and fragile, ecosystems.

'Coral: Fabric of the Reef' can be seen in the Horniman’s Natural History Gallery from Saturday 9 December 2017 to Sunday 9 September 2018. Entry to the Natural History Gallery is free.