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Published: 01 April 2017

By Andy Ross

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The art of printing fish

A few months ago an embroidery of a coelacanth, that most amazing of fish, came out of its rolling tube and was installed on a wall in the studio. 

The piece was made by South African Walter Oltmann working in collaboration with a women's co-operative and has attracted a great deal of attention, including from weaver Alicja Tyburska. Alicja was telling us about the art of printing fabrics from fish as a means of verifying a catch but also as an art that has evolved from that practical reason. Thanks for this link, Alicja. 

Over the years this particular art form has swum into our vision, and out again. My sister decorated a door in my home with a linoprint cutout of a herring, creating a swarm of them swimming across the boards, and we owned a tea towel from New Zealand with a fish image printed using bubble wrap and plastic to resemble scales. We even have a tea tray with a print on it of a real fish, I guess made by inking the side of the creature and pressing it onto the surface of the try. But this technique goes far beyond such items. 

Walter Oltmann does not make his images by printing from life. He records prehistoric and vanished life in wire, thread and ink, and in this case his coelacanth is printed white on white and then embroidered with white thread. It is an evocation of the tenacity of life and yet the ephemeral nature of it too. Next time you are in the studio, look to the right and upwards to see this amazing piece.