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On the Wings of Birds: A brief discussion on the symbolism of birds in art

“I don’t know about birds nor do I know the history of fire. But I believe that my solitude should have wings.”

- Alejandra Pizarnik, author and poet, whose writing influenced the artist Bastardilla

Birds. Many of us have some sort of daily interaction with birds, be it chasing pigeons off your balcony or listening to their songs through our window. Humanity has been fascinated with birds for our entire history and the art we have created reflects this. In fact, when the Rijksmuseum here in Amsterdam first opened its doors as the Nationale Kunstgalerij in 1800, the first piece purchased was The Swan by Jan Asselijn, which can still be viewed today in the Gallery of Honor.

Have you ever wondered how many paintings from the different cultures and times periods contain the images of birds and can be seen in the classic collections such as the Rijksmuseum? Birds in art represent a range of ideas including freedom, nobility, fertility, and bravery just to name a few. Figures of birds are often used to symbolize the poet or musician, are considered omens both for good and ill, and are sometimes thought to be the messengers of the gods. Many cultures interpret the same species of birds quite differently. The crow, for example, is considered a portent of death in many Western traditions, but in Ancient Egypt, they were symbols of faithful love and in many Native American cultures they are associated with the creation of the world.

This spring, SAMA completed its largest mural to date and with its inauguration will add another piece to the vast history of birds in art. Memories by the artist Bastardilla is a monumental mural that measures 180 square meters and was completed on March 30th, 2019. Bastardilla, a Colombian born graffiti artist and painter adapted her original design which was dominated by flowers to focus more on birds as per the request of the local residents in conjunction with the number of birds she saw while working on the mural.

In the mural Memories, the most prominent birds are the Kingfishers and the Great Cormorants that surround the person on the right side of the mural. Both of these birds have rich histories and mythologies that surround them.

The lovely blue Kingfisher, which is usually found in more temperate climates than the Netherlands, is also called a ‘halcyon bird’. This name derives from Greek mythology. Legend has it that Alcyone and her husband Ceyx, who were mortals, referred to themselves as ‘Zeus and Hera’ which eventually angering the gods. Zeus used a thunderbolt to sink Ceyx’s ship and he drowned at sea. Upon hearing this news, Alcyone threw herself into the sea and drowned as well. Perhaps feeling a bit repentant for the overreaction, the gods turned the two into beautiful blue birds which were called halcyon birds after Alcyone. The birds are said to build nests only during calm weather, this is where the term ‘halcyon days’ comes from. Kingfisher birds are also associated with looking back fondly on times past, making the Kingfisher an appropriate symbol for a mural whose main subject matter is memories.

The Great Cormorant is a common sight along coasts and waterways here in the Netherlands and can be found all over the world. Cormorants are well-known residents of the low and water-rich Netherlands. Just like all other wild birds that occur naturally in the Netherlands, they are protected under the European Birds Directive. Cormorants can be recognized by the spread wings that let them dry in the wind. The Netherlands has around 60 breeding colonies and the number of breeding pairs varies between 20,000 and 25,000.

Since they are more common, Cormorants can be found in many different myths and legends. And similar to the Kingfisher, Cormorants are associated with the sea. Greek mythology says that the reason that Cormorants dive into the water is that they are looking for treasure that they lost. It is also considered lucky if a flock of cormorants nest outside of a village. Norwegian mythology says that three Cormorants flying together bring messages and warnings from the dead. Norwegian legend also has it that those who die at sea come and visit their loved ones in the form of cormorants. This combination of lucky talismans, particularly for fishermen, and as messengers of the dead also make the Great Cormorant an appropriate symbol in this mural.

There is a saying about the Netherlands, “God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.” This is often used to elucidate the creation of the country out of swampland and shows the close connection that the majority of people living here have to water. Many people live near the ocean, a lake or a canal and the waterways are an intrinsic part of Dutch life. While it may not be common today, in the past many immigrants have come to and left the Netherlands by sea. So it is fitting that in a neighborhood that is home to both immigrant communities and native Dutch residents that Bastardilla chose to focus on two birds that are associated with the ocean. The Dutch are and should be proud of the country’s strong maritime traditions and the prominent use of two birds that are so closely linked with the sea honours this history.

While the two types of birds on the right side of the mural are specific, Bastardilla fused many of the different birds she saw in the neighborhood to create the fascinating flock of birds on the left and the unspecified nature of these birds allows for a wider range of interpretations by each individual viewer. The group of birds on the left side of Memories are an amalgamation of the unknown and exotic and meant to represent the varied population of the neighborhood where Memories is located.

Representatives of more than 180 different nationalities, more than any other city, make up the population of Amsterdam. In the future, Amsterdam plans to welcome more refugees and immigrants from all over the world. Nieuw-West, already home to a large Moroccan and Turkish population, will see more immigrants from a variety of countries such as Burundi, Ghana, and Eritrea just to name a few.

When looking at this flock of unidentifiable birds we hope that viewers are reminded of the multicultural nature of this neighborhood and that it is growing more varied every day. While the past is represented by the birds on the right, those on the left represent the present and the future. As this neighborhood continues to grow it is the flock of birds on the left who are neither one thing nor the other but are a mix of all different kinds that reflect the nature of the community around Memories. And like the birds who are adding their individual flames to create one fire, it is these new residents who will be the ones responsible for the future of this neighborhood.

It is impossible to say what it is about birds that humans find so fascinating. Perhaps it is their freedom, the ability to spread their wings and fly wherever the wind takes them, maybe it is the beauty and the variety found in these creatures of the air and water. Whatever it is that fascinates us, humans have created a wide range of stories, mythologies, and legends around these winged beings. SAMA hopes that Memories continues to add to our shared history with birds and their depiction in art.

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