”Hide as material, hide as metaphor”

Essay by Svein Ingvoll Pedersen, art historian and former adm. leader of The North Norwegian Art Centre.


This is about that which can be used and about that which can’t, but primarily it is about hide and contemporary craft.

Solveig Ovanger’s work can definitely be described as arts and crafts (or contemporary craft, if you wish). Her ideas stem from the material; and the craft, the skill involved in forming the material is a central element in her work. Several of her pieces are representative for the arts and crafts since the 1980s; they are not objects for use, but simply objects, free forms which often reach towards the limits of the material.

The fact that the work is based on a material, places it within the arts and crafts tradition, but the material itself is not among those that have dominated this tradition. Ovanger is one of a few who work solely with hides and skins. Had she worked with glass or ceramics, it would be simple to place her work within a tradition and to compare it with the work of other artists. If we open a reference book on contemporary craft, however, we are not likely to find leather among the chapter headings. Leather hardly exists in the modern arts and crafts tradition.

Ovanger’s work is thus only partly included in the established categories, but at the same time we are safely within a craft tradition. To prepare and make products out of animal hide is one of our oldest crafts. In this respect, leather workers and ceramists share an equally long history and if we were to place Ovanger’s work in an historical perspective, we would turn to the history of the tanner and the saddle maker.

The cultural history of the leather is, however, very different to that of glass and ceramics. Leather has not been equally conspicuous in the materialistic culture of the West, especially not among the upper classes. Leather was not seen on the table alongside damask, silver, glass and porcelain. Leather had literally a lower status, as chair coverings and so forth, in contrast to the Gobelin tapestries decorating the walls. Our cultural inheritance and its materialistic tradition is an inheritance from victors, both nationally and socially speaking. The closest we get to an elevated status for leatherwork, is the gilt leather tradition, which the Moors brought to Europe in the 700s. This was, in return, extremely exclusive and expensive. In addition to leather products such as belts, bags and furniture coverings, tablecloths, bedcovers, cassocks and even carpets were produced as gilt leather during the golden period of the technique in the 15-1600s. 

Ovanger started working with leather in the 1970s, when she lived in Christiania in Copenhagen. Due to the hippies’ love for ethnic, non-western things, leather was having its renaissance. But soon other ideas and influenced inspired her work. Ovanger’s development reflects the transformation of the arts and crafts over the last 20 years. Jorunn Veiteberg calls this a transformation "from silent things to talking objects".1) Items like Ovanger’s leather bags have for many years had a strong sculptural character. Their shapes have become distinctive and characteristic, and may remind one of a heart or a spearhead. The organic material is given a clear and conclusive form. The bags have, in other words, a certain attitude.

At the same time she has left the everyday use aspect, though without moving very far; several objects are based on the same mould as her later bags. Nevertheless, the crossing from the usable to the non-usable (which is not to be mistaken for being useless) is a big step. It challenges both the artist and the viewer in a new way. The latter must to make an effort. Approaching the work, the viewer must open up his/her mind, experiences and knowledge if the work is going to have any effect.

"What I actually see, must be what is generated in me through the influence of the object.” – What is generated in me is therefore a kind of depiction, something that one is able to look at afterwards, right in front of me; almost like something materializing."2)

(Ludwig Wittenstein, Philosophical Studies. Translated from the Norwegian edition page 228)

If we view this matter from the object’s point of view, we may say that the material itself often tells a story. Leather can speak both by reference to other leather products or to leatherwork traditions and by making us think of the skin, both animal and human, as a protecting membrane and a sense organ communicating with the outside world.

Compared to glass or clay, ox hide is not easily moulded. Leatherwork requires strict planning, and leaves little room for spontaneity. This is obviously partly the reason for the modest position leather has within the arts and crafts tradition. It is, however, strange that leather has not tempted more artists over the last decades when the body has been a central issue within contemporary art. Because, as soon as the material has been disconnected from everyday use and still appears as a formed object, its metaphorical potential arises. Leather has many facets. It fascinates, either through its gleaning sensuality, or as a rough, untreated surface reminiscent of the flesh, the hair and the life it was once attached to.

In Ovanger’s objects, the ox hide and fish skin are shaped in a way that does not give obvious references to particular items. They invite the viewer to open up.  In some of the objects she allows the leather to keep its origin in the animal world through their organic shapes. In others, she transforms the animal into geometry. Experiments with the potential and possibilities of the material run parallel with the exploration of the narrative hide.

One thing is certain; its last word has not been spoken. Solveig Ovanger will certainly make the leather talk again.



1) Veiteberg, Jorun, "Talande objekt. Eksempel på kunsthandverk i ei grenselaus tid", i Nordiske designskribenter, katalog Röhsska museet, Göteborg 1999

2) Wittgenstein, Ludvig, Filosofiske undersøkelser, Oslo 1997. Ludwig Wittenstein, Philosophical Studies. Translated from the Norwegian edition page 228.