Maya El Nahal


Seal. Meeting death is common in the Outer Hebrides, and although beautiful, it can also be challenging.

A dead seal pup came ashore on Baleshare beach at a time of year when storms often wash young pups off their breeding colonies. These little ones are too young to cope in the water and they drown. It is natural, and normal, but still difficult.

In some cultures the practice of tanning hides is seen as re-investing life into the dead, breathing fluidity and softness back into something stiffened and cold. I decided to tan the seal's hide as a way of giving him something of the life he had lost, not a continuation of the same one, but something other. It was a long and difficult process, emotionally as well as physically.

At one point, seal hunting and tanning were central parts of life in the Outer Hebrides; when colonial and capitalist over-exploitation contributed to dwindling seal populations, seal hunting was banned. As a necessary protection, our relationship with seals had to become one of distance, rather than intimacy.

One (among many) griefs of capitalism is the loss of intimacy between communities when their stories have to separate completely. This could be species extinction, but it can also be a sort of cultural extinction when our stories and songs lose footing in the world. The embodied respect that grows organically between beings caught together in shared ecologies is unravelled, in favour of conservation behind glass.

Six months before I found the seal, the last person on the Island with hands-on knowledge of working sealskin died, the daughter of a seal tanner.

Peat-stained bones.

I buried Seal's body under three Elder trees on a friend's land. After two-and-a-half years I returned to unearth the bones; the soil was rich with worms and mycelial networks. I took what bones I could find, and gave most of them back to Baleshare Beach, back to the sea.

Though the project started as a way to honour this lost pup, through tanning, drawing, photography, storytelling, and sculpture, it became a way to process death and grief as healthy parts of the yearly cycle.

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