Mythos: Acts 1 & 2

Act 1. The Rhinoceros 

In 1515, the artist Albrecht Durer published a woodcut print titled, The Rhinoceros.

The rhinoceros that inspired Durer’s print was originally a diplomatic gift from Sultan Muzaffar Shah II, ruler of Gujarat, to Alfonso du Albuquerque, governor of Portuguese India. In turn, Albuquerque gave the rhinoceros to his king, King Manuel I of Portugal. The rhinoceros was loaded onto a ship and made the voyage around the continent of Africa to Lisbon. The first rhinoceros in Europe since Roman times, it became an immediate sensation. Wanting to win favor with Pope Leo X to continue colonial expansion in Asia, King Manuel decided to gift the rhinoceros to the Pope’s menagerie. And so, the rhinoceros was loaded onto another ship and began a voyage to Rome. Unfortunately, the ship encountered a storm and sunk off the coast of La Spezia. Chained below deck, the rhinoceros drowned.

Durer never saw the rhinoceros himself. He based his work on a description and a sketch. Despite inaccuracies in the image – the rhinoceros appears to be wearing armor, and includes a horn on its shoulders - his work became emblematic of a rhinoceros’ appearance, and was even included in German anatomical textbooks until the 1930’s.

Inspired by this print and the history, narratives, and individuals behind it, we, Anne Beck and Michelle Wilson, launched our collective, “The Rhinoceros Project.” In our first endeavor, we spent two years conducting traveling, participatory sewing circles to embroider a life-size version of Durer’s woodcut. During these sewing circles, the rhinoceros becomes a portal to dialogue and listening.

Completed in June 2018, the rhinoceros embroidery served as a matrix for a monumental sheet of handmade paper watermarked with the image of the rhinoceros. The raised threads displaced the pulp in the image areas to make the paper thinner, so that when light passes through the image appears. When dried, the handmade paper evoked the history of the print’s subject matter – a work of art where the image has been displaced, leaving behind a ghostly vestige.

Shortly before we began this project, the Western Black Rhinoceros was declared extinct. The year we launched the project, 2016, the Northern White Rhinoceros was down to six remaining individuals. In order to commemorate those six endlings from the year our project began, we plan to make an edition of six watermarks.

As of 2022, the Northern White Rhinoceros has only two remaining infertile females of the species left.

Our investigation into the Rhinoceros as an early colonial displacement evolved from our belief that in order to best engage social and environmental issues of today, we must dig deep into our personal and collective histories – going back to the beginnings of globalization.

Act 2. The Map of Tenochtitlan

Through researching Durer and his Rhinoceros, we discovered that Durer also published a woodcut map of Tenochtitlan (pre-Hispanic Mexico City).

This map was published in 1524 by Friedrich Peypus with copies of letters written by Hernan Cortes to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The imagery is attributed to Albrecht Durer, and is an interpretation of the descriptions of the Aztec city by Cortes.

Nuremberg, where Durer resided, was a center for information, cartography, weaponry, and finance. In fact, Nuremberg investors financed a great deal of Spanish colonial exploration of the New World. Spanish firsthand accounts of the New World were published in Nuremberg and disseminated throughout Europe.

Yet like the rhinoceros, Durer never saw Tenochtitlan. And, like the rhinoceros, Tenochtitlan the city was displaced by colonialism.

The map includes two towers – the twin sanctuaries to Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtil – framing the rising sun above the Templo Mayor, the dwellings, gardens and the zoo of Montezema, as well as buildings and causeways, and boats throughout the Lake Texcoco. The right side of the map is oriented with east at the top, with the Hapsburg double-headed eagle.

On the left side of the map, oriented with south at the top, is the Gulf of Mexico, from the Yucatan to Florida, rendered in a different scale than that of the city.

This map is the foundation for our second monumental embroidery, and will be used as a matrix for an eventual work in handmade paper.