I remember playing Cats Cradle as a kid in New Jersey. I never really thought about where the game came from. Recently however, while talking with anthropological archeologist Michele Hayeur Smith, I learned a bit about Inuit culture and life in the Circumpolar Region that led me to do further research and to the discovery of String Games or String Figures. As it turns out, I learned that making string figures is an ancient art and these games can be found all around the world and are the most widespread form of entertainment on earth!
Indigenous people of all ages on every continent make string figures. In fact, making string figures and playing string games can be traced back almost as far as human history. From games to stories to spiritual practices, string figures have been used to entertain, teach, heal, predict and connect people. Pop a string in your pocket and you have a game, book, and a crystal ball at your fingertips.
In the Arctic, strong connections within and between families were instrumental for survival in the tough living conditions. Playing with strings helped pass the long days during cold, dark winters and helped people bond with one another on multiple levels. The elders often told oral stories using the strings as illustrations.
The Inuit have some of the most complex string figures in the world. Like many indigenous cultures, their oral stories combined with making string figures have been passed down through the ages retaining hints of ancient life and myths. Now, with climate change affecting the way people in the arctic live, preserving the traditions and retaining a connection to the past has taken on an urgency. The ISFA, Inthttp://www.isfa.orgernational String Figure association has created The Arctic String Figure Project to preserve the tradition and knowledge of the string figures.
Thinking about how these strings have had a place in so many communities around the world drove me to make connections of my own and I began incorporating string and thread into my art. Inspired by my research, I continued the tradition of using string and thread to make connections, describe relationships and to tell stories. For example, some relationships are intellectually driven while others are biologically driven or emotionally driven. There are relationships that get broken and mended back together.
While making my string drawings I noticed patterns emerging from the strings that resemble ancient symbols and also that look like many of the traditional string figure formations. For example, while making a drawing about a parent’s relationship with their children, the Inuit tent figure appeared. I also discovered the symbol for “Home and Family” while drawing a piece about family dynamics. I thought it strange but not surprising. I read that there is a spirit of the string figures and it is a guardian spirit of shamans. I like to think that the spirit infuses itself into this work.
As I continue to develop my artwork I keep circling back to the themes of relationships, human connection, emotions, love, friendship and family. This is what unifies us all. It is not surprising that I have found inspiration from this widespread ancient game. From the heat of the desert to the cold of the Arctic, humanity looks more similar than different when described through strings.
You can see more of my art at: Instagram @daraoshin
One Comment Add yours
Dara thank you for sharing this post – I love the way you frame the connections created by the strings from literal to abstract and subconscious. I also love the forms from drawings to sculpture and contrasts of the soft red binding of the yarn. Beautiful. I look forward to seeing and reading more.