The visual novels of Audrey Niffenegger (b. 1963) are replete with curiously concocted creatures that serve as the primary narrative tools for advancing her bizarre, dreamlike tales.
These creatures open a portal through which readers may enter into the artist’s highly imaginative fantasies. “I use fantastic elements in my art to startle people into noticing and paying attention…strangeness makes us see more acutely,” Niffenegger states. In particular, Niffenegger often depicts macabre hybrid creatures in her work—an artistic technique that stems from a long art-historical tradition of shocking imagery created for the purpose of sending powerful messages and expressing deeply held beliefs.
An excellent example of Niffenegger’s use of hybrid creatures is her visual novel Raven Girl, 2012 (on view through November 10 at NMWA in Awake in the Dream World: The Art of Audrey Niffenegger), a melancholy love story in which a mailman and his raven lover sire a part-human, part-raven daughter. Throughout the story, the Raven Girl struggles with her identity, feeling more like a raven despite her human appearance, eventually turning to modern medicine for assistance in becoming more raven in nature.
Two Raven Girl images (a 2012 painting, Raven Girl, and a print from the book called And They Lived Happily Together Ever After) demonstrate the precarious balance of the Raven Girl’s dual nature: one image emphasizes her avian background through the depiction of a large, foreboding black wing from which human facial features emerge in isolation; another shows Raven Girl with an almost entirely human body, disrupted only by two graceful black wings that sprout instead of arms. The two hybrid images effectively narrate the internal struggle of the Raven Girl as she works towards resolving her conflicted identity, and demonstrate Niffenegger’s adept use of hybrid beings as message-laden symbols.
—Raphael Fitzgerald is an art historian and researcher.