“This is the Price of Palm Oil”, painted in acrylic on wet media acetate, depicts the wildlife of Sumatra and Borneo that shares the forests with orang-utans. All that stands to be lost through deforestation for the unsustainable production of Palm Oil.
Each panel measures approximately 60cm deep by 140cm long.
Every Orang Utan is an individual, as different as we are from one another.
Making eye contact with Kiani can be disturbing. Locking onto the intensely intelligent chestnut gaze of my old friend, I feel I am being interrogated – asked to account for myself. This is a face I have been looking into for 37 years, watching an orphaned infant clinging to her twin brother grow into motherhood herself and eventually to be the formidable personality she is today. Her daughter Gabbi’s tilted almond eyes have a slightly shy querying look. She lacks the raw challenge of her mother’s expression. Mother and daughter with such different eyes and different personalities.
When a phone call interrupts one of our art sessions, I watch the expressions flitting across Kiani’s face as a talk and realise that she is mirroring my own. In Kiani’s face I find questions of my own – including that of what engages and holds her interest. Drawing is initially enough. Kiani smiles at a drawing of herself, but quickly loses interest when I begin a drawing of her daughter. I hold up a mirror for her and she smiles the same way that she does at her portrait. Gabby sometimes approaches, but is pushed away by her mother. Willow a female at Taronga zoo is less egotistical. She has even left freshly provided food to sit on the other side of the glass from me and watch as I draw her male companion.
After a time it becomes clear that drawing is losing its appeal, so I bring clay and begin modelling a variety of forms. In the first instance, Kiani is so entranced that she actually welcomes Gabby to join us, slinging an arm around her back as they huddle close to the glass watching forms emerge from the clay.
I make pinch pot nests and roll little clay eggs to put into them. When mother and daughter are subsequently given their own balls of clay as a behavioural enrichment exercise, Kiani immediately handles hers like a professional. She slaps it into her palm and rolls it as I have shown her, then carefully pinches off a piece at a time and, delicately using one finger, rolls a series of tiny eggs, grouping them together on the deck in front of her. She works left handed, as I do. Gabby’s approach is more investigative. She rolls her ball into a fat sausage, then carries it up to a spiggot where she wets the clay and tests its new slipperiness. She puts it on the deck and uses a piece of fire hose to flatten it. Mother and daughter confronted with the same ‘teaching’, demonstrate two clearly defined responses – imitative and experimental. This provides a clue to how cultures arise in some wild populations of Sumatran Orang Utans.
Recognition of individuality and self-awareness highlights the importance of providing optimum living conditions for Orang Utans living in captivity. They need more than food and shelter – they need a life of the mind. They should be leading lives that afford them a degree of satisfaction in their existence. This is why I hope that through art, we can help enrich the lives of Orangutans living in captivity or awaiting release at Nyaru Menteng.
Reproduced by kind permission of Zart Art, first published in Zart Extra 2013.
A collection of paintings, drawings and prints produced in collaboration with Melbourne Zoo’s six Sumatran Orangutans.
This exhibition is not simply a collection of “novelty” pieces executed by apes. It is an exploration of the responses of human and non-human primate to colour, line and texture. It is a sharing of delight in this process.
The idea sprang from the keen interest shown by some orangutans over the many years I have been drawing them from life. In particular with Melbourne’s Kiani (Suma,) it became clear that she was able to recognize drawings of herself and preferred them to drawings of others. One day, being given a quickly sketched portrait of herself on the back of an envelope, Kiani carefully tore away all but the image, then sat intently tracing the outline of her face with an index finger.
Highly skilled senior primate keeper and orangutan specialist Fleur Butcher has joined forces with me to make this project possible. With the enthusiastic participation of Melbourne Zoo’s six Sumatran orang-utans, it explores the field of ape aesthetics, enriching the lives of these intelligent, complex and inventive beings through art.
The orang-utans are allowed free choice of colour from an extensive palette and offered a variety of surfaces to paint on. In some cases brushes had to be specially adapted to make them ape-safe. I pre-paint some canvases and create textured surfaces on others. Sometimes a figure is drawn in as a starting point, sometimes the orangutans initiate the composition. They all show highly individual and harmonious senses of colour, brush work and preferred materials.
Photo credit: Maddi Chambers
The prints have their origins in the orangutans’ charcoal drawings on paper, or graffiti drawn around their exhibit when given coloured chalks. I scan or photograph these, then develop them in the computer, printing them onto archival quality papers, sometimes adding collage to tell a story.
Some pieces are figurative and tell the story of our shared history with apes, and the wildlife of Sumatra and Borneo. Some are purely abstract, whilst others use abstraction to tell the story of the forests, the animals that share them and the threats to orangutan survival.