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The Primate Diaries

The Primate Diaries


Notes on science, politics, and history from a primate in the human zoo.
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Equality and Individuality: A Collaboration Between Primates

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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"Timmy" by Nathaniel Gold and Cheetah

"Timmy" by Nathaniel Gold and Cheetah

Longtime readers of The Primate Diaries will certainly know the artwork of Nathaniel Gold. Ever since we encountered one another’s work in the spring of 2011 we have been collaborating on a fusion of art and science. But now Nathaniel has taken part in a collaboration that goes beyond species boundaries. By working with sanctuary chimpanzees at Save the Chimps, he has taken original artwork done by STC’s residents and created a portrait of the chimps themselves. The show opened on May 1st and will continue throughout the month with all proceeds being donated to Save the Chimps. To find out how this project got started as well as what his motivations were for initiating it, I sat down with my friend earlier this week to ask him about this unique collaboration.

Eric Michael Johnson: I first encountered your work through your book The Chimpanzee Manifesto. When did you become interested in painting chimpanzees?

Nathaniel Gold: That is a very interesting question. In 2005 I entered graduate school and it was really a journey of self-discovery. I had always enjoyed observing and drawing chimps, but I never viewed it as a career path. I saw my drawings as poking fun at humans by using chimps as a reference. However, one of the great things about graduate school is the ability to experiment. I spent eighteen months writing my thesis about the use of caricature as social commentary and, over time, these two concepts converged for me. More and more of these chimpanzee-esque drawings were appearing in my work to the point that I didn’t want to do anything else.

But when I really became serious about the work I’m doing now was when I made a 10-minute film as the project for one of my final classes. It was the fictional story of a chimpanzee inserted into real-world events, sort of like Forest Gump, and the idea was that this chimp was now behind bars as a kind of political prisoner. My professors, if you’ll pardon the pun, went ape-shit over it. They really loved it and, for me, it was one of those “Eureka!” moments. One of my professors, a real mentor for me, was the illustrator and Science Fiction Hall of Famer Vincent Di Fate. He called me the next day after I showed the film and practically begged me to change the visual component of my thesis, which I’d already been working on for six months, and turn that chimp project into my thesis with only six weeks before graduation. That is what I did and it is what really started me off on the work I am doing now.

Johnson: One thing that has always struck me about your art, whether you are painting human-chimp caricatures or, now, your collaboration with chimpanzee artists, is that your work is a synthesis of human and nonhuman primates. What is it about blurring the line between “animal” and man that is so appealing for you?

Gold: I never really sat down and thought about it in great detail. But, the truth is, I do not have a lot of faith in humans. Just watch the news and look at some of the horrible things that go on and you will see that it is all the product of an overly complicated world that we have created because our brains are too large. At the end of the day we are really just primates. I like to blur those lines because, ultimately, I am saying more about humans than I am about chimps. As I write in The Chimpanzee Manifesto, I use chimps as a mask to better reveal ourselves.

Johnson: How does this play into your current project?

Nathaniel Gold with Save the Chimps' Director of Communications Trianna Romero. Photo by Mika Roberts.

Nathaniel Gold with Save the Chimps' Director of Communications Trianna Romero. Photo by Mika Roberts.

Gold: For this project that I’m doing with Save The Chimps I am painting portraits of chimpanzees that live in sanctuaries in order to show them as individuals. I am trying to get the audience to see my portrait not simply as a chimp, but as Melody or September or Cheetah. These are the names of the chimpanzees whose portraits I am painting. The idea is that once you see them as individuals and you hear the stories of what they have been through in terms of biomedical research you will see that, even though the paintings depict chimpanzees, the work is really about us. We are the ones who have done this to them.

Johnson: Can you tell one of the stories of a chimpanzee you met in the sanctuary?

Gold: There was one chimpanzee I met named Clay who is in his early twenties now. Clay was born in a laboratory and taken from his mother when he was ten hours old only to be raised by humans in a nursery in the same building. When he was two years old Clay began to be experimented on to test various drugs, including drugs that were already approved by the FDA. He lived alone in a 5’x5’x7’ cage in a dark basement until he was twelve years old, at which point he was saved by the sanctuary and he lives there today. However, one of the things that is so sad about Clay is that, because of the mental anguish of everything he has been through, he cannot function with other chimps.

At Save the Chimps they have twelve islands and on each island is a family of chimpanzees. Of course it is still captivity, but it is the best possible kind of captivity since they are able to roam freely. But Clay is unable to function with other chimps to the point where he becomes a danger to them. The sanctuary has given Clay as much space as possible and he has several rooms he can go into, but because of the trauma he experienced throughout his life he cannot be on any of those islands. He continues to live his life alone, inside of a building, and has never even been outside. It broke my heart that he is so tortured as a result of his past. It is almost like Frankenstein to me. We created him to experiment on him and now he is forced to live alone because he cannot live amongst his own kind.

Save the Chimps has a group of individuals, like Clay, which they call “special needs chimps,” and these are the ones that tend to paint more. They are trying to raise money for these chimps so they can build an addition onto their building so, for example, Clay would finally be able to go outside. All of the proceeds from this art show are going towards that effort. Of course, the reality is that even if they sell all of the artwork it will only make a tiny dent in what they actually need. But it is at least something.

Johnson: What motivated you to get involved?

Gold: I am not an animal rights activist, by any means. Over the last six or seven years I have been getting more involved in researching the subject matter and have gotten more in tune with the plight of these animals. The National Institutes of Health has decided to stop funding for biomedical experiments using chimpanzees. But I think that regardless of what your views might be on using chimpanzees for experimentation, we can all agree that those chimps that were tested on deserve to live their remaining years in comfort. The chimpanzees who are now at the sanctuary spent their lives in various laboratories. Maybe the testing that took place saved a lot of lives. We, as human beings, owe it to these chimps to give them some form of retirement. I was passionate about this project because their stories, at least to my mind, are ultimately about us because of what we have done to them. It is still social commentary, which is what my work has been about all along. I am just doing what I can to help.

Eric Michael Johnson About the Author: Eric Michael Johnson has a Master's degree in Evolutionary Anthropology focusing on great ape behavioral ecology. He is currently a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia looking at the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics.

Follow his work on Facebook and Google+. Follow on Twitter @primatediaries.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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