GENUS: the primates:
I began to go to zoos and take pictures of great apes and monkeys, because, like many of us do, I intuitively saw a connection between their mannerisms, facial expressions, body characteristic and family interactions to those of my own. I was surprised to find that this connection became even more pronounced when I became a father. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I love to take my kids to zoos, and ironically, looking at animals is one way in which we teach kids about human emotions. Inevitably I “interpret” what the animals are doing for the sake of the kids by pointing, making faces, and simplifying my explanations of their behaviors. I’m probably like most adults in this sense, using simplistic explanations because in truth, I don’t really know what’s going on in animal minds. That doesn’t seem to stop me (and most of us) from making anthropomorphic generalizations - one being that apes and monkeys look “so human.” But when one sees a mother orangutan, protecting and coddling her clinging newborn, or a father gorilla gently roughhousing with an adolescent son, it’s hard not to apply anthropomorphic values to our perception. Perhaps it isn’t such a stretch.
The connection between “us” and “them” is more than anecdotal by now. It’s become almost cliché to cite how we are all genetically related through a distant pedigree via DNA similarities, and to what percentage, et al. Science hammers home that point clearly with each new discovery. But still, it’s a little more conjectural to know what “emotional” similarities we might share.
Perhaps that is where art can go where science cannot. To paint a gorilla or a baboon in a candid portrait in the style of Velazquez, Frans Hals, or any Western art historical convention, and then pair that portrait with similar portraits of “naked” humans of different ages, causes me to see more deeply into the emotions and similarities of each species. There is as much “humanity” in a great ape as there is “wildness” in a human being. And there is mystery in all of us that is not quantifiable by any measuring instrument. It’s true that in our mindset, non-human primates are “the other,” but they are also “us” too. Biology and Psychology are beginning to solve puzzles about cognizance, emotion and “intelligence” in non-humans and humans alike, but artists play a part in this search too. I admit that art is still a bit one-sided-the realm of humans, the paradigm of human accomplishment, etc, but perhaps we’ll see some day that non-humans have artistic capabilities too. For now, however, I’ll use the physical and mental tools my species has developed over the ages, and let the poetic, interpretive powers of art be my personal contribution to the search for the “missing link.”
John Bavaro fine art-digital art