The Painting of The Liberian Chimpanzees

An Interview With Aya Katz

Aya Katz is a novelist and a blogger who recently painted an expressive portrait of three chimpanzees holding on to each other. I enjoyed watching the process as she worked on this painting, so I decided to ask her a few questions about it. Art is one of my favorite subjects, so it is important to learn more about the meaning behind a composition.

1. What type of paint did you use for this Liberian chimpanzees?

I used acrylic paint. The effect is very similar to an oil painting, but cleaning up is much easier. I am a messy painter, so that is important for me.

Painting of Liberian chimpanzees by Aya Katz.
Painting of three Liberian chimpanzees by Aya Katz.
Closeup of the chimpanzee painting.
Closeup of the chimpanzee painting.

The video of the completed chimpanzee painting.

2. What is the meaning behind the three chimpanzees holding on to each other?

When I made the sketch for this painting, I chose three individuals from the many that were in the photo I saw of the Liberian chimpanzees. The one on the far left and his companion were in the foreground and the one on the right was in the background, quite a bit closer to shore. The bigger chimp seemed to be almost leaning on the smaller one, but in a supportive, rather than a threatening way. And Bow helped me notice that the one on the right, who is eating, was a female. So I think what we have here is a little microcosm of the social relations among these Liberian chimpanzees. Stronger individuals form coalitions to achieve goals. And females, who may be caring for young, are allowed to eat first, even when they are making less of an effort. To me this looks like chivalry. Chimpanzees are not known for this kind of behavior, but it is well documented among bonobos.

3. How is the welfare of Liberian chimpanzees related to exotic animal issues in the US?

The story of the Liberian chimpanzees is related to chimpanzee welfare in the United States, because the New York Blood Center, an American institution, promised to care for them, but has been unwilling or possibly unable to keep that promise. The chimpanzees are in Africa, their place of origin, but this does not make the situation any easier for them, and they are unable to provide for themselves. This story refutes a number of claims made by animal rights activists in the US trying to end private ownership of chimpanzees. They claim ownership by an institution is better for chimpanzees than ownership by an individual. That is patently false, as institutions go bankrupt and break promises more frequently than individuals. Individuals form emotional attachments. Institutions don’t. They claim if you give up your chimpanzee to a sanctuary, he will be cared for beyond your lifetime. But there is no guarantee that a sanctuary will not go belly up. They also claim chimps are ferocious animals that cannot get along with humans, yet we see people in Liberia standing right next to the chimpanzees who beg for food, but do not harm them. So that claim is false. There are no barriers, as the animal rights people say there should always be between humans and chimps.

But, also, there is the claim that if you return chimpanzees to Africa and destroy their means of livelihood in the US, they will go back to a natural lifestyle and become self sufficient. That did not happen in Liberia. Arguably, ending the funding for the research of the New York Blood Center may have brought about the very situation that the animal rights people are using as propaganda. While I don’t like medical research on chimpanzees, chimps need a way to earn a living. Foreclosing all such options — whether for being family members of a human or working in entertainment — will throw many more American chimpanzees out of work and will reduce them to begging for a handout. We do the same to many Americans when their jobs are destroyed due to regulations that make it impossible to employ them. Do we really want to do the same to chimpanzees?

4. How was Bow involved in the painting process?

Bow watched me as I made the initial sketch and on through the painting process. Every time I stopped, and I did take a lot of really long breaks on this project, I showed Bow the progress I had made. Sometimes he approved, and sometimes not so much. One time he licked off a part of the faces because he thought I needed to redo them. But in the end, he really approved, and he said he noticed the one on the right was a girl and she was pretty.

Here are some links to the Notes from the Pens blog posts that relate to this:

Bow examines the painting of the three Liberian chimps.
The chimpanzee painting by Aya Katz is available as a poster over on Zazzle.

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