Seeing works by Congo the chimp takes us from wild aesthetic conjectures to sobering ethical dilemmas around animal agency, art ownership, and basic rights of living creatures.
Congo offered multiple colors, 1957 (photo courtesy Desmond Morris)
LONDON — When trying to get to the bottom of what being human means, we often recruit animals. From scheming, fatally flawed beasts that populate folktales, to the anthropomorphizing of pets by their owners, to the digitized emoticons and avatars in our phones, animals become our unwitting doppelgängers.
In the post-atomic era, apes emerged as our preferred understudy. In the sci-fi masterpiece Planet of the Apes (1968) orangutans, gorillas, and monkeys stand in for humans and cast a complicated light on our hierarchical, technocratic, and dystopian culture. The Naked Ape (1967), another global best-seller from this era, was zoologist Desmond Morris’s speculative anthropological study in which apes’ body language and mating rituals highlight corresponding behaviors in humans. While Morris’s text has long since been eclipsed by the more rigorous scholarship about simians by fellow Brit Jane Goodall, Morris pioneered multiple studies on the art-making impulse in animals, especially paintings and drawings created by a prolific chimpanzee from The London Zoo named Congo. Morris has put these works up for public sale and they’re on display in The Mayor Gallery’s current exhibition Congo the Chimpanzee: The Birth of Art.
Poster for Congo exhibition at the ICA, London, 1957
This is not Congo’s artistic debut. Many “Congos” were originally exhibited at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1957, which led to the monkey’s art being snatched up by admiring peers such as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. But Congo, like many an Abstract Expressionist in his time, quickly faded from the annals of postwar art. This neglect is rectified by The Mayor Gallery’s generous gathering of some 55 Congo works, including oil and pastel paintings and drawings.
From 1955 to 1959, chaperoned and occasionally recorded on live television by Morris, Congo sat at a small desk for painting “sessions” that ran for about 15 minutes each. During this artistic zenith he created over 400 artworks, independently choosing colors, patterns, and themes, and deciding when the picture was finished by refusing to continue until Morris provided him with a new, clean sheet of paper.
Like artworks made by very young children and those experiencing psychoses, Congo’s work makes us believe in the much maligned concept of originality in art. Functioning beyond cultural influence, Congo was a proto-Modernist. He never fretted about his work’s debt to Surrealism or Cubism, nor was he anxiously gazing over his hairy shoulder at his most obvious stylistic peers, for instance, Joan Mitchell or Cy Twombly. And judging from the range of pictures at The Mayor Gallery, there are signs of artistic development, even in his short-lived arc.
Congo, 7th Painting Session, 13 June 1957, paint on paper, 27 x 39 cm (courtesy of The Mayor Gallery)
In his first sessions, he made spare, stray marks that did not qualify as complete pictures. But Morris reports that without coercion or direction, Congo became ever more focused. That willfulness and concentration has been documented in studio photographs of the chimp manipulating paintbrushes, sometimes wielding two at a time, to execute balanced and cohesive compositions, which he held up and scrutinized at various stages of completion.
As represented by the works at The Mayor Gallery, his palette preferences tend toward primary and secondary colors — various reds, yellows, and greens. Yet the chimp seems mindful about complementary tones and hues. In some paintings, yellows are juxtaposed with greens; in others, bold blues are softened by adjoining or overlapping squibs of white or black and, in even more bold flourishes, by deep pinks and lush purples. And like homo sapien peers during this period, Congo occasionally painted only in black and white, testing the inherent plasticity produced through gestural painting.
Thematically speaking, Congo’s abstractions fall roughly into three species: impassioned vortexes, exquisite fan patterns, and calligraphic arrangements. Some pictures look like twisted trees while others suggest a jungle’s entangled undergrowth. In one series, repeated pale green brushstrokes resemble palm fronds, very nearly representing them. But such readings could be facile biographical interpretations which Congo-the-pure-abstractionist might rebut with outraged howls and whoops.
Still, it is tempting to translate Congo’s abstractions into realistic terms. Especially in his drawings, scissoring and elongated flourishes seem to verge on a kind of script. What, we might ask, is he communicating to us, or to himself? In one very spare drawing reproduced in Mayor’s Congo catalogue raisonné, the artist seems to make an attempt at drawing a human face.
Though short-lived, Congo’s art career ended, ironically, with a postmodern bang. According to Morris’s catalogue essay, Congo soon recoiled against the bourgeois orderliness of these painting sessions and, like an auto-destructive artist ahead of his time, the chimp began “to obliterate the sheets of paper with large masses of paint.”
All this monkey business at The Mayor Gallery takes us from wild aesthetic conjectures to sobering ethical dilemmas around animal agency, art ownership, and basic rights of living creatures. We might wonder, is Congo more a circus elephant or a simian Vincent van Gogh? Take the recent case around a selfie snapped by a macaque ape in Indonesia, which raised the thorny question about who owns the copyright to an artwork created by an animal, even when the means or conditions for creating that artwork are furnished by a human being? In response to many such incidents, animal rights advocates have argued for recognizing personhood for simians.
Such quandaries — and a good many more — underpin Alfred Fidjestøl’s absorbing new study, Almost Human: The Story of Julius, the Chimpanzee Caught Between Two Worlds (Greystone Books, 2019), a timely book in light of Congo’s artistic resurgence.
Born in 1979 in The Kristiansand Zoo in southern Norway, Julius, who turns 40 in the next few weeks, was inexplicably rejected by his birth mother and, immediately afterward, beaten nearly to death by another chimp. Young Julius was ferried to safety in the homes and families of various zookeepers who nursed him back to health for almost a full year. Monitored by the news media, Julius became an overnight sensation in Norway and remained a celebrity there throughout the 1980s. While living in human company, Julius adopted their rhythms and habits, sleeping in a bed made from a cardboard box and waking early to play with his human “sisters,” engineering new games with them, moving his food bowl on the floor as if it were a toy car.
This impulse toward interactive play emerges as a recurring human-chimpanzee link in Almost Human. While being tickled, Julius would feign intolerance while enjoying it; when beginning a race with his human siblings, he suspiciously monitored his competitors’ positions to ensure no one took off before the starting bell. And, as Fidjestøl makes clear, Julius’s mirroring behavior parallels that of an equally famous chimp named Lucy who lived with an Oklahoma couple in the 1970s and who also began to adopt human culture as her own — using silverware, learning sign language, selecting clothing to wear, drinking a boozy cocktail now and then, flipping through magazines and, after she reached puberty, masturbating to images in Playgirl.
But like Lucy, who was returned to a chimp community in Gambia where she remained an alienated, depressed outsider unable to bond with peers, so too Julius’s youthful immersion in human culture had a detrimental effect on the animal’s adulthood.
By painstakingly narrating Julius’s troubled reintegration with fellow chimps at the zoo, Fidjestøl debunks any naiveté readers might harbor about chimpanzees who, we learn, have sharp teeth capable of easily biting off a finger and arm strength 15 times stronger than that of an athletic adult human male. And unlike the far less aggressive and much more sexually open-minded bonobo species of apes, chimpanzees are patriarchal and tribal, and, at times, unpredictably violent toward one another, even as they demonstrate acute proficiencies like photographic memory, impassioned empathy, and vigorous creativity.
As its reflective title suggests, Almost Human develops its drama around regrets and anxieties about Julius’s welfare that bedevil his human caretakers, inside the zoo and beyond it, as they become both antagonists and protagonists in the chimp’s rocky development. Moreover, Julius’s plight reflects subtly on universal human predicaments, such as choosing domesticity over spontaneity, togetherness over individuality, recognition versus seclusion.
Though Fidjestøl goes easy on homo sapiens, a subtext is how lousy a species we are. We continue to destroy chimps through hunting and poaching while laying waste to their natural habitats through our greed. In 1979, when Julius was born, there were one million chimpanzees in the wild. Today, according to Fidjestøl, there may be less than 200,000.
And Julius is conscripted into the zoo’s image makeover. The Kristiansand Zoo expands into an amusement park and upgrades its grounds to accommodate the growing push for animal rights. Having painted sporadically alongside his human counterparts when small, in the late 1990s, the adult Julius is given a paintbrush again at the behest of his handlers and creates images that are sold to raise funds for the zoo. Though the incident has an unpleasant commercial stench to it, Julius’s artwork indicates that the chimp had the potential to be as interesting, though somewhat more conservative an artist, as his more prolific predecessor, Congo.
Fidjestøl closes Almost Human with meditations on Julius’s receptivity and openness, relating notes by his early caretaker, Billy Glad, who studies the young chimp’s gaze, noting, “You [Julius] have such a serious face, little man — like an old man. You look so wise, so quizzical. And yet your gaze is clear and open.” At its best, the passage sums up what humans seek out in animals and in art, as well as in animal-made art — a disquieting and empathetic encounter with the nonhuman, of which we are also a part. Such encounters temporarily free us from civilization’s sedative effects, and startle our consciousness about the improbable, fundamental fact that we too are animals and we exist.