By Kristin Wissler
On July 14, I attended the reception for “Wildlife: Trading and Conservation” at the Rhode Island School of Design’s ISB Gallery. I was happy to go, for I’ve always loved the animal world and everything in it. The exhibit, created by RISD in collaboration with Creature Conserve and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), is meant to illustrate the effect of global trade on endangered animals. Dr. Lucy Spelman, RISD faculty member and founder of Creature Conserve, calls the exhibition, “a selection of highly personal artwork that is both informed by the facts and emotionally charged.”
Indeed, the art pieces featured create a host of emotions in the viewer. The first piece to greet the viewer entering the exhibition is “Tortuga,” a beautiful sculpture of a turtle with coral on its back. As the artist, Alexandra Alemany, explains on the work’s informational plaque, “My goal was to show the many different forms of symbiosis in nature…and to emphasize how important these relationships are to the livelihood of each creature.” The piece is a colorful example not only of the beauty of nature, but also of how to preserve it, for “Tortuga” is comprised nearly entirely of recycled materials.
On the sadder side of things is Mara Trachtenberg’s “What it’s Worth (White Rhinoceros),” a sculpture of a shiny, decorated white rhinoceros head, with the horn taking up most of the space. Of the work, Trachtenberg wrote, “By sculpting the animal to resemble the object for which it has been killed, I hope to draw attention to the wildlife trade that makes use of the creatures’ bodies as commodities for profit and is forcing the species to near extinction.” Luckily, “What It’s Worth (White Rhinoceros)” is not made of actual rhino horn, but instead made of wood, styrofoam and, most interestingly, fondant and royal icing. It makes the horn’s beauty even more jarring, drawing attention to its unnatural separation from the animal it once belonged to.
But most shocking work was Rose Scully’s “Diego Eating A Slim Jim” a sculpture of Diego, an African grey parrot, laying on his back and using his beak and talons to tear open a Slim Jim. At first glance, the sculpture looks comical and cute, but the accompanying information provides the true context. Written from Diego’s point of view, it states, “My owners, they have no idea how to take care of me. Nor do they know that although I was born in captivity, my parents were taken from the wild illegally.” A funny sculpture of a bird having a snack becomes a tragic symbol of the African grey parrots that have been robbed of a natural life, being forced to live in ways they were not made for. It makes one feel guilty for having first found the sculpture cute.
Halfway through the reception, Dr. Lucy Spelman and Azzedine Downes spoke about the exhibition and what it meant to them. Downes, IFAW’s president and CEO, pointed out art’s ability to grab people more emotionally than straight facts can. In regards to “Wildlife: Trading and Conservation,” Downes said that, “art gets us to ask, ‘is beauty worth the destruction?’ The answer is always ‘no.’” Downes ended the talk by saying, “The goal is to change the face of conservation.” Judging by the shocked gasps, sad sighs and bitter chuckles that could be heard from patrons throughout the reception, I’d say “Wildlife: Trading and Conservation” was a big first step to achieving that goal.
(“Wildlife: Trading and Conservation” continues through August 6 at the ISB Gallery, Rhode Island School of Design, 55 Canal Walk, Providence, RI. Exhibition hours are Wednesday through Saturday from noon-5 p.m. and Waterfire nights (July 23 and August 6) till 10 p.m.)