Wildlife Artivism

Martin Aveling

It was about a decade into my career as a wildlife artist when I first asked myself the question, “is wildlife art really working for wildlife?

I had reached a stage where I was no longer feeling satisfied with the work I was producing. Technically, I was happy, but I felt that my drawings had very little meaning. If anything they were only helping to pedal a false narrative about the health of our planet's wildlife. When over ninety percent of all rhinos disappear in just one lifetime, for no other reason than to give some wealthy people a false sense of virility and status, shouldn’t we perhaps be focusing more on that detail?

It is easy to get a load of likes with a stunning portrait of a Siberian tiger, but nothing in that artwork tells you that they have been hunted to the brink of extinction. Artworks that only ever show animals in their best light is a bit like only posting about the good times on social media.

Artivism is combining reality with fantasy to unearth hidden truths. A legal metaphor might have the wildlife artist playing the role of the courtroom sketch artist, documenting who is in the room, whereas the wildlife artivist is the barrister pleading the case for the accused.

I once believed that beauty inspires and compels us to take action. In reality it blind us from some uncomfortable truths. Endless depictions of healthy looking animal implies that everything is fine, when it reality that is not the case. I don't think enough wildlife artists are addressing the negative aspects of human impact in their work, and I think we are missing a trick. The landscape for how we communicate now is now largely online. It is fast-paced and fickle. The ability to create quality visual content is an advantage when competing for eyeballs. Let us be better communicators and help paint a more accurate narrative for the animals we owe so much to. Let us be a voice for the voiceless. 

Wildlife artivism is about acknowledging that fewer people are reading the accompanying text to Instagram posts. It is about accepting that wildlife art enthusiasts are most likely already wildlife fans. Wildlife artivists are trying to reach those as yet unconverted, to let them know that many of our planet's wild animals are in trouble. That they account for only 4% of all mammal biomass on earth, when human beings and our livestock are included. 4% for every cheetah, beaver, dingo, bongo chimp, shrew and elephant, to name very few.

I have written about this for the BBC and I am now trying to put words into action. I still believe that beauty plays a role. It is the lure at the end of the line. A line between beauty and horror where perhaps the most effective communication can take place. We need not practice wildlife artivism all the time, but enough for it to be a constant reminder that all is not well in the world.

Through discussions I have had with the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, a new competition was established for creatives with a more activist agenda. The ‘Human Impact’ award runs alongside the prestigious ‘Wildlife Artist of the Year’ exhibition, and is open to artists between the ages of 16-22 years:

If you are of age and thinking about entering, you may find some useful tips in this video of the judges discussing the competition, which is now entering its third year:

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