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 human 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?

A stunning portrait of a Siberian tiger may get you a lot of likes on Instagram, but nothing in that artwork tells you that they have been hunted to the brink of extinction. When art only ever shows animals in a positive light it is a bit like only posting about the good times on social media. We are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction and to effectively communications that I feel we need more works of wildlife artivism.

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. Wildlife artivism is any time that art makes a positive impact for conservation without necessarily relying on the generation of funds from a sale. It lives alongside wildlife art as a creative force to help animals survive on planet earth.

I once believed that beauty alone inspires and compels us to take action. This may be the case for some, but as wildlife enthusiasts we can't expect everyone to care as much about animals as we do. Beauty can also blind people from seeing the uncomfortable truths, thus creating an impression that everything is fine and one need not worry. If gentle stimulation of guilt is a way to get their attention, then so be it.

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, and 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 picture for the animals we owe so much to. Let us be a voice for the voiceless. 

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, and if one can find a line between beauty and horror, then that is perhaps where the most effective communication can happen. 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, unless we change our ways.

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:

The winner of this category will receive the 'Ingrid Beazley Award' - A £5,000 grant designed to help wildlife, stimulate creativity, and support young activists who are struggling with eco-anxiety.

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 in 2021 is entering its third year:

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