Is Gorilla Art Really Art?
At one time it was thought man was separated from the apes by his ability to make and use tools. This has been proven to be an incorrect assumption. Then it was language; but 4 decades of research with Project Koko indicate otherwise. Surely then, art must be the separating factor. Art, after all, is the highest expression of the human psyche. Are the apes expressing themselves through the medium of paint or are they simply making a mess? How can we know? If you’re reading this, the answer may already be obvious: you can ask them.
We find that a great deal of the art Koko and Michael have produced is either representational, modeled after something in their environment that is plain to see, or expressionist, reflecting the emotions that they feel. And we can tell the difference because the gorillas nametheir paintings via sign language. For example, the wild red and green strokes of “Anger” by gorilla Michael portray the essence of a gorilla’s display. This contrasts dramatically with the large dark and light brown plays of paint depicting an “Earthquake.” Michael was asked to paint how the earthquake felt. In creating the painting Michael forcefully and repeatedly pounded dark brown paint onto the canvas with the brush. When Koko created a painting she called “Bird”, there was little doubt it was based on the bluebird that had been vising her recently. But perhaps even more profound was the painting Michael named “Apple Chase” of his black-and-white dog, Apple, in motion (playing his favorite game: chase).
Consider the following works of art for yourself and see if you can find a way to explain “gorilla art” as anything other than “art” in the deepest sense of the word.
How Do Gorillas Paint?
Both Koko and Michael paint rapidly and spontaneously. They often finish their paintings in minutes, rather than hours or days (or weeks like many human artists) and they don’t appear to be very self-conscious about the process (although Koko once signed TOILET in response to a half-hearted complement about one of her “lesser works”).
The gorillas are presented with a canvas and a full palette of non-toxic acrylic paints. Then they’re asked to either express an emotion or pick a subject to reproduce. The results are fascinating, especially the way they always seem to select just the right combination of colors.
Michael (who passed away in 2000 at age 27) was a prodigious artist (see examples below). Unlike Koko, who liked to paint either on a table or an easel, Michael would usually paint with the canvas on the ground, Jackson Pollack style. Regardless of how complex the painting, he would always complete it in minutes, a skill that astounded anyone who watched.
Is there a connection between the gorillas’ artistic talents and their language skill? Would their paintings be as profound if they had not first learned to communicate their thoughts and feelings in sign language? Are there implications for learning-disabled or autistic human children? More research is needed to answer such questions.
For now, we hope you can simply enjoy the following samples of Koko and Michael’s fine art.
Koko has produced about 20 acrylic paintings on canvas. Three of them are sold online as high-resolution limited edition prints. Here are two samples: “Bird” and “Love”.
“Bird” was based on a fledgling Stellers Jay that used to come visit Koko and would perch on her back. Koko seems to have painted it from memory. We rescued the bird from the nearby highway after a storm. Koko named the bird Tongue because of its protuberant tongue; the scrawny bird was always hungry and Koko enjoyed feeding it.
Another painting of Koko’s, “Love”, is more expressionist than representational. When a friend suggested that we ask the gorillas to paint emotions, Koko selected bright pink and orange to paint her interpretation of the emotion love. (In contrast, Michael painted a version of Love that is in various shades of blue and black.) Koko’s rendition of “Love” also happens to be heart-shaped, and has thus been a popular motif for many of our Valentine’s Day cards.
For a more complete selection of Koko’s paintings, see the Gorilla Art section of KokoMart (the Gorilla Foundation’s online store).
Michael had a flair for painting, and art was often his preferred mode of communication (though he was a very articulate signer). In the following samples of his work, you’ll get a sense of the wide range of emotions and ideas that Michael was capable of feeling and expressing.
For example, his self-named painting “Stink Gorilla More” (where STINK is the gorillas’ sign for flowers) represents a large bouquet of wild flowers that Michael had been presented with. Notice how detailed his brush strokes are, and yet how he captures the feeling as well as the look of flowers. And while this was one of his most impressive and intricate works, the whole painting was produced in a matter of minutes — spontaneously.
Another of Michael’s paintings, “Apple Chase”, has a fascinating backstory. Apple the dog (named by Koko) was a herding dog of a different ilk. Apple herded gorillas rather than sheep, and did so much to the gorillas’ delight. Michael painted Apple in the midst of such an exuberant “chase”, a game they would play by running back and forth on either side of the gorilla enclosure. While painting Apple, Michael had available to him a full range of colors, but intentionally limited his palette to shades of gray to accurately portray his dear friend.
Become a Gorilla Art Collector (Support TGF)
If you enjoy the fine art of Koko and Michael, you can purchase high-resolution prints of some of their most beautiful paintings by visiting our online store(KokoMart).
Some are limited edition and come with a numbered certificate signed by Dr. Penny Patterson. Your purchases will help support the Gorilla Foundation’s mission, and provide you with an exclusive collection that can help raise awareness about how all great apes share a sense of beauty and creativity.
We are not alone, but we may be soon if we don’t act now to support our fellow great apes.