Ryan Masters

Last week, the conservation group WWF International announced that pygmy chimpanzees, one of humanity’s closest living relatives, have been pushed to the brink of extinction in the war-battered Democratic Republic of Congo. Recent surveys in Africa’s Congo basin revealed that perhaps only 10,000 of the primates, also known as bonobos, remain in the wild.

It’s another sobering newsflash from the kingdom of the great apes, one that will undoubtedly go in one ear of the general human populace, perhaps stir some genuine emotion, and then leak right out the other.

However, confronted by Robert Cooper’s deeply moving Portraits of the Great Apes exhibit at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, one can’t help but come to grips with the cruel reality that by the time our children are adults there may not be any great apes left in the wild. The illegal “bushmeat” trade is systematically slaughtering all the wild chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos left in the world, and very little is being done to stop it.

Given this information, it’s hard not to project a great and terrible sadness on to the dozens of beautifully rendered oil portraits at the Natural History museum. In fact, it’s impossible not to unabashedly anthropomorphize the great apes, because Cooper has captured and highlighted so many of their human-like characteristics. Beside each portrait, he has included snippets of very personal biographical information about each ape, including their ages, their moods, and their personal tragedies (“Baway recently lost her lifelong mate Kubie and misses him greatly.”) Furthermore, the portraits are reminiscent of mugshots, probably because all of the great apes presented in this exhibit were incarcerated in zoos at the time that Cooper encountered them.

Burdened with the knowledge that all the great ape species represented in this exhibit are most likely doomed to extinction, thanks to voracious human consumption, the effect of the exhibit is akin to a simian Holocaust memorial.

Even if you have never destroyed great ape habitat or shot an orangutan out of a tree and sold its meat on the black market, you can’t help feeling guilty for doing nothing for so long. Much of each portrait’s intensity lies in how the great apes meet the viewers gaze directly. Before long you feel each of the apes are directing anger and sadness and accusation towards you. It’s powerful and a bit overwhelming.

Yet beyond the King Kong-sized guilt trip the exhibit inspires, there is also a great deal of beauty, compassion and humor in these paintings as well. Cooper does an astounding job of conveying unique and complex personalities with each of his portraits.

At first glance, the portrait of “Alvila” depicts a fierce and hulking lowland gorilla. But further study suggests telling details—a firm but compassionate gaze, beautiful lips, tufts of grey fur along her neck like graceful earrings. In the accompanying bio, Cooper informs us that Alvila is a mother and the “acting aunt and peacemaker for the young gorillas at the San Diego Zoo.” She is also the oldest gorilla at the zoo, born to its confines in 1965. It’s a stunning and sobering birth date that makes Alvila all the more human-like.

Alvila is not the oldest ape represented in the exhibit. Not by a longshot. That honor is reserved for “Grandma Bonnie,” a chimpanzee who was captured in the wild in 1954. Described as “persistent, stubborn, old but loving,” the expression on Bonnie’s face profoundly reminded me of my own grandmother—a fact that made the exhibit all the more personally affecting.

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One of Cooper’s most intriguing character studies is “Joey,” whose gruff, intelligent face conveys the experience of a 40-year tussle for alpha supremacy in his enclosure—an epic struggle that ended when a platform collapsed under him last year causing him to fall and break his leg. By the time Joey returned from his recovery, he found a young male had assumed the role of alpha male for good. Cooper’s portrait lends Joey a Shakespearean poise of hard-won wisdom and tragically royal bearing.

Then there’s “Maiko,” the male bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee, whose species teeters on the brink of extinction. Scientists believe that bonobos have the intelligence of four-year-old human children. Cooper’s portrait captures Maiko’s obsidian eyes gazing into oblivion with a haunting clarity.

No less a luminary than Jane Goodall has said that Cooper’s portraits have “done so much to reveal the bond that we human beings share with chimpanzees.” The exhibit is overpowering and, more than anything, it inspires you to help the great apes in any way possible.

But what can you do to make a difference? You can help the great apes by contacting the Jane Goodall Institute, IDA-Africa, the Great Ape Project and/or other ape Web sites and becoming a member. You can become an advocate for the great ape of your choice, whether it be a chimpanzee, gorilla, orangutan or bonobo. You can search the Web for other sites regarding apes, educate yourself, and get involved. And you can boycott those who exploit apes and their images.

By creating these tremendous, evocative portraits, Robert Cooper has done a great deal to inspire human compassion for our simian cousins. Just visiting this exhibit will make a difference in the way you perceive the great apes. And understanding injustice is always the first step to correcting it.

Portraits of the Great Apes closes January 8 at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, 165 Forest Avenue, Pacific Grove. 648-5716 or www.pgmuseum.org.

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