Fiona is a famous artist. And she’s a hippopotamus. She was born at Cincinnati Zoo in January 2017, and she became an artist fast. Fiona was an adorable calf born 6 weeks early at 29 lb., but now, at 650 lbs, she’s become the resident hippo painter. But she’s entering a very busy art scene.
She’s only one of a surprising hoard of gifted zoo creatures. Chimpanzees have painted for years. Elephants have done it for as long as even they can remember. Now dolphins do it, rhinos do it, penguins do it, even snakes and bugs do it. Woodland Zoo offers work by 36 different artist-animals. Houston Zoo offers art by lions, leopards and others for $250 each. (1) Rocky, the octopus at Point Defiance Zoo, certainly has huge production-potential. (2) Clearly Fiona’s art scene is crowded, so how does she survive.
Zoo animals, clearly, can make a lot of art–and, if they are given treats, they will. People buy zoo art only because it’s made by animals. It is, of course, solipsistic that we value zoo art because animal-artists emulate humans. Their art has been a huge success, and this art market is very lucrative for zoos.
Is it that simple? Zoos strongly encourage animals to make art, zoos tell us that animal artists are not mere labourers in a profitable art industry. Apparently they are artists, and their lives are enhanced as they paint. An emerging artist-orangutan, Rudy, is currently “obsessed with painting” at the Houston Zoo.(3)
Without art, apparently, these creative creatures would not experience “enrichment”. Art, zoos say, fosters the “animal’s natural responses by stimulating natural instincts”. Art lets them “express their feelings and emotions”. (4) Of course, one can only wonder about the animals that do not produce art.
This is amazing! Zoo artists sound so much like human artists! How do zoo experts know so much about animal ’emotions’–and art production–when we know so little about their cognition? The creatures “enjoy” making art. Apparently that’s evident because they do it again and again. If animals repeat activities is the measure of ‘enjoyment’, then polar bears must “enjoy” walking around in circles in their cage. They certainly do it again and again. Zoo artists, however, certainly paint again if they are rewarded. Rhinoceroses paint with difficulty with their prosbicus but their ‘enrichment’ is encouraged by a constant reward with their favourite winter-melon. (5)
Zoo artists exist, of course, because of us. We have taught animals to do tricks in the past. Lions leapt through flaming rings. Chimpanzees dressed for tea parties and rode on unicycles. Orcas ruled the pool at Seaworld.
Animals now make art rather than do stunts in circus rings or on stages. Still, it’s just one more stunt that animals do at the zoo.
Probably ’Congo’—the famous 1950s chimpanzee in London—was the first zoo painter. He was creative and compelling. He had an opposable thumb, just like human artists. He could hold a brush, sit at an easel desk, exhibited in galleries, and sold over 400 works. He was respected by famous fellow artists like Picasso, Dali and Miro, who owned his work.
Even Picasso acknowledged his artistic kinship with Congo in his typically dramatic way. He owned a Congo work, and, when a journalist asked him about it, Picasso bit him. (6)
Congo was fortunate. His talent was ‘discovered’, with the help of the ethologist Desmond Morris (7). People discerned that human behaviour—including art-making—originated in animal behaviour. Human art continues animal instincts. So, Congo was Picasso’s predecessor.
Even more of a coincidence, Congo’s paintings resemble the startling abstract-expressionism of his famous contemporary painter, Jackson Pollock. Pollock’s challenging abstract art was considered “primal”, “primitive”. So both were very contemporary and very primitive. Lucky Congo. He was painting with a new socio-biology, and his style was current and vogue.
If Congo was a frontier animal-artist in the 50s, Fiona is part of a new wave now. As an artist at first she looks more challenged than Congo. She doesn’t have thumbs. She can’t paint with a brush.
But she sure can “kiss”. She kisses in luscious, vivid, tactile—and now famous—colours.
In all the excitement at her debut, it was unclear that Fiona’s kisses were not actually her invention, or even her zoo-keepers’ concept. If she hadn’t been such a cute, tiny calf just last year, she would probably be just another groupie in the animal art world.
Luce, at Woodlands Zoo, kissed, and she kissed well before Fiona was born. In fact, Luce gives much more than Fiona ever does. You–yes, you–can actually help her put on her lipstick, then actually press the canvas against her muzzle. The kiss mark is now yours to take home. For those of you who have a hippo, a zoo video shows all the detail. (8)
Unfortunately, you have no chance of getting a kiss this way if you haven’t already won a zoo donation lottery. But, if you haven’t won, you can buy one of her ’kiss’ T-shirts for only $17.
Fiona–or zoos–know that humans absolutely love kisses. We show our intimacy, our affection, and our relationships, with kisses. Kisses are both personal and public. We kiss each other, our children (and our dogs) to show our fondness. Other kisses are very public. We blow kisses across and to a crowded room. Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Google, WhatsApp, etc. all now have individual emoji kiss-marks.(9)
Some kisses are both personally very special and publicly famous. Andy Warhol reiterated images of Marilyn Monroe’s famous lips on a huge canvas (7ftx10ft). Monroe had committed suicide weeks before–the lips are a tragic requiem.
Kisses do tell another public tale too. Hippo kisses eclipse the offerings of other zoo painters. Alligators, dolphins, snakes, bugs and the rest just paint however they can with whatever they can. Kisses are special. They show a personal intimacy, and they leave a lipstick mark behind as evidence.
Humans like zoo painters best when they act most human. Congo looked like an artist and painted like one. Fiona doesn’t act like an artist at all. She kisses, though, and nothing could be more human.
Are we that narcissistic? Why do we want Congo to impersonate an imagination and expression that is rarely encountered in humans? If we get kissed by a human, we kiss back (or not), but we don’t kiss Fiona back. Hers is not a mutual kiss, or even a willing kiss. Congo’s paintings and Fiona’s kisses will hang on our living-room walls. They are good zoo stunts, but they are not relationships. Or are they? Do zoos create a connection between animals and people that is completely delusional.
These artists are our trophies just like other zoo animals have been in the past. They perform the tricks we want to see. Zoos obviously show part of an animal’s identity, but zoos also create the illusion that animals and humans are close relations. They paint, they kiss–just as we do. In captivity they become part animal, part human. They reassure us of our perceived superiority because they imitate us.
(7) Desmond Morris wrote The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal (1967), The Human Zoo (1969), and the influential TV program Zoo Time in England.