How many times have you heard the response ‘Huh, a monkey could have done that’? Generally from experience usually the words fall dismissively from the lips of someone faced with a material piece of human endeavour (the wider word calls ‘art’) that they just can’t understand. Perhaps the next step up from this forthright type of criticism is ‘My three year old could have done that’.
Whilst children occur regularly as the subject of art it is perhaps unsurprising from a Western European perspective that monkeys don’t! Aside from King Kong and Tarzan and Disney’s version of Jungle Book I can’t think of many instances of the ape as subject matter. When one does appear it is in a subservient or unflattering role.
However recently I bumped into two apes that have made me reconsider. Firstly I sold a Royal Doulton Character Ape, a humorous figure which shows the seated individual with a book in its lap something which suggests a sideswipe to Darwinism. Although relatively mass produced it is the tongue in cheek face of art from a Western standpoint.
In my second encounter I came across a Nigerian, Yoruba carved figure of a monkey. This one was different, but equally engaging, unlike the Royal Doulton Character Ape which was one of an identical number, this was completely bespoke. I am familiar with Royal Doulton, but understandably am less so with ethnic carving, let alone the products of Yoruba.
Rather than a purely decorative object it was obviously intended to have some function – though I have no idea what. Frankly it has a disproportionately large head and teeth and seems pretty unfriendly, but then I do realise it wasn’t made for me. I suspect, even though this is not my field of expertise, it had some ritualistic, religious or social function and I guess it was no fertility symbol (work it out for yourself) he looks pretty aggressive and strong and doesn’t seem to be wholly ape, just like the Doulton Character Ape, there is an anthropomorphic aspect to him, but why is he holding a cup?
Is it now art - well why ever not? I liked the Yoruba monkey so he is now nakedly presiding over my kitchen, my wife has made no comment, but then our terrier also roams nakedly around our kitchen, but I can assure you he is definitely no work of art!