Painting for Apes

Cleve Hicks, who led our 2012-2103 survey to Bili, has submitted these two watercolor paintings he made of chimpanzees from Northern DR Congo to the Endangered: Art for Apes contest. Check their on-line gallery.

Chimp by Cleve Hicks
African Ape in the Sunset

‘I painted this portrait of an unknown chimpanzee in Northern DR Congo to reflect the uncertain future faced by Africa’s great apes. I spent the last 10 years working on a research and conservation project near the town of Bili, studying a large population of previously undocumented chimpanzees. I imagine this to be a young male Bili chimpanzee, who has ventured out onto the savanna’s edge as dusk approaches, only to be startled by something he has seen or heard on the horizon. The glow of a human-lit bushfire? The retort of a military gun fired at an elephant? Loud celebrations at a gold mining camp? A lion’s roar? I don’t know, but this chimpanzee senses that something is amiss. Given today’s situation, as the bushmeat trade expands in tandem with massive human incursion into formerly pristine chimpanzee habitat, he is wise to be wary.’

Kathe _ chimp by Cleve Hicks

‘I painted this watercolor of the chimpanzee orphan Kathé, who we rescued in the town of Likati, Northern DRC, in 2007. Kathé’s front teeth had been pried out with a hot knife, but this had done nothing to squash her endlessly playful, rambunctious character. The painting was sold to a dear friend to raise money for the chimpanzee sanctuary in which Kathé finally found a home, the Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Center.

The Endangered: Art for Apes group works to raise awareness of wildlife conservation issues around the world through the visual arts, and all proceeds from the exhibition go towards the Center for Great Apes.

These paintings are also on facebook and Cleve’s Bili report is available here.

Artist in Residence along the Lomami

Roger Peet at Obenge

Roger Peet (author of this post) sampling Ebambu fruit on his 2012 trip to the Lomami.

I’ve made two trips to the TL2 region, the first in 2012 and the second earlier this year. Each time I’ve been overwhelmed by the richness and diversity of the country, the generosity and depth of the people, and by the strange new world of culture and nature that I experienced. As a visual artist I’ve tried to make images that evoke some of these experiences.

bandana for TL2

Lomami Bandana – This is the image that I screen-printed onto about 400 brightly colored bandanas to bring with me on my first excursion to TL2 in 2012. It features all the totally protected species that are present in the Lomami Park, in a sturdy, durable format that has multiple possible uses. We distributed them in towns and villages throughout the region surrounding the park. TL2 workers used them in outreach efforts, to explain which species were protected and why. They were quite popular among the women in the villages as headscarves, and we even managed to give a parcel of six or so to the warlord Colonel Thoms when he arrived in the village of Obenge to parlay.

Bug (assassin bug)

A blockprint featuring one of the large hemipterans that were common in the fields surrounding the village of Obenge. I spent a lot of time creeping around the fields and scrub near the village in search of insects; these were some of the most dramatic creatures I saw.


Another blockprint, this time depicting one of the large hornbills that frequented the tall trees around Obenge camp. The wingbeats of these majestic birds sounded like the fanning of rough leather through the air, and their raucous cries filled the dawns and dusks. Great seed dispersers, these elegant creatures presumably play a significant role in the distribution of trees in the forest.


“Plenty For All” – In the canopy of the central African rainforest, different species play different roles, and at different heights. As we walked transects through the Lomami forest, we frequently disturbed complex networks of animals feeding on the seasonal fruits. Different species of monkey dispersed at various heights through the tree cover overhead, accompanied by hornbills, and then small antelope, or duikers, following along on the forest floor to scoop up any stray fruits knocked down by those moving above.


“Thief” – Maurice, seasoned TL2 fieldworker and great friend, told a story at Obenge camp about a rash of chicken disappearances that had happened in the weeks prior to my arrival. After the fifth missing fowl, he hit upon the idea to set up one of the projects’ camera traps outside the bamboo palisade surrounding the camp. The next day the camera’s SD card yielded images of a surprised-looking leopard trotting up to the camera with a big chicken in its mouth. I made this print to evoke the division of labor in Obenge, and the mischievous interference contributed by the leopard.

At base in Obenge_leopard with chicken

The thief is caught in the act by Camera Trap.


“From Above” - For the arboreal species of monkey in Congo’s forests, danger lurks in many directions- including directly overhead. The great African Crowned Eagle is one of the most effective predators of arboreal species ( like the red-tailed monkey, Ascanius, pictured here), plunging into the canopy with its massive three inch claws to snatch unwary primates from their perches. This is a five-color screenprint.


“Counterfeit 1″ – Part of a diptych, this is large blockprint painted with two coffee washes that is based on the design of Belgian colonial era money from Congo. When the Belgians ruled Congo, they attempted to create a new society in the image of their tiny European region, but based on forced labor, exploitation, and a generalized contempt for the people who inhabited the region they hoped to redefine. One way that this played out is in the money they designed for the region, full of fanciful depictions of African people playing a decorative role, just as the wildlife did. The implication was clear- the real society in Congo was that being built by the Belgians, and the Africans were merely a backdrop. The way that money represents value, and the atomizing of the natural and cultural world into discrete commercial units that capitalism can use for its own ends, are other themes I’m exploring in this piece. The images are based on photos I took on a long and wild trip up the Lomami River on a decrepit barge, and the text reads: “The counterfeiter will be punished with penal servitude”. The counterfeiter here is, ironically, the Belgians, constructing their imitation society on the shoulders of African labor.


“Counterfeit 2″ – The second part of the diptych. Pictured here is Koffi, one of the ICCN guards that I worked with in Obenge.

"toleka" Congo baggage

“Baggage” – This print is a celebration of the amazing things that people in Congo do with bicycles. Every day in Kindu I would pass legions of men straining to shift unearthly loads from port to market and back again, their loads precariously and yet immaculately balanced on the clanking steel bicycles they pushed. Everybody wants something from someone else, but not everyone will get it.

Bitter harvest in DR Congo

“Bitter Harvest” – In the village of Lole, near the Lomami Park, I spent an evening talking with chief Ngomo Njate about the changes that he’d seen in the forests around his village during his lifetime. He lamented the passing of the buffalo and the elephants, slaughtered for meat and ivory by criminal gangs, poaching networks, and the national army. He remembered when it was dangerous to move between villages at night for fear of running into an angry titan of the forest. Now children walk undisturbed from village to village through silent forests where no great beasts remain. “My name,” said the chief, “means Buffalo. Who would name me that now that they are gone? My sons know about elephants only from the stories I tell them. It is a different world now.”

More about Roger and his art here

Roger captures that millipede digitally

A millipede is digitally captured for future study.

ITURI STORY. Anarchy in the Year 2000 — Part 10

motorcycle on forest road
The front motorcycle enters the forest after the village of Komanda

We were impressive: A whole cavalcade of motorcycles. Or perhaps not so impressive.   On the back roads of the United States, where we just came from, we would be ridiculous. The motorcycles were little Yamaha 100s, tough machines, but not the American bull-machines that roar through upstate summers. Each of our motorcycles was stacked high with baggage and supplies, and each motorcycle carried two people: driver and passenger, sandwiched together. For Rebekah and particularly Jojo this was a big event: Back to Epulu, and John joining us in a week and a half. But it was the uncertainty of the times that put an edge on everything. This was my third trip to Epulu this year, all on motorcycle; the vehicles had been the first things looted back in 1996 and it still wasn’t safe to replace them. Only two of these motorcycles were ours, the other two rented in Bunia.

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ITURI STORY. Wakati wa Vita – Part 9

baba and bekah
John and Rebekah in the forest. Rebekah almost 6 months old. The hunting net strung behind them.

After more than two years in Epulu, we still started each morning with a face wash at the river. For a few minutes the morning was just the river: the cool feel of it against our faces, its white riling around boulders mid-stream. In March the water was low and its rapids were brilliant with morning sun. Downstream, the mist rose between islands, streaked by shafts of light.

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