The art was created by chimpanzees like Cheetah. Cheetah had lived alone in a steel cage for 13 years and was used in a biomedical study, but now lives at the Save the Chimps sanctuary. The money raised from Cheetah’s and others chimps’ Primal Expressions painting collection sales will help to support sanctuary operations.
The launch of these NFTs is the latest chapter in a long and complex history of non-human animals in the art world. As I have explored in my research, this history also includes thinking about how those advocating for the well-being of animals have used artwork in their campaigns. My exploration of these questions led me to co-found The Unbound Project, dedicated to sharing stories about contemporary and historic women at the forefront of animal advocacy worldwide.
1950s chimpanzee artists
During the 1950s there was much attention paid to chimpanzee artists. Betsy, a resident of the Baltimore Zoo during the 1950s, quickly rose to fame for her artwork. When the Baltimore Museum of Art purchased an abstract painting by Willem de Kooning, a keeper at the Baltimore Zoo claimed that Betsy could likely produce something comparable and set about to test the idea.
While Betsy’s art career got off to a rather underwhelming start – she began by eating paint and chewing on a brush – she soon was soon smearing colourful pigments on canvases much to the delight of both the media and art collectors. She appeared on such programs as The Tonight Show and has received special mention in a recent book by filmmaker by John Waters.
Around the same time that Betsy was becoming a media darling, a chimpanzee at the London Zoo named Congo was thrust into the spotlight with the help of Desmond Morris, a respected artist and zoologist. Morris was the presenter of a Granada TV show called Zoo Time, and it was on this program that Congo and his artwork caught the attention of a broad public. Many well-known art collectors – including Picasso andPrince Philip – purchased Congo’s work.