Written by Jacha Potgieter
I am a political conservation artist, originally from South Africa but now based in beautiful Betws-y-Coed, North Wales. This year I realised my dream and opened my own art gallery, Platform Galeri, in the basement of the railway station at Betws-y-Coed.
A lot of my artwork raises awareness of the conservation issues close to my heart. I have been to Borneo with the Orangutan Foundation, and Cameroon with Ape Action Africa. I used the experiences to paint large canvases and take photographs of the apes to raise awareness of what is happening to these stunning animals and to educate people on the destruction that palm oil is having on the orangutan’s habitat. At this point I should probably also mention that along with my wife I run a coffee shop which is completely palm oil free, something which took me two years to do now that palm oil is used in so many products.
At the entrance to the gallery I have established a life sized hollow rhino sculpture which I have set up as a community art project. I have asked people to fill the Rhino, who I have named Edith, with bottle tops. I am using this to raise awareness of the situation with the rhinos and the fact at least one is killed every day for its horn. I have displayed an information board next to Edith with details of rhino poaching figures and what the horn is used for with the hope that I can spread the word that something needs to be done to stop this barbaric trade. Edith has been popular with the many visitors Betws-y-Coed attracts, particularly with the younger ones, which is always pleasing as it’s this next generation we are going to be relying on to help protect the animals. I believe it is very important to educate children about conservation so I visit schools and give talks on palm oil, orangutans, the rainforest and how I use my art to help.
After reading an article titled “Pangolins: the world’s most trafficked mammal you’ve never heard of,” I thought it would be worth while creating something that would bring these creatures to people’s attention. Using cardboard recycled from the coffee shop, I constructed two pangolins to display in the gallery. Again I have information about the poaching and smuggling of pangolins available for the public to read. The reaction from the sculptures has been positive, so many people have never heard of a pangolin, they are keen to learn more and have been shocked at the rate at which they are being poached.
I also decided to create a painting and sculpture that reflects my personal interpretation of the massacre of vulnerable wild animals for bushmeat. Many of the animals are endangered species. I have imagined myself in the situation of the exploited animals. Exposed and vulnerable, a man about to be executed and unable to do anything to stop it. Making people aware of what the word bushmeat means is very important to me.
Another issue that I wanted to show was the practice of canned hunting; hunting of wild animals in a confined area from which they cannot escape, it is not only legal in South Africa, but worryingly, it is flourishing. The animals involved are habituated to human contact, often hand-reared and bottle fed, so they no longer have a natural fear of humans. The animals will approach people expecting to get food, but instead receive a bullet or arrow from a hunter. This makes it easier for hunters to approach the animals. Clients can be guaranteed a trophy and therefore the industry has become lucrative and popular.
This below artwork is protesting against the use of Rhino horn as a medicine. In traditional Chinese medicine, rhino horn is shaved or ground into a powder and dissolved in boiling water, then used to treat fever, rheumatism, gout and other disorders. According to a 16th century Chinese pharmacist the horn could also treat snakebites, hallucinations, typhoid, headaches, vomiting, food poisoning and “devil possession”. Rhino horns are made up of the protein keratin, also the main component in hair, fingernails and animal hooves. Overall there isn’t any evidence to support the many claims about the healing properties of rhino horn, so you’d do just as well chewing on your fingernails.
I’ve travelled extensively in West Africa and was always aware of the grey and red flying above my head. I knew that these parrots were captured for the pet trade but after reading the article “Shades of Grey” in Africa Geographic I was inspired to make this sculpture, which I have displayed in the gallery along with the “Shades of Grey” article to educate people on the impact the pet trade has on African greys. Like the pangolins, this sculpture is made from recycled cardboard from the coffee shop.
Palm oil, the loss of natural environment, bushmeat and the pet trade are all factors that put apes and other animals on the endangered list. It is such a sad story, that the only thing I can associate it with is The Last Supper.
Last year I had the privilege of being part of a gala dinner in The Savoy Hotel hosted by Sir David Attenborough. I was honoured to have some of my works included in the auction to help raise money for Hope 4 Apes.