One cannot help but be stirred with emotions
upon viewing Who's Looking?
Who's Looking? A collaborative, multi-disciplinary investigation of
human relations to chimpanzees,” an exhibit at the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha
Gallery that runs until Dec. 2, explores what chimpanzees see when they look
at humans and what humans see when they look at chimpanzees.
The exhibit, directed by Lori Gruen, chair and associate professor of the
Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, associate professor of
philosophy, includes a photo installation by Gruen, a collection of primate
portraits by Connecticut artist Frank Noelker and a film screening by
award-winning filmmaker Allison Argo. Live theater events from the
student-organized Guerrilla Chimpanzee Theater Company are also scheduled
during the month.
Gruen has been interested in chimpanzees and our relationships with them for
years. She was doing research for her upcoming book and her website which
focuses on the first 100 captive chimpanzees in America,
when she had a Eureka moment.
research, Gruen befriended a 27-year-old chimpanzee named Darrell and his
constructed family of chimps at the Ohio State University Chimpanzee Center.
discovered that Darrell's mother was a chimpanzee named Mary whose lineage
can be traced back to Pan and Dwina, two chimpanzees born in the 1920s who
were among the first four chimps studied in captivity in the U.S. Along with
describing Darrell's families, both actual and constructed, in her book,
Gruen wanted to create a visual representation of her discovery for a larger
Nina Felshin, curator of exhibitions for the Center for the Arts, is excited
to bring Gruen's and Noekler's work to the Zilkha because the content of the
shows she curates often "deal with issues outside of the art world." Felshin
says the exhibit encourages people think about ethical issues involving
chimpanzees "in a way that an ethics journal or a philosophy journal might
Through the exhibition, the participants'
work is available to a large audience.
The format of the exhibition also makes it accessible. The gallery provides
a small, intimate setting for the photographs.
Frank Noelker's Chimp
Portraits 2002-2006, pictured at left, is comprised of large, respectful photos where each
chimpanzee seems to look directly into the viewer's eye. Descriptions next
of each of the photographs give the pictures context that both removes and
shocks the viewer. For example, only by reading the accompanying description
is it revealed that a solemn-looking retired research chimpanzee named
Pepper would "still rather starve herself than face an unpleasant
Gruen's piece titled A Family Portrait 1920-2007 shows photos arranged
in a format that allows viewers to relate to the display. She's displayed
Darrell's family members in framed photos of varying sizes, above a
constructed fireplace mantel.
“Engaging with these remarkable creatures has really opened up new ways of
thinking and seeing for me,” Gruen says. “I think about the meaning of
family and of relationships and our obligations in different ways. My hope
is that the installation will allow others to see differently as well."
Gruen worked with Connecticut artist Will McCarthy to design and construct
the mantelpiece and find appropriate frames.
"Even though the exhibit was going into a modern structure we didn't want to
make it look modern, we wanted to make it look more like something you might
find in a home," McCarthy says. "If you went into someone's house or room,
this is what you might see in their house or over their mantle. We wanted to
keep it warm and friendly and family-oriented."
Felshin says the arrangement of the chimp family portrait photos in a
spontaneous fashion makes viewing the work a more aesthetic, poetic
experience than looking at a traditional family tree layout.
"For me, when there's a poetic element, it also allows the viewer to bring
their own experience to it," Felshin says.
Members of the Wesleyan community are invited to explore the exhibit and the
accompanying events throughout the month in order to make their own
impressions and take a moment to ponder who truly is looking at whom.
The closing reception for the exhibit with talks by Lori Gruen and Frank
Noekler will be from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29. That same evening,
Allison Argo's film titled Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History will be
shown at 8 p.m. in the Center for the Arts Cinema followed by a Q & A
A panel discussion called Re/Presenting Primates will be held from 11:30
a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Nov. 30 in the Usdan University Center, Room 108.
Lori Gruen will moderate the discussion, which will explore issues such as
the ethics and politics of representation; what does looking at animals tell
us about ourselves; how can art change attitudes about animals; and what
does it mean to see and represent chimpanzees as individuals. The scheduled
panel discussion participants are Kari Weil, critical theorist and Wesleyan
College of Letters professor; Cynthia Freeland, author of the upcoming book
Portraits: A Philosophical Inquiry; Frank Noelker and Allison Argo.
For more information on the exhibit go to