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Sprawl and Art, Africa and California

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Sometimes I read about art projects dealing with socially conscious themes and think “wow, this shows a real lack of self-awareness.” That’s how I felt when reading about this:

Nick Brandt has been photographing the grandeur of East Africa’s stoic wildlife since 2001, but during his many trips he has observed a troubling pattern:

“The destruction of the natural world was occurring at an alarming rate — faster than my already pessimistic imagination could have anticipated,” Brandt said from his studio in the Santa Monica Mountains.

His forthcoming series of photos, “Inherit the Dust,” was conceived as his elegy to Africa’s natural world. He came up with the idea of photographing displaced animals in places where just three years earlier they used to roam — but no longer can because of rapid urban sprawl. Factories, garbage dumps and quarries now stand where elephants, lions, rhinos and cheetahs once lived.

To compose his latest photos, Brandt had life-size prints of the animals transferred onto giant panels and erected in situ — once familiar ground where people are oblivious to the giant creatures in their midst. Like ghosts in a landscape.

“It was an effective way of showing this level of present-day dystopia that humans are creating,” Brandt said.

For his ghosts, he selected never-before-published black-and-white portraits including one of his favorite subjects, Craig, a 40-year-old Amboseli bull elephant.

Photos printed in California were shipped and glued to aluminum and plywood frames. The panels, up to 30 feet long and sometimes rising even higher, were loaded onto trucks and driven to their designated sites. As many as 23 men worked in heat that reached 100 degrees to set up and strap down the panels in often rugged terrain. Horizon lines were carefully matched up with the composition of the original photo and contours of the land.

What does the art intend to convey?

Filmmaker and conservationist Dereck Joubert said every photographer-conservationist struggles with the dual desire to show beauty in the wild while protesting what is happening in formerly pristine lands. “What Nick has done is combine the two in a way that sends a visual protest but doesn’t detract from the beauty inside of each wildlife frame,” Joubert said, calling the result a “juxtaposition of celebration and regret.”

Brandt’s “Wasteland With Elephant” depicts an elephant walking through a river of garbage in central Kenya. “Just three years ago, zebras, gazelles and impalas could be seen roaming through these places,” he said.

Sitting in a trash-filled alleyway next to a stagnant pool of fetid sewage, a solemn chimpanzee lowers his head as if mourning the loss of his former home.

Where does this horrible sprawl remind the photographer of?

Brandt compared the “out-of-control development, overpopulation and crowds” in some parts of modern Africa to that in parts of China and India. “I never thought I’d put Africa in the same category,” he said.

And where will Brandt’s art be shown?

An exhibition of “Inherit the Dust” will open March 24 at Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles and will run through May 14.

Well, it’s a good thing that the art is going to be shown in Los Angeles but he has nothing to say about sprawl in California. Clearly that was environmentally sustainable and totally didn’t destroy habitat for wildlife!

None of this is to say that the massive sprawl of African cities isn’t terrible for wildlife, not great for people, and isn’t something that westerners shouldn’t address. But there are so many assumptions at play in this artist’s work–that Africa is inherently natural and should be maintained that way for the enjoyment of the western mind and tourist, that there’s no need to ask actual Africans what they want their world to look like, and that the problems over there are completely different than our world. So this artist can live in the Santa Monica Mountains and come to Los Angeles all the time where eighteen million people have decimated the environment over 5,000 square miles and he can completely ignore the vast poverty where he lives while talking about the degradation of Africa.

Now, I don’t want to assume too much here. Obviously, some of the problematic framing of all this could be on the reporter and it’s possible the artist does care very much about these issues in California. I don’t want to castigate the man for expressing real concern about real problems. And certainly he is aware of how this pollution affects the people who live in these slums. But there are also some red flags raised that need addressing.

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