A Shaggy Gorilla Story

You may be familiar with Koko, the lowland gorilla that Dr. Penny Patterson taught to use sign language. What you may not know is that Koko and her fellow primates at the Gorilla Foundation Sanctuary had their paintings and sculptures featured in a show at the San Francisco MOMA and that Koko attended the opening.

The room was packed as the curator ascended the podium to begin his address. “These works by apes and monkeys offer a refreshingly naive, primal experience of–”  The room fell silent as Koko, a 280 pound gorilla, rushed to the podium. She gently pulled the curator aside and signed to Dr. Patterson to take the mic so she could translate Koko’s sign language for the audience.

Koko pointed to a mixed media sculpture of a ball in a cage surrounded by blunt and pointed sticks, then signed. “People being mean to people.”

She then gestured at a painting that had bright squiggly lines in the top left portion and a muddy brown splotch in the opposite corner. “Life beautiful. Life short. Kitten, flower, friend die.”

Next she nodded to a canvas covered completely in highly textured red paint with a black line crossing the red field. “Why we work, play, love? Who chooses?”

The audience began murmuring. Man’s inhumanity to man. The ephemeral nature of life. The nature of free will or predetermination. Deep philosophical themes, explored by animals– no, not animals. This was evidence that creatures other than Man are capable of reflection, self knowledge, and expression through abstract art.

Koko spent the next hour wandering the gallery having facilitated discussions with the patrons of the gallery. This was the most engaging opening the MOMA had had in years. People had lively discussions amongst themselves as they waited for pearls of wisdom from Koko’s hands.

As Koko and Dr. Patterson headed back to the sanctuary that evening, the ape turned to her teacher and signed “Fancy words make silly paintings look fancy. Koko big artist. Koko win bet. You owe me ten oranges.”

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