Stephen D. Nash’s Darwin and Friends (1980) and untitled drawing (1980s): The mobility of art objects

By
Lakshmi Tran
BA History of Art


UCL Anthropology keeps two artworks of Stephen D. Nash within its collection: Darwin and Friends (1980) and untitled (1980s). The first, a large oil painting, located in the foyer of the department and represents the primate order; an iconic subject within anthropology. I encountered the second artwork during the year: an ink drawing depicting various primates and human profiles. The drawing was probably made around the same time as the painting. Information on both artworks has been provided by Nash himself via email interviews in November 2019 and May 2020 to make this paper possible. 

Nash is a world-renowned British scientific illustrator. He is based in Stony Brook University, New York, and produces illustrations, primarily of primates, for conservation and biological publications. Nash’s body of work exists in an intersection between art, science and culture, aiming to blend ‘scientific accuracy with something less obvious, possibly irrational, and perhaps in some way childlike’ (Nash 2009: 119). This position enables his works to benefit from the efficacy of art as an active tool for political activism. Nash, through his illustrations, encourages a link between primates and humans, thus, highlighting ecological concern over our planet’s long-term future. Both untitled and Darwin and Friends take advantage of their active status; to become shifting art objects. A shifting art object is an artwork whose conceptual meaning is constructed by its viewers. Therefore, an art object needs to be considered as a mobile entity, whose reception mirrors its social context, in a direct constantly changing manner. It is this ability to become mobile, that I wish to expand on. 

Untitled

I initially came across this drawing while volunteering for the collection in November 2019. When I first started working on this object, little was known about it. Fortunately, I was able to contact the artist, who helped me decipher the artwork. The different elements depicted here represent: 

The profile of (left to right) two humans, a gorilla, an orangutan, and a chimpanzee. The three primates underneath the portraits: left to right, they are the gorilla, baboon, and a smaller monkey, perhaps a New World Callitrichid. The images down the left-hand side show (top to bottom) the so-called “Venus of Willendorf”, a carved figurine estimated to be about 30,000 years old and one of the earliest carved figures yet discovered. Next is a man carrying a tool, probably some sort of hoe. I think that he represents the development of the cultivation of plants (and farming in general) in human history. Below that are four hands, I believe meant to represent the development of trade in human history. (Personal communications with Nash 2019).

Untitled is, in fact, a title page for a special publication of an anthropological journal. When examining the artwork closer, there are small indications of its purpose, such as the blank space allotted in the lower right-hand side possibly for text. Or the four small boxes drawn in pencil in each corner of the page, which are used to align the drawing for photographing and later printing purposes.  This artwork is complex to discuss as it exists within the collection as an incomplete object. It is hard to attach a meaning to a fragmentary object, and thus, leaves the door for its possible interpretation wide open.  It is this openness which gives me the ability to reinvent this drawing.

Darwin and Friends

Darwin and Friends (1980), is an oil painting on hardwood located in the reception area of the department. This second example is another artwork done by Nash, which I encountered following up my work on untitled. Darwin and Friends was commissioned to be a decorative piece for the department in 1980 by Dr R. D. Martin, a lecturer in biological anthropology at UCL between 1969-74, to illustrate the Primate Order. At the time of the commission, Nash was a student at the Royal College of Art and he regularly visited the department to consult on issues regarding primates and their anatomy and taxonomy. Darwin and Friends depict several primates, each representing a major group of prosimian, monkeys or apes and Charles Darwin as the human representative of the primate order (personal communications with Nash 2019). Initially, the human representative was meant to be Prof. John Norris Wood, Nash’s course tutor from the Royal College of Art. But Wood himself persuaded the artist to paint Darwin instead, hence the name of the painting. 

Meaningful iconographies or simple illustrations?

In the description above of untitled very little attention is paid to the order in which the two female human profiles are drawn; the woman from an African ethnicity is placed furthest to the left, and furthest from the gorilla, orangutan and chimpanzee. For me, this decision is a conscious criticism of colonialism and the archaic racist association of Africans to primates. This compositional decision breaks the possibility of a hierarchy of species, where the white person is at the top. If you consider the object’s purpose, as a title page for a publication, this interpretation is plausible, as the artist would want to avoid criticism. However, I have found out from recent correspondence with the artist, that the position of figures does not have any meaning and he had in mind only artistic and compositional considerations (Personal Communications with Nash: 2020). 

While thinking about this article, I showed Darwin and Friends to my family, to gain a new perspective on it. Following a discussion with my father, it came to my attention just how strange Darwin is in this painting. Darwin and Friends is meant to showcases the primate order, focusing on the similarities of humans to monkeys and apes. Thus, unity is expected between each element. However, Darwin appears holding a book, distant, secluded and unwelcoming. The link between Darwin and the other primates seem very inaccessible in this painting. Darwin’s coldness can be interpreted as a critic of the individual, or even as a caricature. Nash’s intention, of representing the primate order, is fragmentary now. The human representative manifests himself as the odd element, breaking the overall unity. Perhaps, I project a negative light on Darwin because of the present devasting impact humans have on our fauna and flora. I have gotten conditioned, by my social context, to associate human representation with a threat to nature. Therefore, because of my actions, the original artistic intention of consensus is eclipsed. 

Is the meaning everything?

After all, all those meanings attributed to both artworks have been provided by myself and reflect my own experiences. Is it, therefore, possible to ascribe meanings to art objects without a bias? Alfred Gell, a British anthropologist, thought that the ‘true’ meaning of an art object was to be a trap a machine to generate a reaction (Gell 1992). Thus, rather than treating my meanings as the absolute truth, they should be regarded as a reaction generated by the art objects themselves. Those reactions place the art objects into a system of actions, in which actions have been and will be. 

Mobility

Then, why did I come up with such different interpretations? It could be because untitled and Darwin and Friends exist in a state of temporal and spatial mobility, one in which I have been given the ability to shape the drawing to my own experiences. 

As both a student at UCL and an individual in 2020, I have been taught about decolonisation, especially within anthropology as a discipline. Therefore, it is natural for me to see a simple compositional decision and understanding it as an anti-colonial stance. Untitled is an example of ‘how the temporal and spatial mobility of objects change not only the meaning, status, efficacy, and aesthetic value of these objects but also most crucially, the way people experience them’ (Majhoub 2015: 4). Darwin and Friends is no exception to this mobility. Darwin’s representation has been transformed into a mere image, an image which has been translated from a concrete subject into abstraction. (Debord 2014: Thesis 29). And it is such abstraction which allows for conceptual mobility. We, although, ought to accept and observe this modified concept and approached to Darwin and Friends. After all, art objects are not static and are bound to adapt, much like a person would, to their environment. Thus, allowing us to trace the social context in which the art object circulates. 

Conclusion

Untitled and Darwin and Friends both demonstrates that art is not ‘a detached form of representation, interpretation of reality or even a distinctive judgment of it’ (Jarillo 2013: 135). Instead, art is a mobile vessel in which we project our interpretation conditioned by our socio-historical context. This process is bound to change, creating new scenarios attached to our own realities, thus, making the art object more ‘real’. Art objects are porous enabling a response to several diverse contexts, thus, creating different meanings.


  • Debord, G. 2014 [1967]. Society of Spectacle (trans. K. Knabb) Berkley: Bureau of Public Secrets.  
  • Jarillo, S. 2013. Art and Anthropology beyond Beautiful Representations: The Material Hyperreality of Artistic Ethnography. Laboratorium 5(2):128-148.
  • Majhoub, A. 2015. Thinking Through the Sociality of Art Objects. Journal of Aesthetic & Culture 7:1, 25782. 
  • Nash, S. D. 2009. Some Thoughts and Reflections on the Use of Illustration in Biodiversity Education Campaign. Journal of Threatened Taxa 1(2):119-125. 
  • Gell, A. 1992. The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology. In Anthropology, Art and Aesthetic (eds.) J. Coote and A. Shelton, pp. 40-63. Oxford: Clarendon Press.  

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