A&E

The call of the wild

Pacific Art League highlights the beauty and the plight of African wildlife

Nature has always been a rich source of inspiration for artists. With its new exhibition, the Pacific Art League hopes to give back to the natural world, not only by celebrating its beauty but also providing information about critical issues facing it.

"Africa: The Struggle of Beauty" will incorporate the work of four renowned photographers and aims to address conflicts between humans and the environment, the commercialization of animal products and the devastating endangerment of some of Africa's most beloved species. PAL will also host several special events in conjunction with the exhibition.

Emmy Award-winning cinematographer Andrew Wegst, along with fellow photographers Sebastião Salgado, Oliver Klink and Teri Vershel, will exhibit work shot in Africa in recent years. Wegst's work, which comprises about two-thirds of the show, follows a curated narrative.

"The idea of the exhibition is to peel back the curtain a little bit on what most people would experience in Africa on a typical safari; to show them a little more about what's going on with wildlife and the issues we try to address," Wegst said. He's been a wildlife photographer for 25 years and has worked for the conservation nonprofit WildAid for about three and half, and said that while he's seen some hopeful signs, such as China and Vietnam enacting new legislation against trade in elephant ivory, for example, "in general the situation for wildlife is not improving. There are positive signs and big challenges."

While many of Wegst's images are beautiful photographs of creatures in their natural habitats, he's also including some more graphic photos illustrating the brutal reality of poaching and the illegal trading of wildlife parts, which feeds the global market for bushmeat, ivory, rhinoceros horns and other parts used in traditional medicine, and more.

WildAid, which uses the slogan "When the buying stops, the killing can too," works to reduce global demand for the consumer-driven wildlife-product trade, as well as to support local conservation efforts. The nonprofit produces educational videos that are distributed to local media outlets and often work with celebrity spokespeople to help spread the message.

"Our goal is to combine (WildAid's) credibility with our aesthetic," PAL Executive Director Jon Graves said.

"I went to Africa for the first time last year. It was one of the most profound experiences in my life," he added. Wegst, who's taught classes at PAL in the past, brainstormed with Graves on how to base an exhibition on his conservation work in Africa and with WildAid's mission.

"Andy's narrative celebrates the beauty of the wildlife and the landscape. It then addresses the issues. And there are some tough images, which I think will be a bit different for us," Graves said (the flyer shows a pile of tusks stacked next to several rifles).

Graves hopes that "Africa: The Struggle for Beauty" will not only raise awareness but also bring together some of Silicon Valley's best and brightest (and, perhaps, wealthiest), to discuss how they might be in a unique position to find solutions.

"You've got a destruction taking place which is unprecedented. It's absolutely horrendous. So our thinking was, 'What can we do to use photography to not only raise awareness in Silicon Valley but also engage in discussion with technologists about how they can help?'" he said. "You've got a lot of money in this town. You've got a lot of technology. You've got a lot of leaders. Bright, smart people. Not many of them seem to be behind this issue. How can we get Silicon Valley involved? Because there are so many areas -- data analytics, drones -- where technology can help."

PAL has a long history of offering art classes in a variety of media and levels as well as juried exhibitions, but since Graves took over as head last year, he's had a vision of expanding the league's scope and raising its profile. The current show "is part of our plan of having cause-based exhibitions. Once a year we want to do something that has a real cause behind it," he explained.

"We're hoping to really fill the building with influential people," Graves said of the exhibition's Sept. 7 opening. "The ask we're going to be making of them is just to get involved," he said, be it through financial support, volunteer work, raising awareness or other ways.

Though the issues impacting wildlife may feel overwhelming, there are simple things tourists (and gallery visitors) can do to help, Wegst said.

"Never purchase any product that you suspect has come from a wild animal," he said, naming trinkets such as necklaces as common souvenirs. "When you travel, you can choose to pick a responsible tour operator that follows all the rules and works with local communities that give back," he said. "Educate yourselves about what's going on."

With his camera, Wegst has captured images of well-known species such as lions, zebras, gorillas and elephants, but his work also sheds light on less familiar animals, such as pangolins (which are actually the world's most trafficked species, he said).

Though Wegst has made films on all seven continents, he appreciates the local fauna as well (including his pet cats, with whom he lives in Menlo Park). And he still hopes, he said, to spot a mountain lion in the wild someday.

"The way I describe it is, wildlife is the world as it should be," Los Gatos-based photographer and PAL instructor Oliver Klink told the Weekly in a recent interview, as he showed some of his black-and-white images of East African animals, most notably elephants. Through his photography, he has been able to capture not only the charismatic animals themselves but also the ecosystem around them, giving a sense of how land and animals are interconnected. He pointed out how cattle egrets are omnipresent in the elephant photos. The birds have a symbiotic relationship with the herds, picking parasites from their skin and warning them about predators. In one photo, he pointed out Mount Kilimanjaro, covered in snow.

"This may be a historical image. What they are saying about Kilimanjaro is that by 2020 there might be no snow. What it means is the entire ecosystem is going to change, where you don't have as much water, the elephants will have to travel much further to find a source of water and food and cross new territories that they haven't seen before," he said.

Elephants have come to hold a special place in Klink's heart. He's photographed curious, wise old matriarchs, babies learning through play and imitation, and elderly males, whose isolation and large tusks make them extremely vulnerable to poachers.

"The first time I went to Africa I was more into the cats ... but when I started to see the elephants, I felt there was something unique about them. They're absolute giants but there is a charisma that they have. They are very tender and they're incredible, the way they move, the way they care about their herd, they way they communicate," he said. "You never get tired of seeing the behavior of the elephant."

Klink said the mission of PAL's exhibition is to inspire viewers to go a step farther than just appreciating good art.

"Do you want people to fall in love with the animals and say, 'Oh my god, that's so beautiful?' or do you want to have a message that is delivered with the images that is basically an afterthought when people go home?" he pondered. "I want the viewer to have my images haunting them, to the point where they say, 'I'm either going to purchase those images or I'm going to do something about it.'"

What: "Africa: The Struggle of Beauty"

Where: Pacific Art League, 668 Ramona St., Palo Alto.

When: Sept. 7-Oct. 25; Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Opening reception Friday, Sept. 7. 5:30-8 p.m.

Cost: Free.

Info: Go to pacificartleague.org/wildlife-art-photography.

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