Madonna and Chimp

When Leslie Glenn Damhus’ painting Madonna and Chimp was shown during
the Open Art Exhibition in Spring 2010, it prompted a flurry of letters
in the local papers regarding the appropriation of Christian imagery.

On 26 January 2011, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee joined a debate at the Black Swan Gallery, Frome, Somerset around this issue. The following is the speech he gave:

This is how it should be. This is how we should talk about art, about books, about films, about theatre. About what we disagree with, about what we like. About what we agree with, about what we dislike. We explain, we complain, we exclaim, we declaim. All of that is part of democratic discourse, part of human interaction.

I want to say this at the outset because through history we have known people who express their opinion about art differently. Some have burned books. Some have attacked the artist. Some have ransacked galleries. Some have jailed painters. In some parts of the world, the threat comes from the State. In other parts, that threat comes from vigilantes.

The idea of Madonna holding a chimpanzee – cute or not – quite likely offends some people. But if you look closely at that work – could it be commentary on the oneness of all life? Could it be commentary on what happens at science labs, where they make experiments on these intelligent creatures – chimpanzees – by placing wires around their heads, by injecting them with medicines, to figure out if such treatment would be effective on human beings, to treat diabetes, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, or multiple sclerosis?

I pick these four ailments for good reason: my mother had diabetes; someone I knew had Alzheimer’s; I’ve known people who have suffered epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. They await cure. Is the chimpanzee suffering for us, so that our suffering gets reduced? And does that make the chimpanzee a saviour of those among us who are sick? And is that why Madonna cradles the chimpanzee in her arms?

I don’t know – I am not a believer – not of one particular book, nor of any other. I accept human frailties, and I know that life is unfair. I also know that in another culture altogether, the same chimpanzee may indeed get worshipped. Zadie Smith didn’t necessarily have this chimpanzee in mind, but in her novel, White Teeth, she alludes to suffering when she describes – even if as satire – an animal liberation front.

We are in Frome, not terribly far from Tintern Abbey, I notice, and what was William Wordsworth, if not a pantheist? And aren’t there other cultures where you worship every stone, every tree, and every living creature? There is a wonderful poem by the late Arun Kolatkar, called Yeshwant Rao, where he talks about a second-class god who could’ve been carved out of any piece of stone, and kept outside the temple. But the villagers love that minor god whose exploits are not really known. A Gujarati folk poet, known as Akho, born centuries earlier, ridicules the worship of stones:

    Ek murakh ne evi tev
    Patthar etla pooje dev
    Katha suni suni futya kan
    Toy na avyu, Akha, brahma gyan

    (There was a fool in my village with a fairly weird habit
    If he found a stone he could worship, he’d grab it
    His ears burst after listening to many a sermon
    And yet, despite all, he gained no wisdom)

Hinduism – to which those poems allude – is a multi-everything faith. You may and may not be a Hindu; you may and may not eat beef; you may and may not drink alcohol; you may and may not abstain from sex; you may and may not be gay; you may and may not kill; you may and may not conceal; you may and may not steal; you may and may not get a reward; you may and may not be reborn. Heroes are imperfect in that faith, and some villains have redeeming virtues. There was a particular philosopher in Hinduism, called Carvaka, who said you could be an atheist and a Hindu.

There is no escape.

One such God in Hinduism is, in fact, the monkey God – or Hanumana, as he is known. He is an ideal devotee of Lord Rama. If Rama asks Hanumana to jump, he will ask – how high. When Ravana, the evil king of Lanka abducts Rama’s wife, Sita, and Rama is alone with his brother Lakshmana in the Dandakaranya forest, it is Hanumana who raises for Rama an army of monkeys. When Rama invades Lanka, he does so with those monkeys. When Lakshmana is shot by an arrow and is about to die, and when the doctor wants a particular medicine – Sanjeevani – to revive and cure Lakshmana, Rama sends Hanumana to the mountain in central India, to hunt for the plant. Hanumana rushes to the mountain, and looks for the plant. But it is like getting into the Amazon jungle not knowing what to get, which plant to pick? It is like being lost in the hypermarket Walmart or Carrefour, I suppose.

Hanumana doesn’t know; he is not a Na’avi, he is not an Avatar, born with the knowledge of herbs and plants. So he decides to lift the entire mountain – like Atlas – and he flies to Lanka with the mountain, so that the sage can pluck the right plant and cure Lakshmana.

The mountain comes to Lakshmana, since Lakshmana cannot get to the mountain.

And the mountain is brought by Hanumana, the monkey-God. Later, when someone challenges his devotion to Rama, Hanumana tears apart his chest – and where his heart beats, you see the image of Rama and Sita.

His gods are in his heart.

In India, then, they worship a monkey-God, or Hanumana.

My point in telling the story is that each of us makes our own story, our own narrative, in the art we see. I have no idea what Leslie Glenn Damhus intended when she saw chimpanzee where Christ would have been. If one saw that chimpanzee as an animal, a sub-human, as an object to offend, that’s one way of looking at it. But for an animal rights activist, the chimpanzee was someone to feel compassionate towards, because he suffers, so that some of us don’t. For a Hindu, the chimpanzee was possibly an incarnation of Hanumana – and not an object of derision.

But what if the artist had a different meaning in mind? The National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, the city where my son studies at university, is an interesting example. At an exhibition celebrating gay art, Christian groups protested against a video by the late David Wojnarowicz, who died from an AIDS-related illness in 1992. The four-minute video is from a piece he made in 1987, called “A Fire in My Belly,” commemorating his former partner Peter Hujar, who had died of AIDS-related illness that year. The video was being shown as part of an exhibition called “Hide/Seek”, whose central theme is gay love. In that video, you see a crucifix on which ants crawl. You can see it as the helplessness of the fallen Christ, whose suffering continues. (We should remember the video was made at a time when prejudice against the gay community was strong, and AIDS was considered to be the gay plague. If Christ loved everyone, including sinners and non-believers, clearly his heart was large enough for gays. And the video made that point, in its own way.)

Or, you can see the video as an attack on Christianity.

Surprisingly, and to their shame, the directors of Smithsonian decided to withdraw the video. This being America, another gallery began showing it; a few foundations, including Andy Warhol Foundation, withdrew funding for the Smithsonian.

But what if the artist had intended to offend? Robert Mapplethorpe showed homoerotic photographs that made many believers angry. Andres Serrano had a photograph called Piss Christ, which, as its name suggests, stretched the boundary of what is acceptable.

That brings me to my final point: of acceptability. What is acceptable depends entirely on the audience. What’s heart-warming for me is that we are talking about this, and not shouting over this.

In 2006, a leading art gallery in London was showing the works of the Indian painter Maqbul Fida Husain. Now Husain is 96 years old, and is like India’s answer to Picasso and Dali. He combines the flair of German expressionism and the keen sense to identify his nation’s zeitgeist.  He has chronicled India’s hopes, despair, triumphs and tragedies – he has painted Indian divinities – icons from the Hindu faith, but also modern Gods and Goddesses, like the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and the actress Madhuri Dixit. Husain was part of the group of Indian painters who formed the Progressive Art Group of Bombay, which tried to capture the magic of the moment in 1947, when India became free. It is an appropriate example to think of today; it is India’s Republic Day.

A magazine discovered an old sketch Husain had made, of Saraswati, the Goddess of learning. She is with her characteristic instrument – the veena – but she is also without clothes. A piece of cloth – perhaps a scarf, or a part of a sari – is draped around her, but she is not covered. That’s the essence of where he was getting – the idea of formlessness, or nirakara – something essential to Hinduism. Of course, Husain happens to be a Muslim, so as is to be expected, all hell broke loose in India. Not only over this painting, but also another one, called Bharat Mata, or Mother India, where Husain imagines the map of India in the shape of a woman – again, only partly-clothed.

Now Gods and Goddesses without clothes – and, well, enjoying each others’ physical intimacy – is hardly a new idea to Hinduism. Go to Konarak and its Sun Temple in Orissa; to the Khajuraho temples in central India; even in the south, where you see the Chola Bronzes. And Indian artists have, over millennia, seen Gods and Goddesses in their natural form.

But in India, like in many other parts, a culture of taking offence has taken root. Galleries that show Husain’s art have been attacked; he has had to live abroad; cases have been registered against him. And last year, he gave up Indian citizenship.

Why does that matter for Britain?

At that art gallery in central London, someone came during the night and damaged some of Husain’s paintings. The gallery promptly closed the show.

This wasn’t the only such attack. We know the saga of Salman Rushdie, and his great novel, The Satanic Verses, and the politics that followed the fatwa. Many stood by Sir Salman, even though they did not agree with his politics. But the same novelist who had given voice to the immigrant experience in Britain had to go in hiding, needing protection from the people who he wrote about, who were otherwise invisible. A few authors and politicians even sided with those who claimed offence. Sir Salman had to remain in hiding for nearly a decade. Today he is a free man – he has defied those who hated him; he has continued to write novels, which are a triumph of imagination.

But the story goes on in England. The producers of the film, Brick Lane could not film the novel at Brick Lane because Sylheti Bangladeshis were offended. A Sikh mob attacked a theatre in Birmingham, preventing the play, Behzti, from being staged. Christians called the BBC in record numbers to complain over the Jerry Springer Show.


Yes, people get offended. Yes, they may get upset and feel terrible. But they should not prevent others from experiencing what they consider to be art. What’s sacred for one may be profane for another; what’s painful for someone may be pleasurable for others. This has nothing to do with good taste. But the relationship a viewer, a reader, a listener has with a painting, a book, or a piece of music is a deeply personal one.

If we don’t like an exhibition, we walk out. We write a letter criticising it. We write reviews against it. We inform others that it isn’t worth buying that book. We may even picket in front of the cinema that shows the film we find offensive.

But the film should still be screened; the painting, remain on the wall; the novel, be read and debated. That separates us from those who burned books. Heinrich Heine said in his play, Almansor (1821):
Das war vorspiel nur, dort wo man bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am ende auch menschen
(That was mere foreplay. Where they burn books, in the end they burn people.)

Finally, something I found meaningful from a Hindu philosopher, which I have cited in my book, Offence: The Hindu Case (2009).

The Hindu thinker Swami Vivekananda, looked disconsolate when he learned of temples destroyed by Muslim invaders in mediaeval India. The Goddess is supposed to have spoken to him at that time, and asked: “Do you need my protection, or do I need yours?”

Thank you.

Salil Tripathi is an Indian-born writer based in London. His books include “Offence: The Hindu Case” (Seagull, 2009), about censorship by Hindu nationalists, and a forthcoming collection of travel essays (Tranquebar, 2011). He chairs the English PEN’s Writers-in-Prison Committee, and is a member of its board of trustees.

Salil has written extensively on politics, economics, literature, business, and on issues related to free speech for over 25 years in publications around the world. He has been a foreign correspondent based in Singapore and Hong Kong during the 1990s and was a correspondent in India before that. He is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The New Statesman, The Independent, Index on Censorship, The International Herald Tribune, Far Eastern Economic Review, The New Republic, and The Washington Post, among others. In India, he is a columnist at Mint and contributing editor at Caravan magazine. He also writes for Global Asia in Seoul and The National in Abu Dhabi.

In a parallel universe, he is policy director at the Institute for Human Rights and Business. He has been a non-resident fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School on business and human rights, and is on the advisory panels of major global initiatives on human rights and business. He graduated with a masters’ degree from the Tuck School at Dartmouth College in the United States.

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