Saturday, May 26, 2007

Bokito and the Dutch (evil?) eye.

Bokito is a young – 11 years old – dominant silverback male gorilla. He has lead a relatively ‘normal’ zoo animal life in Rotterdam, provided with regular meals and what we perceive as an adequate complement of female companions and playground space at a distance reputed safe by experts from the general public. The very symbol of contentment, if not happiness, it would seem. As lives in captivity go, you could do worse, I guess.

Bokito has recently become instantly notorious for shattering many of our assumptions in a spectacular way. He has escaped, crossing the ‘safe’ 4 meter wide water filled ditch that was supposed to keep him inside, and caused considerable consternation and panic among the visitors, as can be imagined. While most were trying their best to get away, and some were taking shelter inside a restaurant, he brutally attacked a woman, and dragged her around beating and biting. Lucky for her, he then went for a snack and left her behind to survive this King Kong nightmare, although in very bad shape, while he made for the cafetaria. Those who were hiding inside had closed the door – a glass one – and soon found out the hard way how little this meant to a large angry gorilla with an appetite. He got in, obviously, and spent some time trashing the place, before settling down somewhat and eventually being shot to submission with an anesthetics filled dart. He has been brought back behind bars safely, and is now resuming his daily routine - reportedly: eat drink sleep mate - carefully monitored by his good caretakers in his inner lodgings. The ‘safety’ ditch will probably need a good rethink before he is allowed out in the open again, though.

After the first sensation, and widespread horror at this apparently random attack, more details started to seep through the media, and the evil animal brute is slowly starting to appear in a different and strangely fascinating light, gaining support by the hour. Turns out the worse victim of the violence had been a regular, coming to see him a few times a week for a while, and had been noted for trying to establish a contact with the gorilla. She was fascinated by him, and went about the flirting as humans do, smiling – her teeth showing - and making eye contact. Although this had come to the attention of members the zoo staff, who had duly warned her about keeping her distance, this behaviour went on to the point of driving the poor animal to distraction. He got stressed, and no human inhibition stood in the way of his healthy reaction to the stalking. He did what he was wont to do by his nature. Let’s hope his life will be spared.

This should serve as a powerful warning to the dangers of assumptions when different species, or indeed cultures, are brought in close proximity. A great deal of knowledge, caution and mutual understanding is required to make it work. Among humans we have at least the advantage of a higher intelligence on each side of the equation, and this should help although the many problems of our increasingly multicultural society would seem to challenge this idea. On one hand we must be open, in the way of wanting to find out about the others, and understand. On the other it is to be clear that this in itself positive inquisition has to be discreet. The only safe basic assumption, possibly, is that mutual respect is paramount. In principle accept that we are all equal and set out to learn about and - why not? - enjoy the differences. It will broaden our horizons.

Around the same time as this was unfolding, a large book has appeared, deemed to be the bible of Dutch photography by the publishers and titled “Dutch eyes”. Now this is in itself a dangerous start, as ‘sacred’ books run the risk of being perceived as dogmatic both by the faithful and the doubtful, and of offending deep feelings, again by the process of making assumptions – if only implicitly – that can be proven wrong.
This fatally seems to have happened. The brave effort of the experts was doomed from the start by its overambitious scope. After many years of work the result of their concerted scholarly fatigues has left out many photographers and even whole genres. In all fairness, there is so much going on that a comprehensive oeuvre wouldn’t fit in one volume or maybe not even in a room for that matter, but these omissions were easy to spot and have unleashed the anger of some and the aggression of at least one photographer. Namely Marrie Bot. She went about it the human way, true to her name – as “bot” is Dutch for “blunt”- and took a bite at the authors by writing an enraged libellous article on a national newspaper. Bottom line of her piece, and underlying emotion, is: why was I left out?

Now I feel for you Marrie, I really do. Many times I have experienced the burning pain of being left out and the sting of feeling a failure myself. It is cruel, especially since it has to be endured in silence. The question -why not me?- can’t be asked without appearing pathetic, and leads nowhere but to make one come across like a sore loser. Most selections and competitions won’t correspond or comment on their choices, the judgement of any jury typically being not subject to any form of appeal. It seems unfair and it is, but as we all want to be included, any selection wouldn’t work otherwise. I will not go into the merits of the book, I only would like to point out that being left out is painful, feels unjust and unleashes a reaction in any context. Can be depression, or violence. Would it be possible to write a sacred book that does justice to us all? I gladly leave the answer to the experts and keep up my hopes for the future.

One last word of advice to the publishers, from my humble self: promoting a book as the “bible of something” is asking for trouble. Especially in Holland, where people have been reading and questioning them since the middle ages, and not always peacefully.