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The Red List: Mali Moir’s sublime tribute to vanished and disappearing wildlife

True compassion comes from knowledge and understanding. Part of what makes Mali Moir’s series of portraits of extinct and critically endangered species of wildlife from around the world so powerful is the way the works combine formal precision and technical brilliance with raw emotion.

The title of Moir’s current exhibition refers to The Red List of Endangered Species compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Beautifully, lovingly rendered in charcoal on large canvases with subtle symbolic touches that speak to our exploitation and neglect of animals as well as the attempts being made to save those species that have not quite disappeared, The Red List reinforces the sense that every animal belongs in an ecosystem – none can exist in isolation from each other, much less from us.

As an artist with an immensely accomplished background in scientific illustration, Mali Moir understands that the big picture of conservation is made up of tiny, outwardly obscure details.

In the eight works, Moir mediates on and memorialises in very personal terms just what we have lost or are losing. Each portrait is highly detailed, yet also linked through a symbolic system of visual cues. Moir seeks to remind us of the threat posed to the natural world by what she calls “the excesses of the oil age” in our modern era, during which humans have developed the means to render the planet uninhabitable.

As an artist with an immensely accomplished background in scientific illustration, Mali Moir understands that the big picture of conservation is made up of tiny, outwardly obscure details and that everything in the natural world is interconnected. Although the animals are carefully rendered, the viewer will notice that all the extant species have the same eyes – the eyes, Moir explains, of her own daughter.

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As an overarching symbol of human interference in the fate of species, Moir chose the plastic seams that are used to provide tamper evident seals on cream bottles. Such human produced debris – the plastic is a by-product of oil refining – not only pollutes the land and oceans, but also symbolises the severing of the bond between us and our fellow animals. All the seals are broken, as it were, at the eleventh hour.

“Public protests are the hard fight, art is a strategic soft fight”-Mali Moir

Moreover, the colour of each piece of plastic matches the status of the species on The Red List, a code which ranges from Near Threatened through several stages of increasing threat level and ending in Extinct. The pointed use of colour contrasts with the dominant greyscale. In a characteristically thoughtful touch, guests invited to the launch of The Red List were asked to wear black, which is symbolic of the death of species as well as adding to the monochrome effect created within the gallery space.

Moir explains that her technique represents a departure from her earlier, more straightforwardly scientific work. “I have been working with charcoal for about four years now. I am better known for my tiny tight watercolours of plants, a genre most people know as Botanical Art but also called Accurate Realism.”

“I was looking for another avenue which offered me a different rendering approach, a departure from tight line work. I have known of the carbon dust technique from forever ago as illustrator. I came across the term sfumato – Italian for smoky – probably while playing around on the Internet reading about old masters’ painting techniques and traditional materials. The term is used in painting to describe soft blended edges, as used by Leonardo da Vinci and his followers.”

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Moir’s subjects include iconic extinct species such as the Dodo and the Thylacine, as well as emblematic currently endangered species like the Californian Condor. At the same time, Moir shines a light on lesser known but equally important animals such as the African Wild Dog, which is poached for bush meat and is the most endangered predator in Africa, though it receives less media attention than the big cats. Also included is the Markhor, a type of mountain goat that is the natural prey of the Snow Leopard. Despite being the national animal of Pakistan, it is estimated that there are little more than one thousand Markhor remaining in the wild.

In some of the pictures, information is placed about the specific threat to the species. For example, while the Californian Condor is a highly protected and closely monitored species, as suggested by the prominent wing tag attached to each bird, it is the hunting of the animals that the Condor eats that is killing them now. Hence the bullet that hangs from the bird’s beak.

The ban on the use of lead shot by hunters was swiftly overturned by the incoming Trump administration.

The use of lead shot by hunters permitted to shoot the ground animals on which the Condor feeds poisons the predator. Efforts by the outgoing Obama administration to replace lead shot with copper bullets were intended as a practical way of reducing lead poisoning of wildlife and contamination to the natural environment while not impinging on the hunting rights demanded by the powerful American gun lobby. In any case, the ban on the use of lead shot by hunters was swiftly overturned by the incoming Trump administration.

Another symbolic touch is less directly political though equally impassioned. In Moir’s portrait of the Tarkin, the animal is shown standing atop a plastic ring seal as if it was balancing on a barrel in a circus. In addition to suggesting the natural agility of this member of the sheep family, Moir hints at the way other animals have been cruelly exploited down the ages to provide a crude form of entertainment for humans.

In describing her work, Moir is clear that her purpose is to educate as well as move the viewer. “Conservation of nature is the subject of our day. I believe that mobilising many voices and many interpretations in many different audiences is a way of keeping this most important topic alive and fighting.”

“Science can be a tricky entanglement of data. Art is a language the public understands. Public protests are the hard fight, art is a strategic soft fight. I had a long list of species and could easily repeat this exhibition concept – a sad fact, really.”

On a more upbeat note, Moir says she heard that one of the children who attended the launch of The Red List followed up on the experience in a meaningful way the next day at school. “I was absolutely thrilled to learn that the whole class, led by a wonderful teacher, spent the day learning and researching the extinct and endangered animals represented in my catalogue. That is exactly the outcome any artist and conservationist could hope for.”

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The Red List is showing at Metro Gallery in Melbourne until 18 November 2017

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