Dear Readers, I hope that this week you will forgive me for venturing many miles from East Finchley, into the forests of Cameroon and South Africa. My artist friend Robin Huffman is staying with me for a few days and I want you to meet her .Our relationship started with a photograph of a sleeping talapoin monkey called Yoda.
I saw it on a site called, of all things, Cute Overload. Of course, I didn’t know anything about Robin then, but I was impressed by the way that, when the comments stream filled up with people gushing that they ‘wanted a monkey’, the photographer commented that this monkey was from a sanctuary, and that monkeys should never be kept as pets.
My husband looked at the photo too, and clicked through to find out some more details.
‘You know’, he said, ‘the sanctuary where this photo was taken is asking for volunteers’.
Two years later, I was bumping over the dusty red roads of Cameroon on my way to the Mefou Primate Sanctuary. It is home to orphaned gorillas, chimpanzees and monkeys. Most of them are refugees from the bushmeat trade – the adults are killed for meat, and the babies suffer a miserable fate as ‘pets’. I was to spend most of the next month looking after young chimps (which basically involved being a climbing frame, sweeping and mopping floors, sorting out food and playing pat-a-cake).
There was a constant war of attrition with the soldier ants, who were dangerous to caged animals because they will eat anything in their path. In the film below, the soldier ants are moving their larvae and eggs to the next place where they will form a nest. The column is defended by the ‘soldiers’, who have heads the size of blueberries and strong, sharp jaws. Many days saw me getting too close to an ant column and having to run through the compound ripping off clothes as the ants headed up a trouser leg.
And one day I rescued this extraordinary giant stick insect from the curious young chimps who would have torn her to pieces out of pure curiosity.
But what was most surprising was that my room mate in our cozy Nissen hut turned out to be Robin, who had taken the picture of the talapoin monkey that had brought me to Cameroon in the first place. She had discovered her calling here in the rainforest of Cameroon after 29 years working for Gensler, one of the most prestigious design consultancies in New York. Robin had thrown up the schmoozing and the Manhattan condominium in order to volunteer at various wildlife sanctuaries, where her passion was looking after orphaned baby monkeys. The job could sometimes be heartbreaking, but this didn’t dent Robin’s commitment to these vulnerable, fragile creatures. And latterly, she’d discovered that not only could she rear these animals, she could also paint them.
Robin started off by painting signs for the sanctuaries that she volunteered at, often working on hardboard and using house and roofing paint. Then one day, one of the sanctuary staff asked if she could ‘paint a monkey’. The rest is history.
Nowadays, she uses acrylic paints, which dry quickly and are non-toxic. Robin has no permanent home base, so she has to be able to work quickly wherever she is in the world. Her aim is to present the creatures that she loves, and their stories, to people who might not otherwise have thought about the issues of deforestation and bushmeat, animal research and the pet trade. She is a witness to the suffering and the spirit of these animals, and an advocate for them. When you look into the eyes of these monkeys, it’s impossible not to see them as individuals, with personalities and desires and fears. Her paintings stake a claim for their place in the world, and speak up for those who cannot be heard above the whine of chainsaws and the jingling of money.
Recently, Robin had a solo exhibition at the prestigious Explorers’ Club in New York, the first exhibition of paintings ever held by the organisation.
Robin with her painting of Keksie the vervet monkey at the Explorers’ Club exhibition. https://www.ecowatch.com/explorers-club-primate-paintings-2403325036.html Cassie Kelly
And for the next few weeks, one of Robin’s portraits is part of the Wildlife Treasures exhibition at the Nature in Art Gallery and Museum. The gallery is based in Wallsworth Hall, a magnificent stately home in Twigworth, Gloucestershire, and Robin will be giving a talk about her work with primates on Saturday and Sunday this week (29th and 30th July). The exhibition itself runs until 3rd September, but if you are unable to visit, you might like to see some more of Robin’s work on her website here.
Robin normally paints her monkeys from life: she knows each one, and her love for them as individuals shines through her work. But there is one exception. Here is what she says about ‘Witness’.
‘I saw the photograph of this monkey on the Internet. It is the newest species of monkey identified in Africa. It was recorded in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by the bushmeat-fighting TL2 Project, headed up by Drs. Terese and John Hart. This monkey, in the photograph, had a heavy chain around its neck and was being held prisoner as a village pet. It may have eventually ended up in someone’s stew pot. It wore its fate in its eyes.’
Every time one of these small souls dies, it is as if, somewhere, a star blinks out. But there are many people working to preserve the light. Robin is one of a growing army of warriors whose weapons are paintbrushes, and cameras and the written word. They are fighting for nothing less than the right of others to live their lives unmolested on this small blue planet.
Can a painting change the world? Let’s hope so.
For details of how to volunteer at or donate to Ape Action Africa, click here
For details of the Vervet Monkey Foundation, click here
You can see some more of Robin’s artwork here