Arts & Entertainment

Arts & Animal Activism

Izzy the dog with MC Pony & Renée Jonas Photo: Amin Ghanimifard

By Rita Bratovich.

Art is an inherent and integral part of a community. It enriches it. It helps build solidarity by allowing people to contribute and express themselves. It facilitates communication and enhances celebration.

The animal rights movement began as a protest and has evolved into a sub-culture, enhanced by the creativity of its passionate and dedicated members. CEO of Animal Liberation, Lynda Stoner, joined the movement 40 years ago when she was a very popular actor. Initially drawn to the cause after seeing horrendous images of baby Harp seals being clubbed to death for their fur, Stoner took advantage of TV appearances and her celebrity profile to help bring attention to the issue.

“It’s about all I had to bring to the movement back then. There’s no way I would have been listened to without being in the public eye.”

Eventually, her devotion to animal rights displaced her acting career, but Stoner still finds herself surrounded by remarkably talented and creative people. Their work is a unique and significant contribution to the cause.

“People say ‘what can I as an individual do?’… each and every one of us has the ability to bring to the movement our particular skills and creativity,” Stoner explains.

She cites examples such as photographers Tamara Kenneally, who takes exquisitely intimate animal portraits and Jo-Anne McArthur whose photos are candid and confronting; and artist Jo Fredericks who paints bold and fiercely political artwork. Stoner also gave City Hub a number of other mainstream examples.

“When Babe first came out, so many people stopped eating pigs…Books like Watership Down get the message out on testing on animals.”

The medium doesn’t always have to be big and obvious, though.

“People get animal rights tattoos – that’s a form of creativity. Even things like cup cakes!…there’s thought and creativity that goes into cooking and restaurants.”

Art offers alternative entry points for people to join the movement, and there is no doubt the movement is gaining momentum. Stoner’s 40 years at the forefront of animal activism has been emotionally exhausting, but she has seen gains such as an end to cosmetic testing, circuses will no longer have animals, end of sow stalls and the end of battery caged hens.

Despite the progress we have made here in Australia sadly many developing countries are still lagging behind, especially when it comes to treatment of animals in zoos. The play Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo currently playing at the Old Fitz Theatre gives us a small glimpse into this very phenomenon. Often animals in captivity in developing countries will be seen slinking back and forth, a recognised sign of stress and boredom in animals.

One key focus for Animal Liberation is the heinous cruelty in the dairy industry, which will be addressed in the upcoming fundraising event, Dairy Truths And Music. Headlining the event is prominent vegan rapper Elizabeth Usher who performs as MC Pony and describes her work as “Mindful Rhymes for Kinder Times.” She will be releasing her new single, “Mother and Child”, which describes the genuine relationship between a cow and calf.

Usher has been vegan for 18 years – and in fact wrote a song, Happy Veganniversary, to commemorate the occasion. She started out writing activist poetry then turned her rhyming prowess to song lyrics, ultimately finding her niche in rap.

“In song and music you can almost disarm people… there are fewer barriers to engaging them, especially if you have a catchy chorus to draw them in,” Usher explains.

Hip-hop culture appeals because it is steeped in subversion, politics and social commentary, and, according to Usher, it is also “the biggest youth culture movement in the world.”

Writing and performing for animal rights makes her feel like she’s doing something effective with her talents and skills and creativity. She also believes diversity of message is important:

“The movement needs so many different approaches to it. You never know what is going to resonate with somebody. Maybe it’s accumulation – a steady drip of images, information, appeals and emotional connection then all of a sudden, one day, they flick the switch.”

Not all her music is confronting; some is celebratory, such as the aforementioned anniversary song and Vegan For Life which is upbeat. But the evocative songs get a more visceral reaction. After releasing Born To Die, a song about the broiler chicken industry, Usher says:

“I had people who are not at all vegetarians say to me ‘oh I had no idea, I’m going to have to rethink my choices now!’”

The young teens literary market is crowded with books featuring adolescent characters who experience all the typical pangs and angst of growing up, but there aren’t many whose main protagonist is a feisty 13 year old vegan. Amanda The Teen Activist is a work of fiction aimed at eight to 12 year olds, from the pen of Catherine Kelaher, head of NSW Hen Rescue.

While not auto-biographical, the story is informed by Kelaher’s personal experience. She became vegetarian at age eight, then an activist and vegan at 21. Her mum was supportive, her dad was sceptical but not quite as averse as Amanda’s dad in the story.

Kelaher wanted to write for children because she believes they have “such potential” and especially because she wanted to show that there was an option and a way for them to be vegan, without it being confronting.

“It’s so much to take in and it’s overwhelming and horrible, so maybe an artwork or a piece of writing is a great way to be introduced to it, especially with this story and other works where you get a feeling of empowerment, you feel one person might be able to make a difference.”

Kelaher agrees that art as activism is more subtle and gradual, but no less effective than other ways of delivering the message. There is an adage used in animal rescue ‘Saving one animal may not change the world but it will change the world for that one animal’ and she believes this can be equally true about art.

Dairy Truths And Music

April 22, 6-10:30pm. Giant Dwarf, 199 Cleveland St, Redfern. $10-25. Tickets & Info:

Elizabeth Usher

Catherine Kelaher

Animal Liberation

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