Vic Guhrs’ career spans over four decades, much of it spent in the Zambian bush. He has exhibited widely and early on made his reputation as one of Africa’s premier painters of wildlife. He attributes this early success to the collectors of animal art responding to the authenticity of his work, and his insight that went far beyond the accepted format of wildlife art. Numerous awards followed, and his many commissions included a Black Rhino painting for HRH Prince Philip, at the time head of the World Wildlife Fund.
He has since moved on from his life in the bush but twenty years in a remote safari camp, surrounded by wild animals, in close contact with the local communities, have left an indelible mark on his sensibilities as a painter and writer. ‘If you live among wild animals, you can’t help being made aware of an ancient connection between us.
In our long history on this planet our paths converged in more ways than we care to admit. The biological kinship is obvious: they are made of the same cellular structures, with blood and bones and brains, and they breathe the same air and eat the same food. But there’s a spiritual connection, too; a common soul that binds us together on a profound and fundamental level; the animal spirit still lives in all of us.’
His art – both painting and writing – reflects the insight Guhrs has gained into the mysteries of this hidden bond. Not content to portray the superficial appearance of wild animals, he tries to shed light on those elusive moments, both in nature and in our dreams, where the barriers that separate us are dissolved.
His experiences are chronicled in his first book, ‘The Trouble with Africa – Stories from a safari camp’. A second book, ‘WILD LIFE – People and Animals of the Luangwa Valley’ is a collaboration with photographer Francois d’Elbee and returns to the same locale and the same theme – examining the mysteries of wilderness and the ancient connection between animals and man.
Since leaving the camp, Guhrs divides his time between his small farm outside Lusaka and a cottage near the beach in Cape Town. His art has evolved to include a wider range of subjects – mostly landscapes and the human figure – although animals are still a recurring theme in his paintings. ‘During my time in the bush my landscape was populated by wild animals, so that’s what I painted. But more than providing an inexhaustible supply of subjects, this proximity to nature has taught me some important lessons that have stayed with me. Lessons about what matters, about separating the real from the superficial, about the one-dimensional, spiritually impoverished path we are treading at the behest of our capitalist masters.
When Picasso, Modigliani and some of the other modernists discovered the beauty of African sculpture and carving, they saw (and absorbed) more than an alien visual tradition: inherent in this strange work was the African belief that humankind cannot be separated from the natural world, that we are one with the world of animals, the realm of our ancestors and the natural forces which threaten us at the same time as they delight and edify.
Western thought has alienated us from nature. We are convinced of our uniqueness, our God-given right to subjugate and control the natural world and all its inhabitants. We have plundered the animal kingdom with impunity; we have confined, destroyed, eradicated; and those few still left in their shrinking environment are subjected to the patronizing attentions of misguided documentary makers who feed a network of sensationalist TV channels with the notion that animals are either cute and cuddly or life-threateningly dangerous, to be in turn feared, patronized or ridiculed – or admired with misplaced and condescending sentimentality. This ‘reality’, he says, is as far from the truth as a hamburger from a free-running wildebeest.
‘When I paint an eagle, a lion, an old man’s portrait, a tree, or the nude figure of a woman, I am acutely aware of the inclusiveness of all life on our planet. I try and imbue each brushstroke with the knowledge that everything is connected, and that to pull at one corner of the web is to eventually unravel the whole thing.’