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Making It

A Life Devoted to Art and Africa's Vanishing Wilds

Since 1955, Peter Beard has explored and documented the continent's wilderness in hopes of helping save it.

February 04, 2001|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For nearly 40 years, Peter Beard has chronicled man's harmful effect on Africa. He's been accused of being monomaniacal and a foe of conservation. But Beard is a man devoted to a cause.

Through diaries, collages and photographs, he documents what he describes as "mismanagement of a diminishing environment."

"Human beings are the most dangerous animals," Beard said. "They've gotten so far from nature that they've lost their common sense. I have a fascination with modern man's lack of perspective. We have become enemies of nature."

He knows it's a subject people don't like to discuss. Yet the issue obsesses him.

As a 17-year-old Yale student in 1955, Beard first traveled to Kenya, accompanied by Quentin Keynes, grandson of Charles Darwin. His goal was to explore the continent's wilderness and study its wildlife.

He sought adventure and an escape from what awaited him in New York: a Madison Avenue career and an upper-class life. He came from a prominent family: His great-grandfather J.J. Hill founded the Great Northern Railroad. But he felt an affinity with Africa.

"I desperately wanted that wildlife experience," he wrote in his journal in 1955.

Beard hoped to win a meeting with reclusive author Karen Blixen, who in 1937 wrote "Out of Africa" under the pen name Isak Dinesen. In her writings she had warned that the continent's future was grim.

Aware that Blixen refused most visitors, Beard was persistent. Eventually, Blixen invited him to her farm, named Mbogani, Swahili for "house in the woods." They talked about Kenya's history and future.

Even in the late 1950s, Kenya's mounting population was stressing the ecosystem. Blixen urged Beard, then an eager young photographer, to continue to visually chronicle the African world.

"It was her perfect sympathy that enabled me to do so," he would write years later in an introduction to his monumental work "The End of the Game: The Last Word From Paradise" (Chronicle Books, 2000), a collection of writings, photographs and illustrations of Kenya first published in 1988.

Shortly before her death in 1962, Blixen wrote to Beard, saying they shared hope and concern for the "old Africa." She added, almost as an edict, "I feel that it is time for a younger generation to take up the cause."

Beard did.

Through the early 1960s, he familiarized himself with the country by living in the bush, tracking herds and, with the permission of park administrators, roaming protected savannas and forests.

He participated in scientific studies of herds and helped wildlife experts document and cull elephant populations. He conducted a crocodile survey, discovering that the species' population was rapidly declining because of fishing practices.

And he purchased a 45-acre spread he named Hog Ranch, overlooking Blixen's former coffee farm below the Ngong Hills, near Nairobi, where he could live and work.

Beard was rapidly immersing himself in Kenya. Like Blixen, he strove to develop an intimate familiarity with the land he loved.

But Kenya's metamorphosis over the years infuriated and frustrated him.

In the early 1960s, nightfall brought giraffe, waterbuck and leopard to Hog Ranch. By the 1990s, fewer of the animals were appearing; evenings in the Ngong Hills were punctuated by thumping disco music from a nearby nightclub and choruses of barking dogs.

When Beard traveled to remote villages, Kenyan tribesmen greeted him in polyester pants and T-shirts. Wakamba, Waliangula and Giriama bushmen, who had hunted for centuries on the land, were being rounded up and imprisoned as poachers.

Rather than write essays about his experiences, Beard became a documentarian of sorts, photographing, recording in diaries and assembling collages about Kenya.

His topics included "overpopulation, starvation, stress, territorial neuroses and the unavoidable decline of behavior."

"I did it as an overwhelmed outsider," he said. "I didn't do it as a message, because I'd given up hope. How do you reach the Park-Avenue-spoiled Pekingese lovers and poodle huggers? Population dynamics is not sexy. You can't raise money for it. My books are describing a world that rejects conservation."

Artistically, Beard took inspiration from other mavericks he admired: Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon and Robert Rauschenberg. His collages were spontaneous assemblages of found objects and photographs that, for him, captured a passing moment or feeling. His materials included fish skeletons, snakeskins, newspaper clippings, wildlife photos, moths, flies, wax drippings and blood.

"He is relentless," said Peter Tunney, owner of the Time Is Always Now, a SoHo gallery where Beard's work is always on display. "Every day he puts monumental effort into his projects. That's what I admire about him. He wears everybody out."

Beard hoped his work would have an effect on those who viewed it. But he found himself having to explain his collages again and again, which was frustrating for him.

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