The magnificent volume “Affentheater” by Anita Albus – Munich

This monkey seems to have a glorious life. The Guereza spends more than half of the day dormant. Since he previously consumed large quantities of unripe fruit and leaves, which “creates tormenting gases in the digestive tract”, he “gets relief by burping and farting” during his breaks, but the monkeys in the forest don’t mind that. In addition to resting and eating, they “devote themselves to general grooming, practice flying through the treetops, play or let the sun burn on their fur”. The day goes by like this until the animals rush into their sleeping trees at sunset. Enviable?

If you pick up the magnificent volume “Affentheater” by Anita Albus, you will get to know more than one monkey. The Munich painter and writer describes 41 species in separate chapters with many footnotes, the guereza such as the blue-mouthed monkey, the proboscis monkey and the brown saddleback tamarin, the marmoset and the hulock, the bonobo and the mountain gorilla. A number of historical illustrations show the monkeys with faces that are often humanized and appear funny to today’s viewers. Anita Albus has also added two fine pictures of her own, of the guereza and the red howler monkey, and one can assume that these two species are particularly dear to her heart.

The red howler monkey, “an incontinent animal that excretes much, frequently and at every opportunity”: This is how Claude Lévi-Strauss described this species of monkey. Anita Albus quotes the ethnologist and makes up her own mind.

(Photo: Anita Albus, “Monkey Theater”, S. Fischer Verlag)

The work of the artist and author, who turned 80 this fall, has long been known to lovers of elaborate, detailed nature and animal paintings and intelligent essays. Albus painted and wrote about flowers, birds and owls, among other things, and her volume “Sonnenfalter und Mondmotten” about butterflies was particularly successful. Whoever reads the texts accompanying the illustrations will repeatedly come across names such as the universal scholar Alexander von Humboldt, the natural scientist Carl von Linné or the ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Like them, Albus has an interest in studying – and meticulously depicting – nature. This interest in knowledge, which turns her books into a school of seeing and understanding for the reader, may seem outdated. But that speaks, so it is to be feared, rather against our time.

Because when Anita Albus describes the individual species of monkeys, sometimes playfully, sometimes primly, descriptions of the appearance and character of the animals, historical attributions or anecdotes are always in the foreground. But that should not hide the fact that this fine work is ultimately highly political: Anita Albus wants to capture what is threatened with disappearance. In none of the texts is a reference to the extent to which the animals are endangered missing at the end.

The quiet-loving guerezas, for example: their persecution on a grand scale began in Africa as early as the 19th century, because the silky skins came into fashion in Europe “as costly trimmings for costumes and coats or as wall hangings”, as Albus writes: “At the height of the According to demand, an estimated one to two million guerezas were slaughtered.” When the trend for fur finally ended, the monkeys were almost extinct. They are now considered “less threatened”. In return, their habitats are becoming fewer, mainly due to deforestation of the forests in which they live. Only in protected areas, such as on Kilimanjaro, do the guerezas still hang around peacefully in giant trees, “whose branches, padded with moss and beard lichen, serve as cushions for them to rest.”

For the people, however, for the readers, this volume should not be a soft pillow or just an exquisite coffee table ornament. But one more drive to appreciate the beauty and diversity around us – and to protect it.

Anita Albus: Monkey Theater. S. Fischer, Frankfurt 2022, 224 pages, 48 ​​euros

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