Parrots play key role in new art exhibit at Miami’s Perez Art Museum

Talking parrots feature prominently in a provocative art exhibit opening this week at Miami’s Perez Art Museum, according a recent article at ArtNetNews. The parrots — two African Greys and two double yellow-headed Amazons, were trained by Rotterdam-based artists Liesbeth Bik and Jos Van der Pol to recite T.S. Elliot’s “The Wasteland” from perches housed within an aviary ” furnished with a jumble of sculptural letters that spell out the terms “global warming,” “climate change,” and “sustainability.””

Edouard Manet’s “Woman with Parrot,” 1866

Parrots have often been subjects for significant art, including Edouard Manet’s “Woman With Parrot,” 1866 (AKA “Young Lady 1866”), part of the Metropolitan Museum’s permanent collection. In commentary on the painting, art historian Mona Hadler discusses the respect accorded to parrots — especially fluent speakers such as the African Grey — throughout Western history: “In the time of Augustus Caesar parrots were taught to chant together “Ave Caesar.” In the Middle Ages this became associated with “Ave Maria,” and ultimately the parrot became a symbol of the perpetual virginity of the Virgin.”

In the seventeenth century, parrots often found their way into Dutch and Flemish masterworks. “During the nineteenth century,” Hadler writes, “parrots were esteemed for their intelligence and anthropomorphic qualities. In France they were common pets, prized above all, according to the Larousse –-a basic source on nineteenth century customs and ideas-for their ability to imitate the human voice.” “Some believed so strongly in the mental facility of parrots,” she continues, “that they consulted parrots on their affairs, even having them select lottery numbers.”

In the new exhibition in Miami, entitled Speechless, the quartet of speaking parrots will have a prominent and deliberately provocative role. According to the exhibit notes, “the work was inspired, in part, by recent debate in Floriday’s state government regarding the use of controversial terms such as “climate change” and “global warming.” “Historically,” the artists write, “the human capacity for verbal language has been used as a point of separation between animals and ourselves. This separation has in turn helped to accelerate our exploitation of the natural world. By incorporating animals that literally speak back to us, the artists envision a situation in which language serves to unite, rather than to divide, humans from animals, with hopes that this reunification may help us address the urgent ecological crises that we face today.”

For those concerned with the parrots’ well-being throughout the six-month duration of the exhibit, an FAQ notes that “the museum has enlisted one of the nation’s top avian veterinarians to manage the care of the parrots throughout the exhibition’s run. The veterinarian will visit the birds weekly, and has trained a team of caretakers specifically for the exhibition to feed and interact with the birds and to clean their aviary every evening. Between the caretaker’s visits, specially trained museum staff and volunteers continuously monitor the parrots. “