Depictions of dogs in art and literature and what this tells us about being human – Fellows’ seminar by Henrietta Mondry

15 October 2018

“Human/animal hierarchies become prominent in times of revolutionary upheaval and social transformation,” said Henrietta Mondry of the Departments of English and of Global, Cultural and Language Studies at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. “The lives of domesticated animals are affected by cataclysmic events alongside humans. Writers and artists therefore often thematise and problematise the correlation between humans and companion animals in societies undergoing major change.” Mondry was presenting a seminar on her study which looks at the representation of dogs specifically and human-dog correlations in post-Apartheid and post-Soviet literature and culture.

Mondry - 1
STIAS fellow Henrietta Mondry during her seminar presentation on 27 September 2018

“The dismantling of Apartheid and the disintegration of the Soviet Union were two major processes that took place simultaneously. Advancing a human-animal studies paradigm, I analyse novels, performance art and visual artefacts as responses to the fate of dogs in societies shaken by sociopolitical change. The representations employ human-dog correlations to address the question of the dog’s politicised, co-evolutionary and ontological status vis-à-vis humans, a question partly triggered by the necessity to rethink what it means to be human in societies in transition.”

Mondry’s project specifically looks at changing attitudes to police and security dogs, and the growing tolerance and acceptance of dogs as companion species across classes and ethnicities.

“I aim to analyse representations of these changing attitudes to dogs and to dog ownership as indications of a growing tolerance and democratisation in societies overcoming political tensions and cultural prejudices of past eras, highlighting the correlation between political changes and changes in body politics at the intersections of class, ‘race’, disability, sexuality and gender.”

“Dogs are used in art and literature to depict the intersections between speciesism, sexism, racism and breedism,” she added.

Mondry pointed out that as a species dogs embody paradox. “They challenge the boundaries of species because they are interbred and adaptable. Humans don’t evolve in a vacuum, dogs co-evolved with humans. They are entangled at the microbial and biological levels. We have to ask if there are evolutionary lessons we can learn from dogs – for example, are cooperation and co-dependency better evolutionary models?”

Mondry highlighted the very visual depiction of the collapse of the Soviet Union manifest in a huge increase in stray dogs in the Moscow streets and metro system in the early 1990s.

“This was initially seen as scandalous, as causing havoc, but later they were studied as a smart, communicating pack creating a new ecological niche in the metropolis.”

This phenomenon was depicted by Oleg Kulik – a leading artist of post-Soviet Russia who performed as a dog in street theatre across Europe and established the Political Animal Party. “Kulik used the animals as an allegory for the fate of humans after political collapse.”

When a Russian dog breeder killed one of the strays this event was immortalised in a monument in the metro.

“Similarly, the return of Russian nationalism from 2008 onwards was also depicted by a monument to Laika – the first animal in space,” added Mondry. “In other words – art serving the state.”

Dogs as symbols of power and oppression

South Africa’s relationship to dogs has been a complex one linked to racial hierarchies and notions of racial purity. Class differentials in response to dogs as pets have been complicated by South Africa’s racial history with dog ownership linked to political and capitalist power. Certain breeds, like those used for police and guard dogs, have become enmeshed in political activities and subsequently vilified while companion breeds have been seen as treated better than some humans. And stray dogs, especially those in townships, have been seen as “an allegory of social poverty – being excluded, marginalised, homeless,” said Mondry. “A black man’s life seen as less valuable than a dog’s.” (Ironically Mondry pointed out that up to 75% of dogs globally are village dogs.)

In periods of revolution hatred against the ruling classes has meant that their dogs have been seen as enemies of the people. “Dogs of the aristocracy were killed in the French and Russian revolutions, and police dogs were attacked and killed as far back as the 1976 Soweto Uprising in South Africa.”

She highlighted the boom in South African literature which followed the advent of democracy and some of the literature which will form part of her project. Novels like J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf – which both used dogs to provide a critical look at hierarchies, notions of racial purity, humanism and exceptionalism.

Disgrace depicted how white South Africans treat dogs better than non-white humans. A group of black men kill the dogs – all European breeds, all thoroughbreds, all guard/killer breeds. This caused political debate in the media when the book was released.”

“Also, by the end of the novel the protagonist, David Lurie, again controversially, depicts his remorse, redemption and spiritual rebirth by ensuring that euthenised stray dogs are ‘respectfully’ led to the next world.”

“In Triomf Marlene van Niekerk uses dogs to examine displacement in post-apartheid society – an adopted puppy paradoxically allegorises the transfer of ownership from non-white inhabitants to a poor Afrikaner family.”

“More recently in Wolf Wolf by Eben Venter published in 2013, Venter uses a dog/wolf image to challenge Afrikaner machismo, and break taboos on pornography and homosexuality, territorialism, domesticity and the colonial notion of guarding the borders.”

There has also been a revival in the status of the township dog – the Afrikanis – now no longer a downtrodden stray but “seen as Dog of Africa, of the African Renaissance”. Mondry also pointed to more positive depictions of previously hated purebred dogs like the Ridgeback.

In discussion, Mondry highlighted the rise of cultural studies as well as the post-humanist paradigm, animal activism and the celebrity culture of animal rescuing all as strong influencers on the changing depictions of dogs.

“Saving dogs is a projection of saving humans,” she said.

“There is no doubt that we benefit from our contact with dogs,” she added. “We learn huge amounts about empathy, compassion, care.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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