05 August 2010

How whales can change the world – getting to know Noel Ashton

Ingrid Sinclair
Noel signing the Journeys log book

Next Thursday, August 12, renowned sculptor, painter, writer, speaker, conservationist and whale specialist, Noel Ashton, will conduct the first public presentation of his thought-provoking and moving Journeys in Search of the Whale – Rethinking our Place in a Changing World, a 55-minute audio-visual presentation that takes viewers “out of their bodies and into the experience”, according to the Two Oceans Aquarium Communications and Sustainability Manager Helen Lockhart.

By combining art, science and philosophy, Journeys sets out to explore what it means to be connected to nature, how that informs our connection to each other and indeed how a breakdown of that connection relates not only to a suffering and always-threatened natural environment, but also to anxieties and insecurities that we might experience in our everyday lives.

Noel has a well-established relationship with the Aquarium. His Sacred Oceans: The Great Whaling Debate exhibit is an innovative anti-whaling campaign created by Noel and Belinda Ashton in partnership with the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Two Oceans Aquarium. The exhibit was launched in November 2008 by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.

At its core, Journeys is one man’s quest to try to understand our complex relationship with the world around us. It began with a life-long search for the whale, but Noel picked up on a dichotomy between the brutality of whaling (and other ways that humanity exerts its power over nature) versus the public’s emotional response to a tragic whale stranding event in Kommetjie last year. There was a “fundamental shift” in the way Noel viewed his work and mission.

Says Noel: “My aim is to speak to people about our actions and the implications these have for the planet; it just so happens that the whale is a wonderful way to talk about it.”

Belinda and Noel Ashton present Archbishop Emeritus Tutu with a whale sculpture

“The stranding last year in Kommetjie affected a lot of people,” he continues. “People were traumatised and 55 whales died. I ask the question: can any good have come out of that stranding? If the answer is yes, then the sadness can translate into purpose.”

Speaking about his approach, Noel points out that he is in a unique position to speak about conservation issues and the larger emotional mechanisms at work in humanity. Combining art and science with light philosophy means he has “a great tool, not only to talk about whales, but about the world.”

He continues: “Many of our environmental and social issues come from a disconnection from the Earth … I hope to start a dialogue around our reconnection to the Earth.”

Noel’s favourite whale species is the humpback whale. “As a sculptor, they interest me the most,” he says. “They are incredibly graceful.”

Noel lives in Glencairn on the Cape Peninsula but calls Hermanus “a bit of a second home”, and often takes groups there for whale-watching trips – including trips by the Aquarium’s Solemates.

He’s even a bit of a Hollywood bigwig, and is often called on to consult for the film industry. Most recently he worked on the creation and characterisation of the new killer whale for Free Willy 4, which was shot entirely in South Africa. It’s out now on DVD if you want to see what Noel’s work can produce. 

Noel and his wife, Belinda, were instrumental in getting together the well-known IFAW Whale Walk along the seafront in Hermanus, the Benguela Dolphin Project on the west coast, and the acclaimed Whale Show, shown daily in Hermanus.

Noel working along the coast

Belinda works closely with Noel on all his projects and she is equally passionate about the environment. She runs The Nature Connection, an environmental awareness initiative that “works to inspire a more caring and integrated connection with the living earth.” She, too, is working on humans’ connection to nature.

Journeys is taking place on 12 August at 18h30 for 19h00 in the Metropolitan Health Group & Qualsa Think Tank Auditorium and entry costs R85 per person. The presentation lasts for about an hour and Noel will be available for a Q&A session afterwards. Light snacks and a cash bar will be available after the presentation. While this specific presentation is aimed at adults, Noel says it’s also suitable for mature teenagers.

See also:

Noel Ashton’s website
Rethinking our place in a changing world

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