The Homo Bonobo Project

The Homo Bonobo Project is a multi-media performance and documentary project which examines humans and our closest relatives, the Bonobo ape. The interdisciplinary work blends biology, philosophy, psychology, anthropology and comedy to examine human sexuality as animal behavior and to explore the ways civilization controls how we feel. 

Background

In 2006, I worked the door at the Black Party — an underground gay leather circuit party that has taken place for the past 25 years on the Vernal Equinox. Over 5,000 gay men (and a handful of women and transgender people) come together as a queer tribe to bond, dance, experience altered states of consciousness and have uninhibited sex.

Later that same week, I had dinner with a friend and told her that my most lingering impression from the party was the remarkable number of men who were together in one room for hours without any incidents of violence. If the room had been full of lesbians or straight guys, drunken violence would have surely ensued, I commented. She replied, “They sound like the Bonobos.”

The Bonobos are Great Apes, along with Chimpanzees, Gorillas, and Orangutans. They are the most endangered Great Ape, numbering fewer than 6,000 by some estimates, and are among the least studied. Female-centered and egalitarian, Bonobo groups substitute aggression with sex. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination: male-male, male-female, female-female, male-juvenile, female-juvenile, and so on. As the primatologist Frans de Waal has observed, they are the “make love not war apes.”

I became fascinated by the contrast between Bonobo behavior and human civilization. To me, it highlights how conflicts over the meaning of human sexual desire results in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persecution. Religion, cultural mores and reproduction are all deployed to characterize LGBT sexuality as non-normative and immoral. In apes, sexuality is unrestrained by a culture (although, as I discovered, certain taboos still remain).

With a grant from the Arcus Foundation, I traveled to the Lola Ya Bonobo Preserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and eventually journeyed deep into the jungle to observe these apes in their natural habitat. Returning to human civilization, I compared their interaction to various representations of sexuality in humans, including those of gay men at the Black Party in New York City. Creating the persona Dr. Ghislaine Pussait, I devised a TED talk-like lecture complete with slides and video, that explored sexuality and its centrality to both ape and human existence. Among my observations I drew parallels between recent efforts to conserve the endangered Bonobo population and the ongoing struggle against persecution of the LGBTQ community. 

 

 Shelly as "Dr. Pussait" at the San Diego Zoo - Video Still, 2007

Shelly as "Dr. Pussait" at the San Diego Zoo - Video Still, 2007

 Shelly living amongst the bonobos at Lola Ya Bonobo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2008

Shelly living amongst the bonobos at Lola Ya Bonobo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2008

  The Homo Bonobo Project  — Performa, NYC. 2009

The Homo Bonobo Project — Performa, NYC. 2009

 Shelly performs with actors wearing prosthetic bonobo genitalia at The Black Party, NYC, 2008

Shelly performs with actors wearing prosthetic bonobo genitalia at The Black Party, NYC, 2008

 Female bonobo in full estrus cycle, Lola Ya Bonobo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2008

Female bonobo in full estrus cycle, Lola Ya Bonobo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2008

 The dance floor at The Black Party, NYC, 2008

The dance floor at The Black Party, NYC, 2008