Artist Vita Sleigh explores how animal rights advocacy is inseparable from other social justice issues
I was lucky enough to be raised vegan. I always had a strong connection and empathy for animals, and my veganism was very special and important to me.
As I got older, I found that my views on non-human rights fitted into a wider set of politics and beliefs about how I think society should be — that ‘might does not make right’, and that vulnerable individuals should be protected not exploited. It led to an interest in reading more widely about social justice issues such as feminism, and understanding how non-human rights advocacy fits into these theories.
I have always drawn, and growing up it often focused around my anger at how animals were treated. I did an art foundation course where I discovered illustration for the first time, and fell in love with how words and image become intertwined and complementary to one another.
I went on to study illustration at Falmouth University. I hope to express a deep empathy through my art. Rather than drawing the most horrific scenes of abuse, I draw an individual — someone who the viewer might be able to relate to.
I aim to express the emotion or the feeling an individual might be experiencing. For example, for the illustration Nonhuman Consent, I explore how we can extend feminist ideas of consent to non-humans and what this would look like. I imagined what it would be like to be a dog who is subjected to unwanted stroking or touching by people they don’t know. Irritation? Discomfort? Fear? Violation, even?
My book Hazel is about a little girl who feels great empathy for animals, and can feel their pain as her own. One night, she sets out to free animals from places they are being hurt, and manages to save a chicken from a farm, a fox from a hunt, and some fish from a trawler net. The story aims to empower children and show them that they can make a difference to causes they care about.
At the end of the story, she returns home with a heavy heart, thinking only of those she had to leave behind in terrible places. However, she comes to the realisation that ‘kindness is more powerful than cruelty could ever be’. and her actions will inspire others to be more compassionate.
It’s easy at times, to feel the weight of all the cruelty to animals on our shoulders; being kind to ourselves at these times helps us to be better advocates. When I had the idea to write it, I had just finished writing my dissertation project about how other animals are portrayed in children’s books about farms.
The farm environment lacks any truthful representation of the violence and injustice which happens there, and is romanticised as a benign, and even a happy place. I wanted to challenge this and re-frame farmed animals as individuals who deserve autonomy and freedom.
I tend to draw foxes a lot — they’re such a lovely colour and shape to illustrate. Of course, they’re also violently persecuted by hunts, so I aim to show them as the beautiful animals they are. It’s also inspired by my favourite book, Gone To Earth by Mary Webb, in which the main character, who is strongly opposed to hunting, has a rescued companion fox named Foxy as a best friend. I am certain that Mary Webb would be vegan if she were alive today.
I aim to advocate veganism through my illustration in a subtle and positive way. I feel that the graphic Art images about the realities of animal agriculture and other animal abuse industries are out there for people to see, and I don’t need to recreate them.
My hope is that people who might not be ready to bring themselves to look at those images, might look at my illustrations and the descriptions that go with them, and be moved to find out more.
I enjoy working with textures and delicate lines, and I also like playing with the symbolism of colour. For example, exploring what can be conveyed by mixing subtle, pale colours with really deep, rich ones — a splash of deep red could suggest violence, for instance.
I have come to realise that I like my work best when it’s gestural and has plenty of movement in it, so I try to avoid over-working pieces with the aim of keeping the playfulness and energy.
I am really inspired by the writing of Carol Adams, Brian Luke, Sunaura Taylor, Aph and Syl Ko and others who explore the ways that animal rights advocacy is inseparable from other social justice issues such as feminism, disability rights and anti-racism. This informs my animal rights work, both artistically and in my other activism.
I’m also deeply inspired by nature and by stories. And, of course, the amazing Sue Coe has been a massive inspiration. I really respect the serenity and beauty of cows. I sometimes feel they are the most exploited animal — after all I don’t know if there’s anything we don’t take from them: their flesh, their skin, their children and their milk.
Knowing this, and knowing what I do about the inevitable looming fate of any cow I meet, I can’t help but look into their lovely big eyes and wonder what they’re thinking of, and often, silently apologise for what my species does to theirs.
I might be biased, but I do think that art holds great potential for getting to people’s hearts on the issue of non-human rights. Facts and statistics work for some people to move towards veganism; art for others. For this reason I admire the work of the international art collective Art of Compassion, and I am very pleased to be a member.
As for my hopes as a vegan, of course I hope that the recent surge in new vegans continues to grow, and that soon this will be reflected in major advances for non-human rights. But I also hope that veganism stays true to its roots of compassion, by ensuring that vegan spaces are accessible and inclusive of everyone. A narrow focus on one issue can inadvertently harm other groups’ road to justice.
It is my opinion that taking an approach to animal advocacy, which is actively inclusive of women and non-binary people, people of colour and disabled people, will not only benefit those groups, but animals too. I recommend the books I mentioned above as well as checking out Food Empowerment Project’s work and the thought-provoking content on Vegan Feminist Network.
All images by Vita Sleigh