A collaboration brings colour to Auckland Zoo’s conservation fund, writes Sarah Ell

Not everyone can see the beauty in a dead rat, but that was the catalyst for a new artistic collaboration and exhibition by musician and photographer Shelton Woolright.

Lonesome Beast Native presented by Moa Brewing Co, on display at the Old Elephant House at Auckland Zoo until February 26, combines Woolright's striking images of rare and extinct native birds from the collections of the Auckland Museum with the talents of well-known visual artists Otis Frizzell and Flox, tattooist Dean Sacred and street artist Askew One.

The show is an extension of the 2014 Lonesome Beast collaboration between Woolright and Sacred, whose artistic talents have also been visible on Woolright's skin for the past decade.

"During tattoo sessions, Dean and I had been talking about art and how we'd like to do something together but had no idea what," says Woolright. "Then I was at a friend's house doing a photo shoot and found a dead rat in the yard. I photographed it in its rigor mortis state and it reminded me of taxidermy. I showed Dean and he went 'dang, that's it'."


Woolright was based in London at the time, and on his return there was able to photograph some historic taxidermy at a museum. He sent the images to Sacred, who added bright, stylised graphics to create unique art pieces.

The 2014 Lonesome Beast exhibition in Auckland was well received, then last year Woolright had another fortuitous meeting: this time with a friend who was working at the Auckland Museum.

"He told me he could get me access to the natural history vault, so I went in for a look and it absolutely blew my mind," Woolright says. "They have an incredible archive of not just native birds but all sorts of creatures."

The resulting images, shot in rich colour on stark white backgrounds, have a detailed intensity. Included in the exhibition are images of a rare albino kiwi, the extinct huia and South Island kokako, and more well-known birds like the tui, portrayed in a new light. Woolright especially enjoyed getting up close to the historic moa skeleton, "standing there photographing it, just a few feet away from it."

Each guest artist has then brought their own signature to the works, giving them a pop culture edge.

After discussions with Sacred, the pair decided to extend the invitation to customise the works to the other artists, favourites of Woolright. "I just told them to pick three or four photos and do what they want - I said 'I'm not going to tell you what to do, it's your interpretation, do what you feel'. And what came back was pretty damn cool - they're all completely different."

Woolright's contact at the museum had moved on to work at Auckland Zoo, which seemed a natural venue for the exhibition. It also ties in with the preservation theme of the works; part of the proceeds of the sale of the images go to the zoo's Conservation Fund.

"I spent a lot of time with these birds and they are so beautiful, especially when you get to be so close to them. Some of them are extinct and some are endangered, so it is great to be able to do something to create awareness," Woolright says.