My Friends Are Missing:Tour an Indian artist’s pop-up book on endangered species
Not much is known about the golden viscacha rat, which lives in a small patch of salt flats in Argentina. There are only loose estimates of its population; much of its habitat has been lost to olive-oil plantations.
Chennai-based paper artist Keerthana Ramesh first heard of this rodent as part of the One Million One Month project, an annual online art challenge launched in May 2020 by a Mexican artist named Lore Mondragon. The project gets its name from a figure released by the United Nations — in 2019, a UN report stated that over a million species are now at risk of extinction, as a result of human activity.
Each May, Mondragon releases a list of 30 critically endangered animals from around the world (the third Friday of this month is marked worldwide as Endangered Species Day), and invites artists around the world to render the species and post their art on social media, to help spread awareness about the creatures and the cause.
Last year, Keerthana decided to take off from this project and create one of her own. As soon as the species list was released in early May, she got to work. By June 20, which marked the end of the One Million One Month project, she had put together a pop-up book of all 30 species on that year’s list, including the golden viscacha rat, the New Caledonian owlet-nightjar, even a type of mushroom.
Each day through that month, she posted short videos of her pop-ups on Instagram (@keerthanalikestodraw). Each post was accompanied by information about the species and why it is considered endangered.
“Pop-ups take a lot of mechanical engineering and I couldn’t figure out on my own what was going on in there,” says Keerthana, 29. Help came from an unexpected quarter: YouTube.
Amid the stresses of the pandemic, her pop-up paper art became something she could pour her energy into. With work less demanding in the lockdown — Keerthana is a process design consultant for NGOs — she could spend six to seven hours on each species. Some were easy enough to figure out, like the mechanism she used for the Antiguan racer snake, which slides out of one side of the page as you open it.
Some let her combine medium and message in whimsical ways. The New Caledonian owlet-nightjar, for instance, is so rare that there are only an estimated 50 left, and so elusive that there are no known photographs of it. “The closest thing to an image of it is a dead specimen in a museum,” Keerthana says. This is a nocturnal bird that has a habit of disappearing seconds after it’s been sighted. “So when you open the pop-up for this one, you can kind of see the bird, which is then blocked from view when the page is opened fully.”
Some species were so rare that there wasn’t much about them even online. “So little is known about the golden viscacha that I had to read up on its cousin species,” Keerthana says.
The toughest one to figure out was the native Hawaiian mushroom Hygrocybe pakelo, which she wanted opening up like an umbrella, almost as if the viewer were watching it grow and take shape. “Though the mechanism was not very complex, I didn’t have the right paper, and in the lockdown, I had a terrible time finding it,” Keerthana says. Eventually, she had to create this one in layers, gluing multiple pieces together, changing the plan 20 times over. “But I’m happy with how it turned out.”
When she was done with all 30 species, Keerthana bound the pages into a book and titled it My Friends Are Missing. She’s now looking for funding and publishing partners, to turn it into something people can buy. “It’s been almost a year since I made it and I still receive queries,” Keerthana says. She’s hoping it gets picked up and distributed, she adds, because projects like this one are important. “Unless there is general awareness about species, conservation efforts will not take place, and their extinction will go unnoticed.”