"The layout and shapes are an absolute replica of my thought process. My experiences and understandings of the underwater wilderness are all captured and expressed in each piece. The Tribute to Altum Angelfish series represents exactly what I am looking for in my art". Continue reading below...
Tribute to Altum Angelfish Series
The first time I saw Altum Angelfish (Pterophyllum altum) I fell in love with them immediately. They looked majestic, elegant, a superb creation of nature. I immediately started to read all I could find about these magnificent freshwater fish on the web. One of the points that kept on popping up as I read was how hard it was to breed them in captivity. I immediately bought about twelve of them in a pet store, most of them 15 cm tall, and started an Altum breeding program. For about six months I tried everything I could come up with to make them breed with no luck. As usual, I got a visit from an unexpected person who would guide my destiny towards its preset path and change my life. This person, called Ricardo Fridegoto, happened to visit my fish house and said… “You will not be able to breed those Altum, they are babies. Come to my house tomorrow morning around 9am and I will show you what adult Altums look like.”
ABOVE: Image of an Altum Angelfish (Pterophyllum altum).
Sure enough at 8:45 am sharp I was at his door waiting for my watch to strike 9 to ring the doorbell. At exactly 9, I rang the doorbell and I was let into his foyer which had a medium aquarium, about 1 meter long by 60cm tall and 40 cm wide. Covering the front glass was a small black curtain which hung from a small aluminum rod. The setup resembled a small theater stage curtain. He turned off the foyer lights leaving only the aquarium lights on and told me to sit down in front of the aquarium and not to move. He then sat next to me and opened the aquarium curtains very slowly by pulling on a string attached to the bottom corners. As he opened the curtains my jaw dropped. In front of me wereere about six Altums, each of them about 40cm tall and their bodies a bit smaller than a cd disc. They looked like super refined Orbic Batfish! I sat there and did not blink. That was a crucial moment in my life that moved me towards becoming a river explorer. I thought to myself… “Where did these things come from? I bet their home is as magical as they are!” and then my voyage towards studying wild fish began. By the way, large wild Altum Angelfish are terrified by sudden movements. They get spooked to the point where they try to jump out of the aquarium and as Ricardo Fridegoto told me, “They get so frightened that they get heart attacks and die in seconds in front of your eyes. I brought them here in plastic bags covered in many layers of newspaper, so they would be in complete darkness. That way they relax”.
Soon afterwards I asked Hans Köpke a great German/Venezuelan ichthyologist and Rafael Amier, a great freshwater fish kahuna where I could find these fish in the wild. They both told me to go to the Pavoni River right before Puerto Ayacucho in the Amazon state of Venezuela. They also told me stories of how they used to see thousands of them in the Pavoni River by night and how the tropical fish collectors used to light them up with strong flashlights and catch thousands of them in one night.
For years I searched the Pavoni River. I went in the rainy season, in the dry season and in between seasons looking for the Altums. I swam the Pavoni by day, by night, upstream and downstream almost at its confluence with the Orinoco River, with no luck. On one of my expeditions with George Fear, Fernando Chan and Marco Pigozzo, we went to the Pavoni Indigenous Community, a small settlement mostly inhabited by people of the Kurripaco ethnicity. The Pavoni community lies on the edge of the Pavoni River east of the main road towards Puerto Ayacucho. There we asked to speak to the Chief which greeted all of us cordially and invited us to his house. We introduced ourselves and asked him if he knew where we could find Angelfish. He looked perplexed so I drew the Angelfish on a sheet of paper and he said “Altum”! Then I was the one that looked perplexed! How did the Chief know the scientific species name of the fish and not the comon name? He then looked at me and said. “There aren’t any left, we ate them all”. He explained how they use the barbasco plant root to “poison” the river water and collect the fish to eat. That statement made Altums even more special to me. They were being eradicated and partially extinct from their habitats; what a shame! For many years I searched for Altums in their habitats and encountered them in two occasions only. Once in the Atabapo River main channel, where I filmed them in the middle of the night next to Oliver Lucanus. The footage became part of my Freshwater Natural Aquarium Documentary. The second time I saw them was when we were shooting The Fish Guys Expedition 1. The underwater footage can be seen on “The Fish Guys Expedition 1 PART 11”. These two encounters were too brief to get incredible underwater images and video footage so the quest to documenting them underwater in the wild is still on my “to do list”.
ABOVE: Image of an Altum Angelfish (Pterophyllum altum) in its natural habitat. Underwater photograph taken while filming "The Fish Guys" in a small stream near the Sipapo River and Orinoco River confluence.
My Altum Angelfish quest was not only a scientific or technical one, they also became a visual motif for my art. I started an intense visual study of them in the early 2011’s. Since then they have always been an ongoing subject in my photographic and fine art development line.
In 2011 in an aquarium photoshoot of the species, I took the Altum Angelfish Pterophyllum altum DSC08862 image and later on that same year I took the Cleared and Stained Diaphonized Angelfish Pterophyllum altum DSC05318 image in the Ichthyology Museum of the Central University of Venezuela, both of which became archetype images that inspired the series. In 2015 I started sketching Altums with pencil but mostly from a front view. The thought process of how to structure them in two dimensions was really time and thought consuming as many sketches and larger drawings can prove. In 2016 I dreamed the sideways view, woke up quickly and drew the Altum 1 drawing in the middle of the night before I forgot my “Altum Dream”. The side view gave me the chance to recreate Altum in a way which was visually pleasing to me. The layout and shapes are an absolute replica of my thought process. My experiences and understandings of the underwater wilderness are all captured and expressed in each piece. The Tribute to Altum Angelfish series represents exactly what I am looking for in my art.
The Tribute to Altum Angelfish series brings you a rich visual metaphor of my interpretation of reality. The Altums shape is so out of the ordinary, structurally incredible, that I had to make a tribute to it. If I was not able to breed them, at least I can share their art and my love towards them with the world. The colors used in this series are not the true colors that Altums have. There is a reason for this, it is not that I just wanted to make them colorful or did not want to make them all the same. Altum, are silver, black with a tinge of telluric ocher colors. Now, when you see this fish underwater in the Atabapo River which has amber colored water, the Altums look yellow to orange depending on the color of the river through the seasons. In a clear water stream, the Altums look silver, but once they start swimming away from you, they start turning blue as more and more water is between your eyes and the fish. Because Altums are silver, if they are in green water, they will look green and if they are in extremely red tannic water, they will look red. If they are next to green aquatic plants, they will reflect the green to some extent just like a mirror does. So, this is why I have drawn them in that great array of colors, not only representing the fish itself but the different colors of the water and the habitat where they live. Every piece of art in this series has the essence of the Amazon, a piece of my heart, bit of nature and the essence of the wild.
ABOVE: Atabapo River DSC08905 image.
Although the drawings and painting in the Tribute to Altum Angelfish series are very similar, they are all different, every single one is unique. The paintings and drawings are just like a school of Altum. If you are an aquarist, you will know what I am talking about. When you bring new Altums into your aquarium, at first they all look alike but after observing them you start noticing the differences between them. After a while, they look totally different, you get to know them, you know which one is the skinny one, the weak one that always gets pecked on, the bully, the alfa male, and the ones in the middle which also have their own personality.
The idea of making many drawings in a “smaller” format, was to give the option of placing many on a wall and recreating a “family” of Altum, because these are fish that gather together. They are social fish and even though they are similar, they are their own entity. Altum are not schooling fish like Cardinal Tetras, they seem to have a mind of their own and can stand by themselves when they want to. I really admire these awesome fish.
My dream is to someday have a big fish house to breed Altum Angelfish in large amounts so the need to collect them in the wild ceases.
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Proof section images of the artwork are available upon request.
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