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AND THE RAVEN, NEVER FLITTING, STILL IS SITTING, STILL IS SITTING

Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ The Prophet Fed by a Raven contains elements of iconography placed in a contemporary setting and filled with timeless universal themes. The clues point to well-loved prophet Elias (also Elijah) of the Old Testament, an elusive figure of swift foot and obscure origins. The artist placed him on a ledge, as “He dwelled in the clefts of the torrents or in the caves of mountains” and lived the life of “a true son of the desert.” He was “as fire, and his word burnt like a torch.” He appeared abruptly on the historical scene, delivered his message against the corruption of his age, lived off charity under conditions of drought and famine, and vanished to the east of the Jordan, where legend has it, ravens “brought him bread and flesh in the evening, and he drank of the torrent.”

 

The raven breaks from ‘likeness’ to become a type, emblematic not only of what can happen between prophets and birds but of all animal–human interactions. In many of these, the roles are often reversed, as in this painting, where the bird takes care of the prophet living in the wild. Sometimes, the raven becomes the prophet, as in the case of West Nile virus spread in North America, when dying birds of the crow family, including ravens, foretold human infection in the New World. But ravens are not alone. With many infections emerging first in animals in remote and underprivileged settings, surveillance of animal health can forecast disease risks to humans. In Sri Lanka, field veterinarians used mobile phones to report animal health information, confirming that this type of animal population surveillance can work in isolated areas with limited resources. While the prophet–raven platform has changed with the times, the universal human–animal interface and its zoonotic consequences, including disease transmission, remain unchanged.

 

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Taken on February 25, 2011