November 21 – 25, 2011
Who let the elephants out? It seemed that a herd of pachyderms with body art had stampeded all over Singapore – on the sidewalk, at the park, in malls and museums – and had petrified in place. My family and I were delighted to see so many “ele-friends” during our five-day stay in the city.
The ubiquitous elephant sculptures were, in fact, participating artworks in the two-month Elephant Parade, a touring art exhibition aimed at raising public awareness about the conservation of the endangered Asian elephant. The exhibition was inspired by Mosha, a baby elephant who had lost a leg to a landmine blast. I had heard of her story on Animal Planet years before. Catching this exhibition on its first Asian stop was the next best thing to visiting Mosha in Chiangmai, Thailand.
Artists from around the world were commissioned to render the plight of these gentle giants in their unique ways. The result was a motley menagerie of 162 pachyderm sculptures adorning their host city. We could not see all the exhibition entries, but here are some of the memorable ones we encountered:
Not Forgotten by Michael Han & Kiat
Sharing the front lawn of Asian Civilizations Museum with Timeless Chic, this sculpture was an understated but no less compelling icon. The monochromatic theme emphasized the lone tear collecting in and falling from its eye, depicting the desperate cry of an orphaned baby elephant for protection against poaching and habitat loss.
Ming Kwan Nakorn Ping by Jharatpong
This glittering elephant sculpture by a Thai artist greeted us at the museum lobby. Looking regal and bejeweled, it was densely decked out in Eastern art, symbolizing the elephant’s sacred place in Buddhism and Hinduism.
Translated Vase Baby Elephant by Yeesookyung
A Korean artist assembled her elephant from discarded ceramic fragments made to fit together like puzzle pieces. She sealed the spaces with gold. The resulting artwork bespoke of the fragmentation of the elephant’s habitat – the disruption of their migration routes and food supply – by urban development and agricultural cultivation, and our responsibility in healing the land we had ravaged.
Triumph of Unity by Sona Mirzaei & Per Hillo
A product of American and Danish collaboration, the artwork represented the united voice of these artists from diverse cultural and artistic backgrounds for a common cause. For me, it also spoke of sharing the world with the elephants and not usurping their living spaces. This unity was perfectly captured by the blending color schemes of the sculpture and my sister’s outfit.
Precious by Ahmad Zakii Anwar
The Asian elephant was the king of the jungle in the region for centuries with populations estimated to have reached millions. Poaching, civil war (Cambodia was a prime example), and habitat encroachment had caused the numbers to plummet to about 30,000 at present. How apt it was, then, that this renowned Malaysian artist used Chinese porcelain to represent the fragile survival of the once-mighty Asian elephant in the emerging economies of South Asia.
Bula by Arturo Sanchez, Jr.
Call me biased, but this sparkling sculpture got the most love from me. Filipino sculptor Arturo Sanchez, Jr. explained that Bula (Tagalog for Bubble) represented both “extinction and survival. I used mirrors to capture the reflection of the audience; I want the viewer to be part of the artwork and make them feel that they also a have role in the awareness campaign of the Elephant Parade. I used light to give the elephant a different look during night time. It serves as a big night light and represents hope for the elephants’ survival.” His work both illuminated and involved its audience – that made the sculpture the crowning jewel of the exhibition for me.
Elephant Parade was also an open air exhibition for the general public, not just museum visitors. We bumped into a herd just outside ION Orchard, an artsy mall on Orchard Road that adopted several sculptures, among them was an ebony-and-ivory pair. Bulan, in white, was a tribute to the collective memory of elephants, carved as it were on solid rock. Sommar, an ele-fun in floral print, was true to its name – summer in Swedish.
Even Louis Vuitton got into the spirit of the event. Although not officially a part of the exhibition, elephants did modeling stints in their display windows. Was it the brand’s pro-conservation statement or merely a timely marketing campaign? I didn’t know if LV ever used elephant hide as handbag material.
Over at 313@Somerset, the elephant sculptures were decidedly more fun, funky, and flamboyant. No wonder, they were designed by celebrity artists. Singaporean pop singer and playwright Dick Lee was inspired by 80s retro (think Kylie Minogue); he dolled up Zelda Zelliphant in pink zebra print, heart-shaped earrings, and curled lashes. British comedian Ricky Gervais could not contain his droll humor as seen in his elephant in drag, the Halloween-themed Hellaphunt, complete with devil horns and glossy red paint that conjured up a squeaky leather body suit.
The exhibition also aimed for audience engagement. Mom tried her hand at designing her own art elephant, a contest that could allow you to see your design on an elephant sculpture in the following year’s exhibition. The finale was a charity fund-raising when the sculptures were auctioned off by Sotheby’s. Part of the proceeds of this exhibition would go to The Asian Elephant Foundation and Wildlife Reserves Singapore Conservation Fund.
Elephant Parade was a feast for the eyes, but it also opened them to see how much of our human enterprise had demanded from the species we shared the planet with. It openly showed the need for conservation, not leave the subject as the elephant in the room. On a grassroots level, we could refuse to purchase items made from ivory and elephant hide or tolerate elephant captivity for our entertainment.
But why should we all care? Because the extinction of the elephants is an indication of the disappearance of our life-sustaining wilderness. And because it is the decent thing to do. My elephant conservationist friend, Jim McIntosh, puts it more poignantly in verse:
Has an elephant emotion?Do they feel empathy?Has an elephant compassion?Do they show sympathy?We recognise those in each other,We feel so intimatelyBut are we so limited in our sensesWe don’t see them in other specie?
We should not be so arrogantly blind.