Nelly The Artist? Elephants Get Creative At The Booth Museum

By Tessa Watkinson | 21 April 2004
Shows a photograph which depicts an elephant painting at an easel with a Mahout (Thai elephant helper and life partner) standing by.

Photo: elephants at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre create art to raise funds and awareness for their cause. Photo: Millie Young.

In May 2004 Student journalists from Brighton City College took over the site for one week... read on to see what they got up to.

Tessa Watkinson trekked to the Booth Museum to see whether the animal kingdom might be the best place to look for the latest artistic movement.

The Booth Museum invites us to reconsider ideas of intent and art with an exhibition by a very unusual group of artists.

Chang, Clang, Swish, Bang! runs until June 6 and is an exhibition of elephant art and music, the result of a project in a Thailand Elephant Conservation Centre overseen by Brighton-based artist Millie Young.

Shows a close up photograph of an elephant's head from side on as it touches another elephant's back.

Photo: the artist's mind is an intense one... Photo: Millie Young.

"People are astounded when they find out that the elephants have actually done the art work," says Jeremy Adams of the Booth Museum.

"When you say 'elephant art' they assume it’s people painting elephants but they don’t think that the elephants pick up the paintbrush themselves."

As you enter the exhibition photographs depict the process of elephant painting. Each elephant has its own Mahout, a Thai elephant worker and life partner, who loads a paintbrush then pops it up the elephants nose.

Then the elephant’s creativity is given free reign. "Obviously they have to be shown how to do it but there is no teaching element in it," adds Jeremy, "it’s elephant free-form. "

Shows a sample of an elephant painting which consists of swirls and lines in bright colours.

Photo: an example of elephant art work. Their helper or Mahout pops a paintbrush up their nose and the rest is down to the elephant!

On first glance the paintings look like a nursery school display. Brightly coloured blobs of paint fill each canvas in a seemingly meaningless mess. On closer inspection, however, each elephant’s collection is different, indicating the individual characteristics that elephant lovers enthuse about.

Vertical brush strokes by Chapati are entirely distinct from the snake-like squiggles created by Wannalee, while Aet’s propeller-like loops are described as a 'Pollock parade'.

Whether or not you appreciate these paintings as art, there is no denying that they are fascinating, and touching, as demonstrations of elephant personalities.

"The real eye opener for me in this whole business is that the elephants have a very distinct style of painting as individuals" explains Adams. "Millie, who is passionate about these elephants, describes it in glowing terms as each elephant having a distinct personality. "

Shows a photograph of an elephant standing beside a helper and holding a paintbrush in its trunk, with which it is painting strokes onto a sheet held in an easel.

Photo: Chapati had just entered his 'blue' period. Photo: Millie Young.

The uniqueness of each elephant’s creativity is reflected in the preference of some to produce music rather than art. The exhibition includes an opportunity to hear 36 tracks of elephant music, ranging from solos to a 16-strong elephant orchestra.

Don’t worry; this is a world away from novelty CDs screeching out 'Bohemian Catsody' in a cacophony of feline mews! However, as with the paintings, it is hard to be appreciative on first hearing.

As Adams points out: "Clearly there’s not too much piano playing among the elephants! It tends to be percussion."

Once again though, it is hard not to be swayed by the obvious enjoyment the animals gain from the activity, and in the pieces which feature strings or bells somewhat more artfully played by the Mahouts, the elephant percussion provides an innocent exuberance which is hard not to smile at.

Shows a photograph which depicts an elephant orchestra including people playing brass instruments while the elephants play cymbals and xylophones.

Photo: no trumpets needed in this orchestra... Photo: Millie Young.

The exhibition has been very popular with kids and is an excellent way to encourage them to relate to art.

Adams says: "They love it of course. Elephants are so child friendly…in theory at least!" So is the Museum. A wall has been left blank for children to stick up their own impressions of the elephants.

"They can look at art through slightly different eyes and also at the same time they can learn about heffalumps!" adds Adams.

Which is the key aim of the exhibition – to raise awareness. Money collected by the gallery through donations or sales, goes back to the conservation centre, which provides a home for elephants left unemployed by changes to the timber industry.

With one of Wannalee’s paintings recently fetching $1500 at Christies, New York, it seems safe to say that there is no need for these elephants to pack their trunks just yet!

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