Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Elephant No. 72: Dunamis

Dunamis by Bushra Fakhoury

A couple of weeks ago, my friends Cynthia and Akivah were in London, England, and came across this wonderful bronze sculpture by Bushra Fakhoury.

Unveiled in early October 2013, Dunamis—Greek for "force" or "miraculous power"—features a man balancing an elephant in a rather precarious position. The sculpture measures approximately 9 metres (29.5 feet) in height and, according to the artist, symbolizes the human struggle to achieve excellence and "pushing boundaries to make the impossible possible." Looking at the top-heavy design of this piece, I think the foundry that cast it must also have been pushing boundaries to make the impossible possible.

Fakhoury's fascination with sculpture began in her native Lebanon at the age of seven, when she was taught how to make elaborate animals and flowers with marzipan. Over the years, she has developed and refined her style, and has become known for work that is both playful and dynamic. "My themes and inspirations are mostly based on myths, fables, folklore, carnivals, parades," she says, "as well as observing and studying people in their daily activities."

Over the years, Fakhoury has lived in a number of countries, including the Ivory Coast and Kenya, where she became interested in Africa's endangered animals. Because of the subject matter of Dunamis, Fakhoury will be donating 10% of the sculpture's sale price to the Tusk Foundation, which funds conservation, community development and environmental education programs in Africa.

Dunamis took Fakhoury over a year to make, and will remain in its current location near Hyde Park Corner until it is sold. Cynthia thinks we should all pool our pennies and buy it, so that it can remain a public sculpture. An excellent idea, if you ask me.

To see more of Bushra Fakhoury's work, click here.

Dunamis with the Wellington Arch and Hyde Park Corner in the distance.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Speaking of travelling friends, Saša and his daughter Olivia were in Jordan recently, where they came across a bronze elephant for sale at Petra. It struck them that this was a rather odd animal to pop up among the displays of camels and other more conventional desert animals.

The explanation they were given is that Petra was an important stop for caravans along the Silk Road. While we were all (sort of) willing to accept that explanation, I began to wonder if elephants ever actually thundered their way through Petra.

Saša with the Great Elephant of Petra, October 2013
Photo: Olivia Petricic

Interestingly, the Great Temple in Petra once featured columns topped with elephants. These particular elephants—now housed at the Petra Museum—still arouse debate among scholars as to what kind of elephants they are. Asian? African? To me, their ears make them look a bit like a cross between Asian elephants and the flap-gilled Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Artist's rendering of the elephant capitals at Petra.
Image: Brown University

There is also debate about the last time an elephant might have been seen in Jordan. By 200 B.C., war elephants had fallen out of favour in the Middle East, and by 100 B.C., the region's only native pachyderm—the Syrian elephant—had been hunted to extinction for its ivory. As for the Silk Road thing, elephants would make terrible caravan animals, and are highly unlikely to have been used to transport goods to Jordan.

Elephant attacking a lion, ca. 4th century A.D., Roman Syria.
This mosaic was made three centuries after the Syrian elephant was extinct,
which may explain the elephant's unusual ears.
Collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

There may, however, be some truth to the notion of a Silk Road connection. Indian artisans were known to follow the caravans from Asia to the Middle East, often settling in cities and artisan centres along the way. It's even conceivable that some of them might have made it all the way to Petra.

Another strong possibility is that the elephant was a popular decorative element, transferred from artisan to artisan along the Silk Road—and perhaps losing something in translation with each iteration. This, combined with traders' descriptions of African and Asian elephants, and ancient depictions like the mosaic above, may have resulted in the creation of highly stylized elephants.

So, were there ever live elephants at Petra? Although there were undoubtedly elephants in Jordan at some point in history, there were probably never elephants roaming the streets of Petra itself. At the same time, I really like that bronze elephants are still being sold there—and if I squint a little, I'm pretty sure this little guy bears at least a passing resemblance to the elephants from Petra's Great Temple.

Closeup of the Great Elephant of Petra, October 2013
Photo: Olivia Petricic

To Support Elephant Welfare

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