Monday, 18 November 2013

Elephant No. 77: Art by Elephants

A Splash of Colour by Jojo the elephant.

As I've mentioned before in the lore section of this blog, people often ask me whether or not elephants can really paint. What I usually tell them is: it depends.

Elephants naturally trace abstract swirls and patterns in the dust with their trunks, and often do this in a repetitive manner that is unique to each elephant. This means that, when handed a brush and paint, many elephants will take to the activity immediately, tracing similar patterns on paper.

It is unlikely that elephants have a good colour sense, and they have surprisingly poor eyesight, so keepers usually choose paint colours for the elephants. However, what few people realize is that some elephants genuinely like painting. In many zoos and refuges around the world, painting is part of elephant-enrichment programs. In properly designed and managed painting programs, elephants are never forced to paint, and only elephants with a true interest in the activity continue.

They're Building Over There by Wanalee the elephant.

Training usually begins with teaching an elephant how to hold the brush. Many elephants will naturally curl their trunks around the brush, but some programs modify the brushes to allow them to fit comfortably inside one of the nostrils, which seems to make the elephants happier, and gives them a greater range of motion.

Next, the elephants are taught how to stand near the easel and how to daub paint on paper. Just as some elephants take readily to banging their trunks around on a piano, some elephants really appear to enjoy the feeling of slopping paint onto paper.

Aquatic Serenade by Jenny the elephant.

What elephants do not do naturally is paint landscapes, vases of flowers, or self-portraits. Training that forces elephants to produce things that are recognizable to humans is unnatural. Not only does this type of painting require brushstrokes that are both physically and mentally difficult for elephants, but the training itself can often be coercive in nature. Such paintings are designed for the tourist trade, not as a form of elephant enrichment.

The video below shows an elephant producing a painting of an elephant holding a flower. While it's astonishing to realize that an elephant can be trained to paint something like this, it's still not natural.

In the past, some elephants have taken up painting for a while, only to grow bored with it. In those cases, a sensible enrichment program allows the artist his or her space, perhaps introducing another medium—such as mud—or realizing that the elephant artist has produced his or her life's work and will likely choose not to paint again.

And, if you think that elephants can't possibly understand the connection between what they're doing with their trunk and and the image appearing before them, remember that elephants are among the only animals able to recognize themselves in a mirror, and are among the few with a significant understanding of cause and effect.

To read more about the abstract art produced by elephants at the National Elephant Institute in Thailand, click here.

My Best Shot by Jojo the elephant.

Elephant Lore of the Day
My friend Nahal sent me this photograph yesterday, which she took of the door to the Linda Modern Thai Restaurant in Toronto, Canada.

The three-headed elephant depicted on the door is the Thai version of the Hindu elephant Airavata, which was the mount of the god Indra. In Thailand, the elephant is known as Erawan, and usually has three—or even 33—heads, as it looks like he has here. The heads often have more than two tusks apiece—as they do on the door below—and some traditional statues show Indra riding Erawan.

To learn more about the Linda, considered one of Toronto's finest Thai restaurants, click here.

Doorway to Linda Modern Thai Restaurant,
North York (Toronto), Canada.

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