Elephants symbolise patience, generosity, family values, strength and learning. These impressive, wrinkly members of the animal kingdom have much wisdom to offer us, if we choose to look more deeply.
In art academies around Asia, elephants are learning to paint. At first, each elephant’s mahout (trainer) guides her through her artistic apprenticeship. Her brushes and colours and chosen for her. She is encouraged to hold the brush in her trunk and the mahout decides when a painting is finished. But as her skill develops, she is given more freedom to develop her own methods.
Each elephant has her own distinctive and identifiable style. Some elephants are most comfortable holding the brush with the tip of their trunk, while others prefer to wrap their trunk around it. Some use large, bold brushstrokes, randomly applying paint quickly and energetically until it reaches its beautiful climax, while others stand and stare at the canvas for a long time, seemingly weighing up the methods of balance, structure and composition in their mind before beginning.
One Thai elephant, Duanpen, uses the technique of abstract pointillism, composing her pieces of hundreds of dots.
The results are stunning. Elephant artworks have been displayed in galleries around the world and are frequently auctioned off to raise money for conservation projects. And the price tags, starting at around $US300 and reaching up into the thousands, is something for which many human artists could only hope to earn for their paintings.
These huge artists have taken to painting out of necessity. Asian elephants were once employed in the logging industry in Thailand but lost their jobs through land clearing restrictions that now apply to ravaged forests. In recent times, domestic Thai elephant numbers have fallen from 11,000 to just 3,000. Consequently, many elephants now find themselves homeless, orphaned, mistreated, abandoned, injured by land mines or starving. The lucky ones end up in conservation centres, but funding is a constant challenge. It was practically necessary to find another form of ‘employment’ for them if their species was to survive.
The Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project covers several ‘camps’ across Asia. The director of the Project, David Ferris, says that “as the human population increases and as we encroach on these animals’ habitat, there becomes less and less room for these animals to live … For elephants and many other species to continue, we must find positive, healthy ways in which to coexist.”
Art critics place the elephants’ artworks within the bounds of modern art, and many pieces are worthy of display. But, technical skill aside, what depths of spiritual and emotional expression could we find in these paintings? What lessons about our own spiritual journeys can we learn from the elephants?
In October 2006, online journal of intellectual and scientific enquiry, LiveScience, reported that scientists had learned that elephants possessed levels of self-awareness that were previously thought only to be shared by humans, apes and dolphins. A senior cognitive research scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Brooklyn, Diana Reiss, told LiveScience that “this would seem to be a trait common to and independently evolved by animals with large, complex brains, complex social lives and known capacities for empathy and altruism.”[i]
Perhaps, then, we can take a leap and say that elephants can connect with their creative and spiritual selves when they paint.
But do they see what we see? Tests reveal that an elephant’s photoreceptor cells in its retina contain only two pigments as compared to humans’ three (red, blue and green).
Although it is not clear exactly which two colours elephants’ possess, it is likely that they experience the world in a similar way to colour-blind people, identifying the two primary colours of yellow and blue.[ii] One might question, then, whether elephants are actively engaged in creating a work of art, or whether their results are simply pleasingly accidental, resulting from learned ‘tricks’.
If we can accept that all creativity is an expression of one’s spirituality, we don’t need to ponder an elephant painting for long to sense the mystical behind the artistic. Perhaps these brave souls, displaced and homeless in their own countries, experience therapeutic healing through their connection to their spirituality.
Gisela Kaplan, a research professor in animal behavior, and Lesley Rogers, a professor of neuroscience and animal behavior, say that “it seems that painting may be pleasurable to animals as well (as humans) because animals in zoos often reduce behavior that indicates stress, such as repetitive swaying and self-mutilation, when they are taught to paint.”[iii]
The fact that the elephants can still find joy and inspiration in the world around them at all, despite the trauma that they have suffered at the hands of humans, is something truly admirable. Perhaps they determine, through splashes of bright, chaotic colour or behind carefully considered brushstrokes, that the world is still a beautiful place.
David Ferris says, “We may never know the true intention of the elephant or to what extent they are trying to express themselves.”
But until recently, it was assumed that elephants lacked a sense of self-awareness. With this new knowledge, maybe humans can begin to look at the elephants’ artwork in a different light. Each year, science discovers more about the depth of animal consciousness and their cognitive abilities. Is it too much of a stretch to reason that their level of spiritual expression is just out of our sight (or, in fact, shouted out loudly in a blaze of red and green paint), waiting for us to uncover?
At the very least, those of us looking to truly connect with all beings on Earth may learn from the elephants’ quiet strength and resilience to continue celebrating life, observing that as one door closes, another fully opens.
After pain and loss, life begins again. Hopefully, the elephants’ new path in life is one that promises to raise the status of elephants around the world and to show us just how intelligent, playful, creative and spiritual these animals really are.
[i] Charles Q Choi, LiveScience, http://www.livescience.com/animals/061030_elephant_mirror.html, 30 October 2006
[ii] Gisela Kaplan, Ph.D., and Lesley J. Rogers, D.Phil., D.Sc., ‘Elephants that paint, birds that make music: Do animals have an aesthetic sense?’ in Cerebrum, produced by The Dana Foundation, 1 October 2006
[iii] As above
This article appeared in Nova magazine in the May 2008 issue. A radio interview followed.