Londoners and residents in Amsterdam and Antwerp will have recently been delighted by spotting the beautiful, brightly coloured baby elephants around their city. The collection of 250 painted statues forms part of a charity project, raising awareness and funding for the endangered Asian elephant by the www.elephantfamily.org. The elephants themselves will be open to auction, and you can get your very own mini-version online. Great if you're an elephant fan, or if like me, you're into a bit of Ganesh-inspired paraphernalia.
Like the Cows across London in 1998, and the Bears across Berlin in 2009, what makes this project so interesting is how spotting an emblem of nature in our very urban environment reminds us of how much animal variety there is in the world, which of course must be preserved. It's very easy to adopt an 'out of sight, out of mind' mentality, which is why a project that uses the city as an exhibition space is all the more exciting: the elephants have found their way into office blocks, parks and the south bank.
The project has seen a large number of artists, from Sam Hacking to Sacha Jafri as well as patrons such a Cartier and Boodles take on the creative challenge of adorning their respective elephants. Some of them have been gilded with jewels, others have been marked with colours of national identity, some feature magical dream-scapes and others delight themselves in splashes of abstract colour. We speak to Nilesh Mistry, London based illustrator and artist who was involved in not just one, but four elephants!
The Elephant Family project has been going on for quite some time now, how and when did you first get involved?
A friend of mine showed me an article about this event in the Evening Standard in the summer of 2009. It described the charity, its aims and how they were looking for artists to take part in the Parade this year. I have to say that even though it sounded fun I nearly didn't take part as I was worried that after all my hard work some mindless vandal would damage my artwork once it was on the street. I'm glad I ignored that negative thought and submitted a design, as the whole process from the start in the autumn of 2009, to seeing my finished elephants on the streets in May this year has been a real delight!
Tell us about your elephants? What was the motivation and creative influence behind the way you decided to decorate yours?
I ended up painting three elephants but only one of them was my own original concept and it's called "Heavenly Jewel". Even though this is a conservation project I wanted to celebrate the elephant's role in the Indian imagination. In mythology it appears as the mount of Indra, king of the gods, who rides on an elephant's back across the Heavens, hence a major motif in my design are clouds that swirl around the sculpture along with the Sun and the Moon on either side. In classical Indian dance and poetry, an elephant's gait as it walks is considered very graceful and I have represented this in the form of two apsaras or celestial dancers - their swirling dupattas creating sensuous rhythms that echo those already created by the tumbling clouds. A final flourish was to include a generous scattering of lotus flowers which are considered sacred and also add to the decorative quality of the overall design.??My style is very influenced by Indian art and for this project I looked at South Indian temple sculptures which are brightly painted so they grab the viewer’s attention from a distance, but then they are also covered in intricate details so that there is a lot to enjoy when you look closely at them. I felt these dual qualities were exactly what was required for artwork in an outdoor, public space.??The two other elephants I painted were based on ideas provided by their sponsor, BlackRock - a fund management company in the City. One shows monuments from the great capital cities around the world (like the Eiffel Tower and the Gateway to India in Mumbai) where BlackRock have their offices. The second design involved painting the elephant as if it were a peacock - that other great wildlife symbol of India.
What's been the best part of the journey you've been on whilst on this project? Can we expect any more exciting collaborations, projects and adventures from yourself and the other artists and organisers you've met and worked with?
As I couldn't paint such big statues in my tiny maisonette I ended up working in the communal studio provided by the charity and I think this was one of the best parts of this project. This gave me the opportunity to meet a great collection of artists from different disciplines like jewellery design, mosaic and fine art and see firsthand how they work and exchange views on life as a practising artist. Working from home this is something I really miss out on.??Seeing the public's reaction to this event has also been so gratifying. While I was working on my designs people would just come up to me and not only voice their appreciation of what I was doing but also their love of elephants and excitement at having these works of art brightening up the streets.??As yet there have been no major developments but it's early days still.
I'm hoping that as "Heavenly Jewel" has been placed in Leicester Square it will be seen by a large number of people and who knows what might come from that level of exposure! Other than your own wonderful elephants, which artist's elephant do you most admire?
There are so many to choose from but some stand out designs include one by Diana Ralston who painted tangled brambles under moonlight. Fashion designers Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla have coloured their elephant fuchsia pink and covered it in a hand embroidered throw decorated with dancing figures and made from gold thread, mirrors and beads. Another favourite one is by BFLS architects - through glass viewing holes all over the sculpture, the viewer can look inside the elephant and see a whole city populated by miniature elephants! I can't finish without mentioning the design by SHO Fine Jewellery who have covered theirs in Swarovski diamonds and pearls. I really could go on and on as the artistic imagination on show in this Parade is truly breath taking!??Have you been out and about on an actual elephant parade trying to spot them all yet? Absolutely!! There is a map which can be downloaded from the Elephant Parade website which shows where all the statues have been placed. As they are spread out over the whole city it's hard to see them in one go but so far I've seen the "herd" in Green Park and the West End. The next batch I want to tackle are the groups along the river front.