Extraordinary Animals - Friday January 4

extraordinary animals
hong the elephant (1/7)

Beginning tonight is a series of documentaries profiling members of the animal kingdom who have amazing talents. This first programme explores the extraordinary abilities of Hong, an elephant whose painting skills have rocked the art world and challenged hitherto accepted views on animal intelligence. Can Hong’s work pass as art in a top London gallery?

For centuries, humans have thought of elephants as powerful brutes and employed them for their immense strength. However, Hong, a six-year-old Asian elephant from northern Thailand, is about to challenge this perception. She can paint with such dexterity that her work has impressed elephant experts and artists worldwide. Her artistic career is the result of a visionary scheme which was set up when logging was banned in Thailand in 1989, leaving countless elephants without jobs.

New York-based artist Alexander Melamid decided to help the newly unemployed animals by training them to paint – and then selling the paintings to raise money for the upkeep of the elephants. However, his ambitions do not stop at raising money. “We’re trying to bring elephants into the temple of art,” he explains. “Maybe the Museum of Modern Art will give us a show?”

London-based artist Vanda Harvey is intrigued by the reports of Hong’s artistic prowess and wants to find out more. She hopes to work with Hong and discover if the elephant can produce something that will stand up to the scrutiny of a London art gallery. “What I’m interested in finding out is if there’s a more poetic spirit there,” she says. “So I’m probably going to liberate her from her day job of painting other elephants!”

Vanda travels to Mae Taeng elephant camp in northern Thailand, where she gets her first glimpse of Hong entertaining tourists with her painting show – an important source of income since the logging ban. Believing that her new pupil shows definite promise, Vanda speaks to Richard Lair, founder of the Thai Elephant Orchestra, to find out what he thinks about the idea. He explains that the astonishing figurative paintings Hong produces are actually the result of her trainer standing beside her with a hand on her tusk, “almost like a technician working with robotic arms.” However, he does believe that when the elephants create abstracted, undirected art, the animals’ creativity is revealed and their personalities exposed.

Inspired by the suggestion that elephants can express themselves, Vanda aims to set Hong free to create some abstract pieces. She starts her pupil off with some charcoal, while Hong’s trainer steps back to avoid influencing her. “It’s amazingly intense for me, watching Hong draw,” says Vanda, “because I didn’t know what was going to happen.” After the charcoal comes paint, and a two-metre canvas is quickly filled with sweeping, colourful, almost joyful strokes. The next day, Vanda supervises Hong as she completes a series of canvases to be taken back to London. Vanda is confident that the paintings will stand up against competition from human artists: “There are far worse paintings hanging in galleries all over the world as we speak,” she says. “Probably some with far less emotion in, and far less tension – and certainly far less joy!”

Two weeks later, the paintings are displayed in a top London gallery to which critics, art buyers and the public are invited. None of these people are aware that the artwork they are looking at was done by an elephant. How will they react when they learn the extraordinary truth?

About the author

  • No doubt in my mind that animals can do anything that we can do, including enjoying hobbies such as writing, painting and playing games.

    It always brings a smile to my face to see other humans come to realize just how gifted animals are.

  • I recently saw a vid clip on u tube (presumably from January) of Vanna working with Hong in Thailand, and then Vanna displaying the art in her London Gallery with some reknowned artists and critics in attendance. Is there more recent news, art and critics comments, what happened to Hong’s paintings?

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