Between man and nature: The elephant's path

Andries Botha’s elephants haven’t just been getting attention in Durban. The renowned Durban sculptor’s life-size elephant figures, made from recycled materials, have been making their way across the globe, where he hopes they will highlight man’s interaction with the natural world. The political fumbling that threatens the newest addition to his series, a trio of elephants planned to stand at the refurbished Warwick Junction in Durban, seems far removed from the artist’s intentions.

The elephants are symbols of Botha’s Human Elephant Foundation, an organisation founded in partnership with South Africa’s acclaimed conservationist Dr Ian Player. The foundation aims to highlight the juxtaposition and contrast of the built and natural worlds, the problems that are presented when the two come into conflict, and the solutions that are possible. There is a focus on imaginative solutions that motivate others to make the issues a personal concern.

Artist Andries Botha and conservationist Dr Ian Player discuss the aims and concerns of the Human Elephant Foundation, an organisation that aims to encourage creative solutions to questions of conservation.

It seems natural that Botha, as an artist, would focus on creative solutions to the inevitable consequences of human growth and development, where the natural environment is usually sacrificed to accommodate human need.

The elephant, to Botha, is a potent symbol of this conflict. He states: “The elephant is a metaphor that awakens the yearning for forgotten conversations between humans, the Earth and all living things.” By placing these figures in unexpected locations, where they are a constant reminder of the natural environment that is constantly being eroded, he hopes that conversations about conservation will be sparked.

The elephant is not only a potent symbol of Africa, where its relationship with conservationism is obvious. “It is a poignant metaphor, when you think about the size of this powerful animal, and the shrinking environment that surrounds it,” said Botha.

The fact that the elephants are made from recycled materials adds another layer of meaning to the pieces. Besides connecting man-made and natural worlds, there is undeniable sense of pathos when one considers that these imposing, graceful figures have been constructed out of what is discarded and unwanted.

The sculptures have appeared in many diverse locations, from Belgium and France to Mexico, and now a tour of the United States is under way. Those that have been touched by the elephants’ presence around the world have expressed shock that, in Botha’s hometown, bureaucracy has intervened, and work on the project, which was nearing completion, has been stopped.

In a letter to the Durban city council, Bliss Browne, founder and manager of Imagine Chicago (part of the international Imagine project that aims to create intercultural dialogue within cities), writes, “these elephant creations have profound capacity to awaken much needed conversation and commitment. They are becoming a gathering place for diverse communities to come together around urgent and difficult issues and begin to create more promising ways forward.”

A global conversation
She also writes “When 2010 World Cup cameras zoom in on Durban in June, elephants breaking through the pavement could open up a global conversation about migration, about where imagination and commitment to sustainability lead. Durban could offer the world an unprecedented and stunning example of creativity worthy of contemplation and position Durban as a cultural capital with a humanising sustainability message.”

This sentiment is shared by Durban residents who, having seen the works in progress, have stated on the Save the Durban Elephants Facebook group, that they feel “robbed” and that it would be a shame for the city, home of such a forward-thinking initiative, to bungle its chance to be part of a global conversation.

The outcome is still unknown, and Botha can only wait to see if the project will be allowed to continue. But he expressed concern that the symbolism has been damaged, and that the original meaning of the work has been lost due to the political fumbling, and as such, the opportunity to engage the audience in conversations that should, he hopes, improve their environment and wellbeing. As he states in the Human Elephant Foundation blog: “The action taken by the politicians against the sculptures is much more than just a petty political act. It represents an ongoing political disregard for the future well being of all our fellow citizens.”

Globetrotting elephants

Andries Botha’s series of elephant sculptures around the world has brought awareness to issues of conservation—and upset the ANC in Durban who see it as an IFP symbol. Watch our slideshow.

Watch the video

Lisa Van Wyk

Lisa Van Wyk

Lisa van Wyk is the arts editor, which somehow justifies her looking at pretty pictures all day, reading cool art and culture blogs and having the messiest desk in the office. She likes people who share her passion for art, music, food, wine, travel and all things Turkish. She can't ride a bike, but she can read ancient languages and totally understands the offside rule. Read more from Lisa Van Wyk

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