Fresh out of Asia


Any visitors to London over the past few weeks will have encountered a few unusual sights among the traditional tourist haunts of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. Our rainy capital city is hardly the place one would expect to find wildlife from the other side of the globe. But there has been something of an Asian invasion to Britain recently: some 250 elephants have made London their home.

These life size sculptures, each with their own unique design, have been scattered among London’s streets.

Public art in Britain is at its most abundant in our capital city, and yet the innovative introduction of the Elephant Parade has boosted its visibility even further. It is hard to miss art when it is, quite literally, staring you in the face.

Combining playful three dimensional aesthetics alongside a charitable motive has meant that “at a time where there was a lot of doom and gloom, this was a project that appealed,” remarks Mary Powys, the Project Manager for Elephant Parade London.

The ‘parade’ started in May, embodying the real spirit behind accessible and interactive art. It is one in a series of three city-wide Elephant Parades to date. The full display can be both actively searched for on the Parade route map or simply stumbled across until June 28th.

The parades are run by a charity named Elephant Family, established in 2002, which works to save the Asian elephant from extinction in the wild.

Most of the sculptures are situated in the open air, as a “celebration of the beauty of the magnificent Asian elephant”, and three herds have been placed in the Royal Parks. Elephant Family says that the London Parade has “an estimated audience of 25 million, raising a projected £2 million”.

An impressive number of high-profile artists have designed elephants for the London parade, including Jack Vettriano, Lulu Guinness, Tommy Hilfiger, Paul Smith and His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent. The elephants will be put up for auction at the beginning of July, and it is expected they will raise thousands of pounds for the Elephant Family charity.

Powys is as anxious as the prospective bidders to know where the futures of all 258 creations lie. “We all get very attached to our elephants, so we’re really keen to know where they will go.” The money raised by each sculpture also impacts the reality of the future of Asian elephants in India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

Powys talks about the ethos and motivation behind the planning of the parade itself, which began in January 2009: “With the financial crash happening, a lot of charities were struggling, but we knew we were on to something with this mode.

“The fact that it is positive, bright and very different means that we’ve had an absolutely stonking year and a half.”

The Elephant Family charity aims to combat the lack of room for Asian elephants to roam safely and harmoniously alongside humans in their natural habitats. They do this by building ‘corridors’ for the elephants to walk through. These corridors reduce the number of elephants being killed by humans and, equally, the amount of elephants killing humans whilst trying to find food.

We all get very attached to our elephants, so we’re really keen to know where they will go

The popularity of the Parade has been helped by its diverse aesthetic appeal, as Powys elaborates. “Children love them just as much as adults do. Henry Windom, the chairman of Sotheby’s, is used to fine art. Quite a number of the elephants would definitely fall into that category but some of them are just plain fun … he loved the silly ones just as much as the ones by Mark Quinn or Peter Beard.

“I believe that the fact that they’re so bright and colourful and in your face is a really good thing, because it captures people’s imagination. If I was just standing there talking about the problems facing Asian elephants, people might just switch off. But this has got mass appeal which is our best weapon.”

Memorable public art in Britain tends to be conceptually outrageous, subversive (often politically) or original architecturally. Powys alludes that the unusual elephants have not faced difficulties in getting noticed.

“We find art such a powerful tool to get the message across – it’s absolutely brilliant.” Using art as a distraction from everyday burdens, the Parade redirects and refocuses energy towards helping a cause in a different continent. “As a charity, we have started to use art as a way of getting people’s attention,” she continues.

Powys believes in the simplistic power of showcasing entertaining public art: “We realised that we’re raising money for Asian elephants that exist miles and miles away in Asia. To make it relevant and interesting and appealing to people on this side of the planet, the best thing to do is rock up in the neighbourhood with a herd of elephants and confront people with it. And then you’re being asked the questions, and it just arouses curiosity.”

“We’ve got a big, bold, and bright project that’s press worthy, so The Evening Standard, one of our partners, put a big feature out saying “the elephants are coming”, and that opened the doors to sponsorship and opened the doors for artists,” explains the Project Manager.

‘Cloudia’ on display in Covent Garden

Powys describes the public reaction to Elephant Parade so far as “overwhelmingly positive”. As the elephants are on open display, landowners of locations such as Burlington Arcade “were paying to make sure they had elephants in their area. It’s good for retailers; it adds interest. You’ve got hundreds of thousands of Londoners at the moment going round with a map and ticking them all off.

“We put some elephants in areas where perhaps that kind of thing doesn’t happen very often, like Brixton, and it’s a way of helping their own regeneration projects, so it ticks lots of boxes.”

Asking famous artists, sculptors, and public figures to contribute designs has undoubtedly promoted the popularity of the Parade. Alongside this, six of the sculptures are placed in the Selfridges department store on Oxford Street, one of the highest ranking areas of footfall in the city. It has boosted the image of the project and brought in a multitude of prospective bidders.

Money remains a dominant factor behind any exhibition of public art, with an even more pertinent emphasis when its purpose is charitable funding.

Aiming to raise £2 million purely through auction is no easy feat, but it has been done before by Elephant Family themselves in two previous ‘parades’ in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. There, the average prices for individual sculptures were around £7,000. Powys hopes for the same level of success in London.

‘Mammoth Metaphor’, the elephant designed by influential photographer and diarist Peter Beard, is set to be the highest earning sculpture. Currently, the next online bid step for ‘Mammoth Metaphor’ is £50,250.

For the less wealthy members of the general public, Elephant Family have set up a global petition which will be sent to governments urging them to recognise the crisis faced by Asian elephants. They hope to persuade them to invest in “securing a viable future” for them. The petition’s figurehead is ‘Cloudia’, who has been travelling to locations such as the London Eye and Downing Street to raise awareness, and collecting signatures on her travels.

70% of the funds raised in auction will be going to charity, so Powys maintains that the parade is a “social enterprise”. However, “some of the more valuable elephants like the sculptures by Mark Quinn, Jack Vettriano and Peter Beard will be bought by quite serious art collectors” and she hopes that after the auction “we will see a couple of them dotted around London in public places”.

A prominent feature of the life size sculptures is their display in recognisable tourist locations. The paradox between visibility and civic appreciation was a huge consideration for the Project Manager and her team, facing a continual threat of vandalism.

“That is the biggest risk in doing a public art exhibition like this – it’s on the street for two months,” she explains.

“If somebody wants to come along with an axe and just destroy one of the sculptures, there’s nothing we can do about that. But we did put measures in place to try to give all of them a fighting chance.”

Besides each elephant being coated with anti-graffiti resin, “the elephants are bolted, so they avoid the risk of somebody being able to just literally pick them up and walk about away with them. That would have to be pretty meditated – a theft with machinery!”

Elephant Parade falls not only into the category of public art, but also that of social art. Whilst openly appreciated, the auctioning process will inevitably attract a wealthy or corporate elite as its primary bidders.

The sculptures are a simultaneous showcase of publicly accessible art, an appreciation of fine design and craftsmanship displayed in a novel form and a bidding war between affluent art collectors – all in the name of protecting Asian elephants.

“You know what,” claims Powys, “2010 is going to be a very good year for Asian elephants.”

Sign the petition to help ‘Cloudia’ at­­

Images – Elephant Parade London