Paintbrush-wielding pachyderms
Visiting Russian conceptual artists bring ‘elephant art’ to campus


elephant painting

Above: Arum, an Asian elephant, at the canvas in Bali.
Photo courtesy of Goldie Paley Gallery

03 April 2002 | Two Russian conceptual artists known for teaching elephants to paint and chimpanzees to use cameras are spending spring semester on campus instructing students about animal creativity, totalitarianism and underground art.

Now residents of New York City, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid made a name for themselves in the 1960s as young artists and dissidents at government schools in Soviet Russia. Their work includes painting, performance, installation and advertising.

In 1998, they created the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project, recently featured on “60 Minutes.” The two teach painting to elephants once used in Thailand’s logging industry, then sell the art work to raise money for the animals’ care.

Komar and Melamid say that after reading about the plight of elephants in Thailand, who fell on hard times after logging was banned in 1990, they were drawn to help.

The animals are draped in aprons and taught to paint wielding a brush with their trunks. The resulting pieces, which resemble abstract expressionist work, are auctioned - for as much as $2,000 - with a percentage of funds going toward proper care for the elephants and support for their trainers.

“You have to see this project as complexly related to the now-common cry that painting is dead and artists have gone on to other things,” said Charles Altieri, a professor of English and director of the Consortium for the Arts. “What can we do with a dead art?

“After all, it is arguable that what killed painting was the gallery structure that created ridiculous myths and produced prices for art that only the very few could afford. It is a nice irony that what was ruined by profit motive can be restored as a kind of charity.”

Modern art was based in large part on the idea that art should have no practical purpose. “What better way to celebrate the demise of this modernist ideal than to develop a mode of painting that serves clear and valuable social ends, without needing any rhetoric that it improves anyone’s soul,” said Altieri.

He added that the visiting artists want us to wonder if there might be something very odd and very wrong about the way that the high culture art industries go about their work. But we also have to recognize, he said, that there is also something very right if this world “is sufficiently generous to give air time to elephants and apparently mad but brilliant émigré artists.”

For information on the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project, see

At the Berkeley Art Museum’s Gallery 3, more than 50 paintings done by Thai elephants will be on display, along with photos and documentation, April 10 through July 14.

Visiting artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid will present a slide show lecture on their elephant work and introduce their film, “The People’s Painting,” at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, April 11, at the museum.


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