“Modern art…is an attempt to deal with the chaotic formlessness and swift flux of the modern city.” ~Robert A. Bone, literary scholar
Left: Salvador Dali, ‘Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln – Homage to Rothko’ (Second Version), 1976. Dali Museum, St Petersburg, FL.
Bullets in the Name of Art
What do the names Kendall Jones and Satao have in common? For those interested in the plight of endangered species, the answer is that they are, respectively, perpetrator and victim in a vicious cycle of harvesting endangered species for personal ambition. Jones is the 19-year old,Texas Tech cheerleader who set a personal quest to bag the Big Five African game animals (lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and White/Black rhinoceros) on a recent expedition. She gleefully announce on her Facebook page, “The first animal I ever shot was a White Rhino with a .416 Remington!!” The White rhino, which number around 20,000, are among the rarest in the world. Jones’s ultimate goal—to garner her own 15-minutes of fame with a reality TV show in 2015, where she hopes to espouse her interest in hunting and animal conservation. The death toll continued until she reached her objective, giving each photo-op her best cheerleader smile, posing with the trophy animals as though in a prom date portrait—except her companion is not the star quarterback, but a creature of the wild, very hairy…and very dead. xxxxxx
And for those who are not aware, Satao was a bit of a celebrity is his own right—one of the largest and oldest bull elephants in the Kenyan wild, if not the world. Standing fourteen feet tall, his tusks weighed an estimated 100-pounds, nearly reaching the ground as he walked. Long the target of poachers, he was finally killed on May 30th. Hunters used poison arrows to avoid attention with large-caliber gunfire. They harvested the ivory, hacking off his face in the process, presumably to delay identification. Within days, his tusks—worth thousands of dollars—would be on their way to a coastal African market and on a ship to the Middle or Far East. The corpse was left to rot in the sun and eventual discovery by a greatly-outnumbered native population and park police force.
As an art magazine editor, I have been considering a piece on the plight of the endangered African elephant. For centuries, ivory has been considered a medium of choice for artisans, using its firm, but malleable textures, warm patina and fine patterning to shape objects of all kind: from religious artifacts; to replicas of ships and temples; to animals—both realistic and mythical—as well as mementos of long journeys to exotic places. Museums and private collections around the world are filled with examples of intricately-carved ivory. And, like a complex piano composition, ivory offers the artist an opportunity to exhibit a life-time of skill in three dimensions for an admiring, or wealthy owner-to-be.
This demand eventually threatened the very existence of the elephant, and other creatures with collectable or folk-medicinal traits—like pelts, horn, antlers, fats and oils and impressive manes—driving them to the brink of extinction. International trade rules and national crack-downs on hunting and poaching in the 1970s and `80s stemmed the tide in the short run, but increased prosperity and permeable African borders, made all-the-more-appealing to growing hoards of poachers by graft and corruption, have once again turned countries like China, Russia and the Middle East into hotbeds of animal product trade—particularly ivory.
Worldwide demand for ivory—but particularly in China—has pushed poaching activities in the African bush to record levels. With 90% of the world’s elephants now eradicated, the current rate of destruction threatens to drive the species to extinction in less than fifty years. Their tusks, long prized as symbols of wealth and good fortune, also make their way into temples as intricately carved objects of devotion. With a population of 1.2 billion, the hundreds of dialect variations within the Chinese language share the same pictograph for ‘tooth’ as for ‘tusk.’ As a result, the vast majority of people don’t equate the death of an elephant with the harvesting of its tusks—after all, that particular ‘tooth’ can reconstitute, right? But, for the growing population of wealthy—those who are educated enough or worldly enough to desire ivory products—the reality is clear!
Our quest for trophies takes many forms. Works by the world’s best known artists, both contemporary and modern have recently sold in the global market for record prices. The motivational question has to be asked: is this a desire for art that stirs the soul, or a bullish addition to an investment portfolio and reputation among colleagues? In the interest of her television career, our Texas cheerleader scoured the plains of an African game preserve to acquire trophy art—for her walls back home and her Facebook ‘likes,’ but more importantly, to assuage her ego. Her argument was that supporting game preserves is an important way to pump money into a community of land owners ultimately dedicated to preserving endangered populations, as a whole. She is not incorrect, but she ignored the positive message in favor of the optics, and for this she deserves the ire of those who have responded viscerally to such wanton disregard.
Her ill-gotten prizes, and the memory of the great elephant, Satao, should each serve as warning shots over the bow: the world can no longer embrace the belief that these magnificent animals are here for our pleasure and consumption. Every time a Satao, a white rhino, a leopard, a sperm whale, or a minute ocean coral polyp dies at our hand, something in us dies, as well.
Thank you for reading ARTES Magazine; and if this issue moves you as much as it does me, please visit the article posted below.
Richard J. Friswell, Managing Editor
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For a shocking, yet beautifully-written piece on the death of an elephant, link to this GQ story: