Loving companions, clever tricksters, or religious informants, animals in the art of South and Southeast Asia evoke the power of kingdoms, the wisdom of saints, and devotional desire. Sometimes sacred, sometimes profane, both gentle and ferocious, animals animate and enliven the scene. The Elephant’s Eye brings together thirty paintings, ink studies, and sculptures from India, Thailand, and Cambodia to showcase the many ways animals represent religion, politics, culture, and history.
While the exhibition features an eclectic collection of animals, including leopards, tigers, snakes, cows, and horses, elephants—both royal and religious—take center stage. As the head of the noble deity Ganesh, the elephant becomes a symbol for wisdom and success. As part of a royal procession or military campaign, elephants are deployed as props of wealth and power. In an eighteenth-century Bundi painting from Rajasthan, a determined elephant outsmarts his tethers, finding a way to unearth the peg that pinned him to the ground. In a clever twist on the prominent place of elephants in Asian art, conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid trained elephants to actually make paintings themselves at an elephant preserve in Thailand.
The guise of each animal changes as they are captured in a work of art. See for yourself what the artful representations of animals in South and Southeast Asian art can suggest. You may be surprised by what you can discover in the smallest details and gestures, or in the way an artist captured the glimmer of light in an elephant’s eye.
The Elephant’s Eye is organized by guest curator Padma Maitland, a graduate student in architecture and South and Southeast Asian studies. It was planned in partnership with UC Berkeley professor Penny Edwards and Senior Curator for Asian Art Julia M. White and first developed during the Art Research Center’s Fellows program in the spring of 2013.