The elephant is a metaphor that awakens the yearning for forgotten conversations between humans, the Earth and all living things…It is a poignant metaphor, when you think about the size of this powerful animal, and the shrinking environment that surrounds it. (Andries Botha, 2010)
To celebrate Earth Day this Friday, April 22, 2022, meet Andries Botha (b.1952), artist and political activist from Durban, South Africa. Botha graduated from the University of Natal in the 1970’s. His prints and sculptures have won many awards. Beyond his career as an artist, he has founded several art related organizations in South Africa: Community Arts Workshops (1984-86); Bheka Plambile (1994), creative training for women; Create Africa South (1999), to promote creativity in South Africa; and the NGO Create South Africa Trust (2002); Human Elephant Foundation (2009); and the Andries Botha Foundation (2012).
Botha’s “You Can Buy My Heart and My Soul” (2006), consists of nine life-sized elephant sculptures, each made from driftwood and wooden pallets nailed to a metal skeleton. The elephant mothers and babies walk across De Panne beach in Belgium. The elephant parade takes the viewer’s breath away. They are a magnificent and an unforgettable presence on this white sandy beach. Botha purposely creates his sculptures from recycled materials, as he states, “to prove that art should also play a part of man’s struggle to achieve a perfect balance in living in accordance with nature’s laws. There is no need to destroy more in order to create something.”
Botha placed these elephants on the De Panne Beach for a very specific purpose. De Panne beach is the widest beach in Belgium, a perfect place for family vacations. The sculptures are placed on the beach in front of what was Belgian King Leopold’s (1865-1909) holiday residence. During his reign, Leopold gained control of the Belgian Congo. He purchased much of the land for himself to avoid government control. He plundered the Congo for ivory and later for rubber. He was responsible for the slaughter of thousands of elephants, and his bloody rule also caused the deaths of as many as 10 million Congolese. Botha’s elephants walk away from Belgium into the sea toward Africa.
In the Summer of 2007, this writer walked out of the train station in Antwerp, Belgium, onto Queen Astridplein and encountered six of these elephants. They were an unexpected and a remarkable sight. Nothing prevented viewers from walking around them and touching them. Skillfully crafted, each had a distinct character. They were a reminder of the presence of many magnificent endangered species and our awakening to the climate crisis. Their impact made a lasting impression.
Nomklubulwane is the Zulu Goddess of rain, nature, and fertility. She represents Mother Earth. The Goddess is referred to as “she who chooses the state of an animal.” Botha has said his elephants “represent the world of nature from which we have removed ourselves and for which we increasingly yearn.” Botha founded the Human Elephant Foundation in 2009. He describes it as “a partnership to catalyze a new creative language that expands environmental awareness and commitment.” He made 20 elephant sculptures of various recycled materials that have toured the world to raise public awareness.
One of the twenty “Nomklubulwane” (2009) (this one recycled tires) (10’ tall x 18’ long x 6’ wide) traveled around the world. This one now stands outside the historical Museum Beelden ann Zee in the Hague, Belgium. Like all her recycled sisters, she represents the waste humans generate every day, and she inspires the viewer to reflect on the consequences for the environment. “Nomklubulwane” in the Hague is part of an exhibition sponsored by the Rainbow Nation, a South African organization named after Archbishop Desmund Tutu’s term for post-apartheid South Africa beginning in 1994. In a speech one month after his election, President Nelson Mandela stated: “Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and mimosa trees of the bushveld–a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
The twenty elephants were sent on a world-wide tour from Durban, South Africa, including Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Chicago, Montana, and Detroit. The tour was sponsored by several organizations in partnership with the Human Elephant Foundation.
Once again, this writer was privileged to encounter a Botha elephant. The Detroit elephant was exhibited on the campus of Marygrove College in Detroit, one of the two colleges where this writer taught art history. The Marygrove art faculty collaborated with several Detroit elementary school art teachers to make small chicken wire elephants from Botha’s model. They were distributed to the schools. The students at each school learned about the elephants, other endangered species, and conservation. Each school class decided how to decorate an elephant. The elephants were then exhibited at the various schools and at the Marygrove college art gallery. The blue Detroit School Elephant (2010) is woven of plastic blue trash bags and is embellishment with beads.
This colorful Detroit School Elephant (2010) has ribbons wrapped around the trunk, and ribbons were used to attach messages and pictures. Some students drew pictures of flowers, trees, and nature. Others wrote messages about the environment. Many of the children made pledges to plant trees or flowers.
Andries Botha continues to create sculptures to generate awareness of the Earth’s climate crisis. In 2016, a retrospective exhibition titled Being Here (and there) displayed Botha’s work over a period of 40 years. Botha has been on a personal journey that involved moving from being a private person to one exhibiting in public places and receiving world-wide attention. He comments, “Most of my major works were made as part of my own meditation on self within the frightening, or challenging South African space, exhibited (mostly abroad) as part of larger group show, then crated and stored (hidden again). The complex South African context unashamedly frames the universal human experience, mine as well. It is difficult to imagine expressing myself in any other way.”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.