For the first time, the Elephant Parade comes to Bangkok, courtesy of Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spas. This acclaimed event, a worldwide philanthropic effort started in 2006, showcases specially designed “herds” of the noble beasts in statue form—eighty-eight of them, all brightly coloured, decorated and hand-painted by artists and celebrities. Rising Thai artist Maitree Siriboon is participating in the parade. In the run-up to the launch, he chats with Bangkok 101 about his involvement in this project and the inspiration that’s elevated him in the eyes of the art world.
How did you get involved with the Elephant Parade?
Mark Thomson, one of the organizers, contacted me about the project out of the blue. I immediately accepted the invitation to participate in the event.
Your elephant is grand and flashy—bright colours, animal print, sparkling silver toenails. What inspired you here? What does the elephant mean?
I love the character of the baby elephant itself. I wanted to use bright colours to express its sort of childish appeal. It’s named “Fire Elephant.” The pattern painted on the sculpture tells the story of the forest being infringed upon by the human agricultural lifestyle. That pattern combines with a colour mosaic technique that has been my signature style since university. This baby elephant is “on fire,” or under threat from humans, but it still shares natural beauty with us when we see it. But elephants don’t have a voice to express themselves, neither their beauty nor their pain.
You’ve said in the past that Silom Soi 4 has influenced you and your work, but you are also drawn to your roots in the countryside. Do those same competing concepts appear here?
This was more of a commissioned project, so there’s no link to Silom Soi 4 in it, but the fire elephant does relate to my life in Isaan to a certain extent. My memories of Isaan are slowly being melted away by time, so I can hardly connect with it as much as I could before. I’m a Bangkok citizen now. At the same time, the narrative of rural life in Isaan, seen through the sculpture, is fading away, too.
That pose you strike on the elephant—you have used that same pose with water buffaloes in the past. What does the human relationship with animals signify?
I struck the same pose on a buffalo in a previous photo series. I actually had a dream I was riding on an elephant. But as a farm boy, maybe it’s better for me to ride a buffalo rather than an elephant.
I rather enjoyed working on one of my recent photographic series, “Save Thai Buffalo.” And in another project, a photo exhibition and installation called “Isan Boy Dream,” I invited young people from Isaan to travel with me to Soi 4, placing them in a foreign context. And then I brought foreigners to my home village, placing them against a village backdrop. That was a great project.
Having reached fame in a relatively short period of time, how do you keep yourself grounded and moving forward?
It’s easy to get lost in the art world, I think. There are loads of questions I need to ask myself to keep my head in check. So I watch a lot of shows on topics like quantum physics to maintain self-balance. Life isn’t only about art, after all. This helps for now, but I’m not sure how long it’s going to work!
Do you see external influences—from Europe, the US, China, etc.—playing a role in the development of the art scene in Thailand?
When we talk about development, we’re talking about collectors, as well. I also run a non-profit art gallery called Whitespace Gallery. There, I can see the strong influence of the US and Europe, as well as a little from Singapore. Recently, the French Embassy organized a galleries’ night. All this shows that we [Thailand] still need help from the outside. But we’re influencing the foreign world, too. In fact, there’s a big Thai exhibition called Thai Eye in London.
What else are you working on at the moment?
I’m preparing a solo show next year and also working on a side project, a dinner and art auction to help bring the Isan Dream project to Hong Kong.
The 88 elephants will be on display throughout the city in December and January. Until December 18, the colourful sculptures will be exhibited at Siam Paragon. After that, from December 20 to January 11, they will land at Asiatique. Finally, from January 18 to January 29, the parade will take over Lumpini Park. All told, there are plenty of opportunities to experience this rare exhibition.
After being paraded through town, the sculptures will be auctioned off at a special event at The Anantara Siam in February, with proceeds going to The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. In turn, the foundation will select a range of sustainable programmes that benefit Thai elephants.
The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) was set up in 2006 to improve the plight of the country’s national animal. It has since diversified, incorporating welfare projects with broader philanthropic and cultural objectives. So far 25 elephants—and their entire mahout families—have been rescued from the streets and provided with a place to rest and grow. Mahouts and their wives receive English lessons, and their children are given access to education they have never before had. On top of it all, the GTAEF has helped establish a silk worm business from which the families enjoy 100 per cent of the profits made from the sales of their wares at the Anantara Golden Triangle.
In addition to rescuing elephants off the street, the GTAEF cooperates with the Thai government and other organisations in projects, including the support of research clinics using elephants in therapy sessions for children living with autism and the equipping of the the first elephant hospital in Krabi.
The Elephant Parade itself was created after founder Marc Spits and his son Mike visited the Friends of the Asian Elephant hospital in Thailand
, which treats sick and injured elephants. There they saw Mosha, a baby elephant who lost a foot at the tender age of seven months old. Mosha was the first elephant to receive a prosthetic limb. She is fitted with a new leg every year and must learn to walk again each time. Mosha wearing her prosthetic leg is always featured in each Elephant Parade.
Since the Parade started in 2006 more than 800 artists have participated and over 1000 elephants have been created, each an original piece of art. Supporters of the Elephant Parade include Sir Richard Branson, Goldie Hawn, Khloe Kardashian, Katy Perry, Tommy Hilfiger, Paul Smith, Ricky Gervais, and Prince Henrik of Denmark—to name a few.