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Animals are complex. Often marginalized, there’s increasing interest in understanding how animals feel… there’s a discrepancy, though, between how we understand our own feelings and those of animals,” explains Guest Curator Padma Maitland. The Berkeley Art Museum’s new exhibition, The Elephant’s Eye: Artful Animals in South and Southeast Asia brings together thirty paintings, ink studies, and sculptures from India, Thailand, and Cambodia to explore the representation and meaning of animals in South and Southeast Asian art.

“As Padma and I began looking at images from the collection it was apparent that the exhibition would be made up of different types of art: religious, folk and classical paintings, sculpture, and tapestry as well as drawings. I liked his approach because it opened doors to new ways of looking at these objects and put material in interesting juxtaposition in a rather non-traditional way,” says Julia White, Senior Curator for Asian Art at the Berkeley Art Museum. Maitland worked closely with both White and Penny Edwards, UC Berkeley Professor of South and Southeast Asian Studies, to develop the The Elephant’s Eye.

The link between animals and the Berkeley Art Museum’s collection was first discovered by Penny Edwards while developing a seminar about animal magic. Fortuitously, Edward’s discovery dovetailed nicely with Maitland’s own graduate work on representations of elephants in Dalit Buddhist art and architecture in India. “Once we began, looking for perhaps just a handful of items, we both were delighted to find art work that helped to expand on the theme. BAM/PFA has a wonderful collection of Indian paintings, primarily from the Jean and Francis Marshall collection, that Padma was able to use as a major resource,” comments White.

With input from all of the Berkeley Art Museum’s departments, the exhibit was carefully crafted to explore a variety of social and historical settings. “The relationship between animals and humans is complex, changing over time and according to context,” says Maitland. One of the pieces in the exhibition, a beautifully composed Shah Jahani copy of an Akbar Period original, shows a procession of men traveling with elephants, horses, and dogs through rocky terrain. In this instance animals are a representation of power and wealth, “The formal expression can be a telling testament to how animals are understood or perceived in relation to the time and context of its creation,” explains Maitland.

Although a variety of animals are featured throughout the exhibit, it is the elephant that takes center stage. “Elephants are particularly prolific in the collection and the type of art from the region we were choosing…elephants furthermore feature prominently in popular imagination, so seem a fruitful focus for a show appealing to a wider audience,” explains Maitland. A Bundhi painting from the 1730s features Ganesh arrayed as part of Shiva’s family, tapping into a deeply religious interpretation of the elephant. Another earlier and dramatic work from the 17th century shows Vishnu and Garuda saving the King of the Elephants, Gajendra Moksha, from a dynamic crocodile.
The exhibition also reveals a glimpse of life from behind the eyes of an elephant. “A naturalistic depiction of an elephant reflects a different understanding of the animal than a more stylized or iconic version does,” comments Maitland. An 18th century Bundhi painting from the exhibition reveals a clever elephant escaping his tethers. The exhibit also includes work by conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, who trained elephants to create their own paintings at the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project in Thailand. “Instead of being a painting of an elephant, it is a painting done by the elephant Ramona,” says Maitland.

Maitland will be giving a guided tour of the exhibition on April 13. “By focusing on representation of animals in the art of South and Southeast Asia, it was our hope that the exhibition would open up a discussion of the relationships between how animals are depicted and how they are understood” says Maitland. The Elephant’s Eye is a chance for viewers of all ages to engage both empathetically and intellectually with the animals in front of them. “Working with Padma on this show was a delightful experience and I think the exhibition is a real achievement and contribution to our exhibition program,” concludes White.

Through June 29, Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. Tickets begin at $10.