Many years ago, Sue Coe, who in the 1980s had earned a reputation as one of the foremost political artists of her generation by focusing on racial, class and gender inequities, came to the conclusion that humankind's relationship to the natural environment was the most compelling social issue of our time. Although she recognized the pitfalls of equating animals with the human victims of oppression, Coe nonetheless felt that animals constituted a key link, both symbolic and concrete, to the increasingly compromised realm of nature. Personal memories of growing up near a slaughterhouse provoked her first extended foray into the parallel reality inhabited by animals. Her series Porkopolis began by examining the lives of pigs, from factory farm to dinner table, and gradually expanded to include other species, such as chickens and cows. Initially exhibited at the Galerie St. Etienne in 1989, this body of work was published as the book Dead Meat in 1996. Exhibitions and books on abandoned dogs, Pit's Letter (1999/2000), and on the sheep industry, Sheep of Fools (2005), followed.
In the twenty years that Coe has made animal rights a central tenet of her work, these issues have moved ever closer to the forefront of public awareness. It is today widely acknowledged that the factory farming of animals is not only unnecessarily cruel, but hugely wasteful and damaging to the environment. Beyond the adverse health implications of a meat-based diet, we now know that our meat supply has been compromised by the rampant use of antibiotics and other feed additives. The science of genetics, while further adulterating our food, at the same time reminds us of the biological continuum uniting us with all animate beings. Contemporary behavioral science likewise highlights the cognitive and emotional similarities between human and non-human animals. We are starting to recognize that human attempts to commandeer nature have created disastrous ecological imbalances, triggering global warming and mass extinctions. The centuries-old dichotomy between animal and human, nature and culture, is being challenged as never before.
The belief that humans, created in God's image, are different from and superior to other creatures is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Biblical Book of Genesis granted man dominion over animals, and ever since, Western men have attempted to tame and control nature. That which was deemed wild, whether embodied in an animal, an unsettled frontier, an alien society, or closer to home, the female sex, had to be conquered and subdued. The culture/nature dichotomy was the underlying rationale for imperialism, colonialism, slavery and the subjugation of anyone or anything judged less civilized than the European white male. In a world-view characterized by a division between "us" and "them," animals were the consummate "other." Within this context, elephants exemplify both the near decimation of a specific wild species and the broader exploitation of colonial Africa and Asia.
From the sixteenth century onward, elephant ivory figured, along with slaves, sugar, tobacco and precious metals, in the triangle trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas. As European demand for ivory--used for all manner of things from billiard balls to jewelry and false teeth--escalated, tens of thousands of elephants were massacred. But elephants were killed not just for their ivory. They and other wild animals indigenous to the territories colonized by Europeans were routinely hunted for sport. The "great white hunter" is one of the classic icons of imperial conquest, esteemed for his alleged bravery in subduing ferocious beasts and "uncivilized" natives. The battle between man and nature was memorialized in trophies, photographs and other souvenirs of the hunt, but also reprised for European and American audiences in zoos and circuses. In 1815 the circus, which had traditionally featured jugglers, clowns and equestrian acts, was transformed when Hackaliah Bailey (an American who was an indirect progenitor of the Barnum & Bailey Circus) purchased an African elephant, Old Bet, from a sea captain. In the ensuing decades, elephants, prized for their impressive size and grandeur, became a mainstay of circuses, along with other exotic animals, such as lions and tigers, imported from the jungle. Since only baby elephants were small and docile enough to transport, their protective mothers usually had to be killed. A third of the captured babies died from the stresses of the hunt, and many more on boat journeys that could take months. Nevertheless, live-animal traders were considered to be noble entrepreneurs, since their goal (in the words of one early twentieth-century observer) was "not to exterminate, but to preserve for the education and benefit of civilized man."
Elephants, herbivores that know no predators other than humans, are gentle enough to have been employed, in their native lands, for transportation and logging. But due to their enormous weight, powerful trunks and sometimes massive tusks, they can be very dangerous when provoked. Males experience periodic bouts of hormonally triggered aggressiveness know as musth, and for this reason they are seldom used for labor or in circuses. But even females can kill, and attempts to tame them are never wholly successful. Captivity for these immense creatures, which in the wild can roam up to 60 miles a day, is in itself a form of abuse. In addition, circus elephants spend their lives in chains, and often bear the scars of the bull hooks that are used to herd them. The history of the circus is rife with tales of elephants turning on their keepers, who often lacked the education and intellectual capacity to understand the animals. So many of the trainers were alcoholics that some elephants became phobic about the smell of liquor. Elephants that killed were often renamed and sold on to different circuses. When this solution failed, they were put to death.
Thus the popular fantasy of circus elephants--giant beasts humbled before man--contrasts sharply with the elephants' reality, which has been fraught with cruelty and retaliatory violence. The fantasy elephant is exemplified by Jumbo, whose name became a synonym for "extra large." Jumbo first achieved renown at the London Zoo, where he was a favorite of Queen Victoria and the darling of school children, who paid twopence apiece to ride in a sixty-seat howdah strapped to his back. But increasingly erratic behavior behind the scenes may have prompted Jumbo's keepers to sell him to the American circus impresario P. T. Barnum, who was looking for a blockbuster attraction. Jumbo arrived in New York attended by a fever-pitch publicity campaign that included attempts by the British to cancel the sale and a cavalcade of Jumbo products such as jewelry, cigars, trading cards and prints. Sadly, Jumbo's reign as the star of the Barnum & Bailey Circus lasted only three years. In 1885, he was killed by a train while in the process of being loaded onto a freight car. Barnum continued to milk Jumbo's story even in death. He claimed that Jumbo had died trying to save a smaller elephant, Tom Thumb, from the train. Barnum also had Jumbo stuffed (and enlarged by a foot in the bargain) and exhibited him alongside a live elephant named Alice, Jumbo's one-time companion from the London Zoo. To heighten the display's sentimental impact, Barnum dressed Alice in widow's weeds. This tableau sealed Jumbo's mythic identity as a gentle companion to children who died a hero's death and was mourned by a devoted "wife."
If Jumbo was tenderly anthropomorphized by Barnum and the public, people were far less sympathetic toward circus elephants that killed their keepers. One such elephant was Mary, who in 1916 fatally trampled an inexperienced trainer before a group of horrified onlookers in rural Tennessee. The crowd demanded--and got--a formal execution. Mary was arrested, tethered outside the local jail and then hung from an industrial derrick before an audience of 2,500 humans (including children). On the first try, the derrick's chain snapped, because the executioners had failed to release the shackles binding Mary's ankles. The five-ton creature came crashing down, shattering her hip. The shackles were then released, and the severely injured animal was successfully hoisted into the air; she died within minutes. Whether condemned or idealized, elephants were expected to adhere to the standards of a human society as foreign to them as elephant society is to us.
Perhaps the most famous "killer elephant" to be put to death was Topsy, who was electrocuted in 1903 in a bizarre publicity stunt on behalf of Thomas Edison. Topsy was an elephant in the Forepaugh Circus who killed a drunk for tormenting her with a lit cigarette and was subsequently sold to Luna Park at Coney Island. When Topsy became unruly there, the owners decided it was time to exterminate her. Edison, who held the patent on direct current, wanted to prove that alternating current was more dangerous. To do so, he had already electrocuted many stray dogs and cats. But using alternating current to execute a dangerous elephant promised to provide a far more convincing validation of Edison's position. (He called the process "getting Westinghoused," since George Westinghouse held the competing AC patent.) To ensure the success of Edison's demonstration, Topsy was fed a bunch of cyanide-laced carrots prior to being hooked up to the electrodes. A crowd of 1,500 paid 10¢ apiece to witness the sorry spectacle. Edison ultimately lost the "war of the currents": AC (which in truth is no more dangerous than DC) became the norm throughout most of the world. However, Topsy's bit part in this saga is emblematic of the way in which the quest for profits and dominance abrogates the rights of the powerless, human and non-human alike.
Sue Coe discovered Topsy after a trip to Sri Lanka in 1998 sparked an interest in elephants. Coe, part of a volunteer mission to study wild monkeys, one day snuck away from her group to visit a herd of rescued elephants. She was awed not just by the animals' majesty, but by the way they seemed to exist in their own world. While neither she nor the elephants were afraid of one another, they were mutually respectful of their separate spaces. Returning to the U.S., Coe was struck by the contrast between zoo elephants and those she had seen in the wild. In zoos no less than in circuses, elephants bear the psychological scars of captivity, pacing and swaying in frustration at being denied their freedom. Coe began to research elephants, but she was also driven to recapture the experience of standing among the Sri Lankan herd. There was something beyond ideas or ideology that she hoped to express in her paintings.
In many ways, Coe's Topsy series, and the paintings and drawings of other elephants that followed, represent a turning point in her lengthy artistic career. Having for years earned a living as an illustrator for such publications as The New York Times, Time and The New Yorker, Coe was accustomed to marrying images with narrative content. The political concerns that inspired her independent work fostered a similarly illustrative approach. Color was used sparingly, if at all, in her art. She was a brilliant draughtsman, but rarely painted. Black-and-white was not only suited to reproduction in newspapers (in the days before color printing became ubiquitous) but was central to the European tradition of political art. Like such predecessors as Honoré Daumier, Max Klinger, Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix and George Grosz, Coe believed that color was frivolous and decorative, diluting meaningful content.
Coe began to rethink her prejudice against color after seeing at first hand the work of the muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco on a 2007 trip to Mexico City. Unlike Europeans, the Mexicans saw no conflict between color and social content; on the contrary, they used color skillfully to heighten the impact of their messages. Coe was also impressed by the scale of Rivera's and Orozco's work, a monumental affect impossible to achieve with drawing. Drawings can only grow so large before they begin to flatten out and fall apart visually. As Coe puts it, "To get lost in a scene, you need the depth of painting." Whereas viewers tend to "read" drawings like calligraphy, paintings produce a more visceral emotional impact. In the elephant works, Coe not only employs painting more consistently than ever before, she also allows color to play a far more central role in her process. Though the paintings are still comparatively muted, they are very varied in tone. Essentially, Coe uses two distinct palettes: bright and cheery colors represent the fantasy of the circus, and musty brownish-black hues evoke the reality of the elephant's urban-industrial surroundings.
Another pivotal influence on Coe's recent work was her move, in 2001, from Manhattan to Upstate New York. Abandoning the hard edges and human constructions of the city for rural surroundings changed her entire perspective. "Trees and landscape and stars and weather had their own identity," she recalls. "Lightening bugs and shooting stars merged into this roar of a different life, colors changed every few seconds. I became a different person." Coe gradually became part of the local community. One of her neighbors built her a studio; another sold her old windows at cost. People routinely stopped by to check on the progress of her work, sharing their reactions, suggesting and bringing props, volunteering to pose. Coe was aware for the first time not only of her own need to bear witness, but of being witnessed by others, of being part of the larger world to which she was responding and which was, in turn, responding to her. Her approach grew more holistic. She stopped accepting commercial illustration assignments and, freed from the narrow confines of a Manhattan apartment, was able to comfortably work on bigger scale.
Living in such close contact with nature also made Coe's previous preoccupation with animals and the environment far more real. As an artist, she had never been content merely to deliver a didactic political message; her goal was to share with others her personal emotional reactions. Increasingly, she came to recognize that this was an open-ended process, the success of which depended less on what was said overtly than on what was left unsaid. Mystery and ambiguity lie at the heart of all great art. It is not, in the end, what we know about the elephants that gives Coe's latest paintings their haunting power, but what we can never know about these grand but alien creatures. Nonetheless, the paintings reflect Coe's belief that we humans have a community of interest with the elephants and that we and they share a common fate. Indeed, our very survival as a species may depend on recognizing our interconnectedness with all living beings, and abandoning our attempts to coerce nature into compliance with our whims.
Copies of Blab! No. 18, containing Sue Coe's series "An Elephant Never Forgets," may be purchased from the gallery for $23.00, plus $8.00 postage and handling, New York residents please add sales tax. Checklist entries list image dimensions for the prints and full dimensions for all other works.