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Monday, July 13, 1998 Published at 03:21 GMT 04:21 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Trunk strokes

The first brush strokes of a new artist

In Thailand, elephants are becoming artists in a new venture intended to raise money for conservation. But is it really art?

A masterclass of a few lucky Thai elephants are being invited to join the select ranks of contemporary artists.

New York artist Alex Melamid is in Thailand promoting elephant art, and teaching elephants the necessary skills to find fame and fortune in the fickle art world.

[ image: The creative pachyderm at work]
The creative pachyderm at work
Passionate about the similarities between modern human art and elephant etchings, Alex Melamid believes his brush strokes are no different from the elephant's creative output.

"At the end, it is very hard to tell who did what," he said. "When we work with elephants, we feel that we're really equals. It's a really good communication tool."

While the search continues for elephants with artistic potential, the difficult task of convincing a sceptical public to invest in the work has already begun.

Art historians such as Mia Fineman, of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, have already been recruited to induct art lovers into the mysterious new world of elephant art.

[ image: Hmmm ...]
Hmmm ...
She said: "The paintings that the elephants are making are certainly beautiful objects. And in a way, it's a kind of cross-cultural exchange programme.

"The local people have never been exposed to abstract art before and the elephants certainly haven't."

And the experiment is working - at least in the United States. Paintings by one famous American elephant artist fetch $100,000 a year.

At least one anonymous art lover admitted to being impressed: "I would buy this. From where I was sitting, it reminded me of a Cezanne painting."

Others remain unconvinced.

"I certainly wouldn't buy it just because it was made by an elephant. I don't think it tells us anything about modern art," said an American art student.

Even in Thailand, the works are expected to sell well as tourist souvenirs if nothing else, bringing the elephants and their keepers an income for some time to come.

All the evidence suggests that for the moment, elephants are enjoying the experience and are finding out, like many artists before them, that it's not such a bad way to scrape a living.

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