The Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project (AEACP) promotes and distributes the work of elephant artists to raise funds for elephant conservation. By exhibiting and marketing the paintings internationally, the AEACP aims to increase public awareness of the plight of Asian elephants whose numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate. In recent years, the number of domesticated elephants in Thailand alone has rapidly diminished from 11,000 to only 3,000. Deforestation of the Thai countryside has led to a ban on the logging of teak, an industry that once employed thousands of elephants. Although much needed, the logging ban left these elephants and their life-long owners (mahouts) without a livelihood.
Upon hearing of the situation in Southeast Asia, Komar & Melamid began their first collaboration with an elephant, Renee, at the Toledo Zoo in Ohio in 1995. It was here that Komar & Melamid first developed their method of teaching elephants to paint. Elephants in United States zoos have been painting successfully for two decades. One such painting pachyderm at the Phoenix Zoo named Ruby generated more than $100,000 for the zoo in a single year. After working with elephants in States, Komar & Melamid then introduced the idea of teaching elephants how to paint to Asia and two years later founded the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project.
Komar & Melamid first traveled to Thailand in 1998 and worked with elephants in Lampang, Ayutthaya, Surin, and Phuket. Later that year they gave their first lecture about their elephant art project at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, California. In November 1998, Komar & Melamid opened the world’s first elephant art academy in Lampang. To celebrate this event, the Hilton International Hotel in Bangkok hosted the AEACP’s first exhibition of elephant art.
In June 1999, Komar & Melamid were asked to represent Russia at the prestigious Venice Biennial and the duo included works by elephant artists Juthanam, Phitsamai, and Nam Chok – a historic first for elephant artists.
In August 1999, the AEACP established another colony of painting elephants near Ubud in Bali, Indonesia. In conjunction with the Mimi Ferzt Gallery in New York, a selection of elephant paintings created during this period was exhibited at the millennium art show at the Four Seasons in Bali.
In March 2000, a Christie’s Auction of elephant art held in New York raised a staggering $75,000 for elephant conservation. One painting was purchased by a collector for $2200.
In 2001, the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art in Australia raised $27,000 and saw over 42,000 visitors come through its doors for the largest exhibition of elephant art to date.
In the summer of 2002, the AEACP wrapped up another exhibition and online auction of elephant art at the Berkeley Museum of Art in California, which raised an additional $20,000 for this important cause.
The winter of 2002/2003, the AEACP established the first Cambodian elephant art center at the Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center in Phnom Penh, as well as two new centers in Thailand and two in Indonesia, one of which is located on the grounds of the magnificent Borobudur Temple in Central Java.
2003 brought the AEACP and elephant art to the shores of Japan. The Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art just outside of Tokyo held the country’s first exhibition of elephant art, even bringing in a Thai elephant for the opening ceremonies. The exhibition was an amazing success, bringing much media attention to the museum. Since the close of the exhibition, two smaller gallery exhibits of elephant art have taken place in and near Tokyo.
The AEACP has received attention and support from around the globe. Komar & Melamid’s work with elephants has been featured in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation and Esquire, as well as featured on CBS Sunday Morning, the Lehrer NewsHour, and a substantial segment on 60 Minutes.