Kelsey Merreck Wagner: The Elephantine in the Anthropocene

The exhibition “The Elephantine in the Anthropocene” by Kelsey Merreck Wagner — on display July 6, 2018 through Jan. 12, 2019 at the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts at Appalachian State University — explores historic hunting practices in African countries as linked to the ivory trade in Asia, and how modern conservation is working to save the species.


[Background music throughout]

Kelsey Merreck Wagner: My first memory of elephants - I don’t necessarily have a conscious memory of, but my mother always talks about taking me to zoos when we were younger, so this probably would havebeem about the time that I was three or four. She said that she would always wheel me around to where the elephants were and as soon as we were in front of the elephant pen I was instantly happier and more engaged. When my mother would take me away to see the other animals at the zoo, I would instantly become a little bit less happy and maybe cry or complain and for some reason just always had this pull toward the elephants.

KMW: Gifts from grandmothers, and my mother, my parents always involved elephants whether it was t-shirts, or books or little trinkets. I had two different elephant necklaces from each of my grandmothers that I wore all the time. The elephants really became part of my material culture and felt as though I was surrounded by them, even though I wasn’t growing up anywhere near Asia or Africa.

[Wind, laughter, happy shouts]

KMW: I’m interested in using art as a creative intervention for problems involving environmental justice and social justice because art has such a powerful communicative property. Not just for the artist or the maker, but for the audience that’s able to approach that work and gain a new perspective about something that is going on in the world, or maybe something that is just going on in the artist’s head - the idea that art can be made out of practically nothing, it can be made out of trash, it can be made out of the scraps of paper you have, it can be made out of wood. Anything, everything is art. Communities can be trained through other artists in their communities or perhaps outside artists like myself to get together and work on a certain issue and come up with a visual format that expresses all of these different ideas and allow people to think through that.

KMW: As someone that is interested in art and also anthropology and conservation and elephants and a hundred thousand other little things that are all interconnected, I am looking forward to continuing to use my art for conservation. I would love to continue doing work in Thailand and working on issues dealing with tourism and illegal logging. I am really perplexed by what is going on in Indonesia with human-elephant conflict which is also a major problem in countries all over Africa – which is also, of course, home to most of the major ivory trade and poaching.

KMW: As someone who loves to be around elephants, and loves to travel, and loves to eat noodles, I definitely see myself winding up in Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia and being able to work with all different communities and help them think about their relationships with elephants and learn from them and use that to think about all these interspecies relationships across the globe.

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