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JH

Elephant Empathy

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An image of Tom and his keeper. Installation view of Matilda Fraser's 'His trunk for a hand, and his foot for a scythe' at RM Detail of Matilda Fraser's 'His trunk for a hand, and his foot for a scythe' at RM Detail of Matilda Fraser's 'His trunk for a hand, and his foot for a scythe' at RM Still from Matilda Fraser's film. Detail of Matilda Fraser's 'His trunk for a hand, and his foot for a scythe' at RM An article from Lake Wakatipu Mail, Issue 637, 19 January 1871, syndicated content from the Hawkes Bay Herald, 15th January 1871.

Tom was regarded affectionately by Auckland locals, even though later on he crushed his keeper in London after being frightened in a moving train, and acquired a reputation for beating up a policeman while drunk. According to the local papers, this three year old Indian 'workhorse' was known for enjoying beer, biscuits, sticky buns, lollies, pea soup and even tobacco.

RM

Auckland

 

Matilda Fraser
His trunk for a hand, and his foot for a scythe

 

8 July - 25 July 2020

A powerfully stirring short film, Matilda Fraser’s His trunk for a hand, and his foot for a scythe is a sort of eloquent poem for animal rights, telling us—through addressing the pachyderm concerned—the story of Tom, a small elephant owned by Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh (Queen Victoria’s son). Tom, a gift from the Nepalise Maharaja, Jung Bahadur Rana, was shipped out to New Zealand from Calcutta in 1869 on the HMS Galatea, where he carried coal and pulled ropes.

His visit was a temporary stay organised as part of Prince Alfred’s tour of the colonies, and he was housed in the Albert Barracks in Auckland with soldiers and a tortoise. He had the strength of twenty men, and was set to work in Maungahau (Mt. Eden) dragging blocks of bluestone basalt from the adjacent quarry up to the crater. He left New Zealand in February 1871, eventually dying at the age of sixteen in the Dublin Zoo in 1882.

Tom was regarded affectionately by Auckland locals, even though later on he crushed his keeper in London after being frightened in a moving train, and acquired a reputation for beating up a policeman while drunk. According to the local papers, this three year old Indian ‘workhorse’ was known for enjoying beer, biscuits, sticky buns, lollies, pea soup and even tobacco. 

Tom was involved with many local projects like quarrying scoria and basalt, and dragging the trig station up to Maungawhau’s summit. Or entertaining the locals by drinking barrels of beer in the pub and showing the effects. Fraser has sardonically popped a handful of liquorice assorts in the crater of a plywood model of Maungahau she presents as a sculpture.

Fraser is a conspicuously gifted film-maker, artist and writer with a penchant for researching history. Her RM film show also includes a 3D model of Mt Eden, and two framed wall works (a newspaper clipping and a photo of said beast). The gallery handout is informative but is missing a list of works with titles, dates and materials. Normally information that is useful for the visitor to know.

With the film, Fraser perhaps veers a little close to the pathetic fallacy and anthropomorphism, even if it is known that elephants are very intelligent and have extraordinary memories, and a culture that gets passed on to the young (as films of their community consuming salt in underground caves show). Yet most of us adore our pets, empathise with their physical and mental well being, and shudder when we witness or hear of cruelty, stupidity or neglect—and Fraser’s short movie is indisputably compelling in its emtional impact.

Included in it are shots of contemporary Auckland from the top of Mt Eden, another model of the maunga where she starts to tear strips of vegetation off with her fingers, explorations of the meandering paths leading up the hill that Tom helped build, and images of elephant skulls and ribs owned by Te Papa that sometimes formally mirror aerial views of the maunga.

You can hear Matilda Fraser to talking to Tom Tuke about her exhibition on Artbank on 95bFM radio. (Fast forward to 01:37:00 on the 2 hour slot.)

John Hurrell

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