Posted on September 27, 2021
The Light Elephant stops at Paseo Nuevo. (Courtesy photo)
It’s easy to walk the streets of a familiar city and not notice what is around us. A particular park, yard or staircase may not even register in our mind as we focus on getting to our destination.
But what if someone drops a 16ft tall white elephant in the middle of such a space? Would that make you regain awareness of your surroundings?
Thousands of Santa Barbarans have had this experience over the summer, thanks to Light Elephant, a reflective public art project on the site created by Iman Djouini, assistant professor at the College of Creative Studies and the Art Department of UC Santa Barbara.
The nylon pachyderm has made appearances in various locations in downtown Santa Barbra and beyond, including Chase Palm Park and Mission Historical Park.
The project ends with an exhibition until October 3 at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Santa Barbara, upstairs in the Paseo Nuevo shopping center. It features the elephant itself, a colorful risograph artist’s book, as well as video and photographic documentation of the project, and events for children and adults.
Djouini and his partner, architectural designer Jonathan Taube, presented the elephant in 2017 as part of a community project in Baltimore. âFor us it has become a physical form of the ‘elephant in the room’ idiom,â she said. “The elephant raised different questions depending on where it appeared.”
After moving to Santa Barbara in the summer of 2020 – at the height of the pandemic – they realized it would be an interesting time and place to bring her back to life. “We’re interested in how public spaces are activated – and how the isolation of COVID made everyone want to interact with a public environment again,” she said.
âWe live very close to State Street and we walk around all the time. We have a young child, so we are always outside, observing and interacting. We were really interested in what was happening on State Street – how vibrant public spaces became during closure, how restaurants moved outside, and the community found innovative ways to use the old road.
By bringing the elephant through this artery and then documenting its visit, Djouini and Taube indirectly raised a series of questions. How do we want to use our public spaces in the post-pandemic era? Will things get back to “normal”? Should they? Are any of the changes we’ve made over the past 18 months worth making permanent?
âWondering is an important part of watching – especially now,â Djouini said. âWhat just happened last year? Is an important question to ask.
The project has an experimental component on social media, mainly on Instagram. After viewing images of the elephant at locations such as the County Courthouse, Storke Plaza, and in front of the Lobero Theater, participants are encouraged to ask basic questions such as “What happened here?” ? ” “What is happening here?” and “What’s going to happen here?”
âWe tried to guide them, but also to provide space for people to make sense of work in their own way,â she said. âIt’s important to allow your audience to develop their own relationship with the work. “
The project also served as an educational device. Djouini’s students learned to work with municipal authorities, obtain permits and collaborate with community organizations. They will use this knowledge in March, when they design and implement a public art project on Stearns Wharf with a focus on climate change.
Children can also participate in the action. As part of the museum’s current exhibition, Djouini has designed a family educational workshop, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, October 2. Participants, ages 8 to 17, will paint and decorate papier-mÃ¢chÃ© elephants. They will then take their creations to public spaces and photograph them, just like Djouini did with his much larger creature. Subscribe by e-mail to [emailÂ protected]
Activities for adults include a beer and wine reception featuring the creators from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, September 30 on the Upper Arts Terrace at Paseo Nuevo. Like the project itself, it is âan opportunity for us to interact with the city and learn from it, and for the city itself to reflect on what is going on,â Djouini said.
Originally from Algeria and holder of a master’s degree in engraving, Djouini leaves open the possibility of bringing the enigmatic elephant out of its hibernation at some point, in Santa Barbara or elsewhere. “There was never any question of the elephant,” she said. âThis is where he is. The elephant is a reminder of things that are neither said nor mentioned. These things are with us all the time.
Entrance to the exhibition is free. More information on https://www.mcasantabarbara.org/exhibition/light-elephant/.