Abstract & Introduction- to match the images of the last entry - What Shape is your Elephant? The Art Heritage of Souvenir Elephants from the ASEAN Region: Part


The objective of this research is to survey the symbolic form given to souvenir elephant figurines across the ASEAN region and, in so doing, to trace the historic and cultural influences on the design of souvenir figurines that come to represent a touristic engagement with elephants. This first paper of two makes a case study of Cambodia. A second case study examines Thailand as a comparable subject.

The aims will be achieved by examining the form and configuration of souvenir elephant figurines produced, ostensibly, for the tourist market, in the South East Asian quarter of the ASEAN region. I will first apply an art historical approach to the analysis before subjecting selected artifacts, from museum collections and tourist outlets, to an analytical theory of souvenir language, in order to detect the cultural and historical location, or dislocation, of various formal elements that contribute to the design of elephant souvenirs and their effective representation of the tourist experience through their visual language.

It will be shown, from this survey, that the answer to the question, contained in the title, is more complex than first appears and that some anatomical features are favoured more than others, in terms of souvenir function.

KEYWORDS:Elephants, Souvenirs, Material Culture, Sculpture, ASEAN, Museum Studies. Tourism


The question posed in the title of this paper arose at broad based tourism conference in the ASEAN region in 2013 and was uttered in response to a paper presented on the complex nature of souvenirs in general. The query was couched in terms of “surely an elephant souvenir from India is the same shape as one from Thailand.” The answer to the question is, of course, elephant shape. Yet when souvenir elephants are the subject at hand the answer is, as I will demonstrate, somewhat more complex and dependent on where the souvenir is from, what it represents and most surprisingly what anatomical features are selected to represent an elephant and by extension the society that produced it.

The elephant as a national and regional motif, is popular across Southeast Asia and most of ASEAN. Businesses and, in particular, tourism enterprises across the region utilise the iconic beast as an attraction, promotional motif, or as part of a branding strategy. This is a result of long engagement with the animal, through which its presence has become woven into the social and cultural heritage of the people, that today sees its presence and unique form established, to varying degrees, as a popular tourist attraction that, in turn, has generated a vast range of souvenir products.

Inevitably issues of authenticity arise in any discussion about souvenirs. It is not, however, the purpose of this paper to argue for authenticity in souvenir production, based on the cultural traditions and anthropological notions of authenticity discussed by Reisinger and Steiner, C. J (2006). Instead, I recognise the dynamic, evolving nature of all societies, what has been termed “emergent authenticity” (Cohen 1988), as a result of various stimuli, such as trade and tourism, and take an art historical approach that seeks to detect changes and development in the art form, as a result of tourism. That is how, as artifacts of cultural tourism, these souvenirs may be understood as representing “‘heritage tourism (related to artifacts of the past) and ‘arts tourism’ (related to contemporary cultural production).” (Richards, G. 1999), or in terms of Hall-Lew and Lew's (2014)recent, language based study, how we might understand their visual language as a “tourism heritage resource.”

Elephants do not, of course, regularly roam the streets of major Asian cities, or any other urban metropolis, any more than, equally unique, kangaroos bask on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, or bound across the harbour bridge. Most visitors to either continent are likely to take specially arranged trips to locales where the wildlife has been, somewhat, domesticated for touristic viewing, or have at least, become used to the attentions of tourists.

Like elephants, kangaroos are a unique species, with limited variation, and range from the massive reds of central Australia, to small brown-gray rock wallabies. Their representation in souvenir shops is mostly uniform, of the soft toy or keyring type, or emblazoned on timber, ceramic and plastic souvenirs, size and colour being the only real points of differentiation. Elephants, likewise, come in two basic types, the massive African and the smaller, more subdued, Indian or Asian. Just as the kangaroo has come to represent Australia (Franklin, 2010, see also Leite & Graburn 2012), the elephant has become an essential symbol in the identity formation of different but related people and cultures across Southeast Asia.

Elephants, also, tend to appear as two character types, within most Southeast Asian cultures in which they are endemic, either as beast of burden, or as characters woven into the myths of particular primitive belief systems. Pinsri (2010: p 160) notes that the elephant’s reputed strength, patience and intelligence, together with its engagement in labour, transportation and warfare have seen its status elevated to that of the higher realm of animals, including as a symbol of royalty and interwoven into Hindu and Buddhist mythology. One might say, they are manifested as both sacred and profane beings. The tourist perspective, particularly that of the Western tourist, adds further dimensions to the image of the world’s largest land mammal, that of ultimate exotic creature, fun fair ride and circus performer, animated landscape feature and, given most filmic representations, cute creature of dim wits. In most instances, the Asian elephant is conceptualised as domesticated, in contrast to the wild noble beats of Africa, viewed from afar by safari tourist.

The departure point for this paper is the belief that the variation and abstraction of each elephant figurine, is, in part, influenced by the myths and stories that exist about the animal within each different culture. That such representations are informed by the technical, social and economic development and the availability and selection of media. Artistic, or formal, elements that vary as a result are: architectural configuration, or sculptural form; perspective; surface treatment; balance; media; utility and of course souvenir function, both symbolic and utilitarian. In the area of souvenir function, the consumer also exerts an influence on the resultant form, scale, media and configuration. This is most visible in regions with a developing tourism industry (Richards, 2014; Hume, 2013; Littlefield Kasfir, 1999; Steiner, C.B, 1999).

In order to track the changes and convergences in the development of elephant souvenirs, this paper begins with a survey of ceramic figures, discovered in various museum catalogs and related texts, following which I trace the stylistic and cultural threads between surveyed museum artifacts and souvenir elephants, or in some cases identify points at which such historical threads ceased to exist and new ones have been introduced.