African Elephant 293 by Andy Warhol is the first in a series of screenprints within the Endangered Species complete portfolio, a series of ten works from 1983. As its name would suggest, it depicts an African elephant, the largest land animal. It is an animal that, when taking into consideration its two species, the savannah and forest varieties, is critically endangered and at risk of extinction. Andy Warhol made African Elephant 293 in the tenth anniversary year of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a landmark legislative maneuver aimed at giving federal funding and authority to conservation efforts. The African elephant has become something of a poster animal for the act and endangered animals in general, bringing the issues of illegal poaching and ivory trade practices to the forefront.
Andy Warhol’s African elephant is a towering figure. Viewed slightly from below, the elephant, taken from an image by wildlife photographer Mitch Reardon, is cropped closely, leaving little of the ground it stands on and its bushy horizon. Instead, a massive pinkish sky backgrounds the subject, enlarging its presence in the space and looming over the viewer as much as the foreground. In contrast, the animal’s tusks are small; however, they provide the only white to contrast the deep shadowed blacks throughout the piece. Warhol performs a sort of cross-hatching, setting opposing lines of blue and green to parallel the wrinkles in the elephant’s skin. The outline of the elephant in the same colors is slightly offset, providing an interesting take on the “double image”, a technique Warhol employed in his earlier works.
African Elephant 293 was commissioned and inspired by talks with Ronald Feldman, an ardent political advocate and renowned gallerist and art dealer. Warhol would produce a number of Feldman’s other commissions in the 1980s, most notably his Myths and Ads series.