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Allison Hunter, Uniting Art and Nature

By Farrah Madanay     2/20/13 6:00pm

There is an elephant in the room in the BioScience Research Collaborative, and it cannot be ignored. Actually, there are several elephants, and they are featured in "Untitled (elephants 1 & 2)," as part of Humanities Artist in Residence Allison Hunter's photography exhibition. On Feb. 13, Rice University Public Art hosted a reception for Hunter in the first-floor lobby BRC pop-up gallery. 

Hunter's digital C-print photos spotlight two scenes of Asian elephants in the Fort Worth Zoo. The left panel showcases a herd of elephants, some facing in profile, others turned away from the viewer.

"The community is a matriarchy," Hunter said. "It's interesting to see the dynamic within the group. It's an animal dynamic that is not a human one."

The right panel highlights the relationship between a baby elephant and what appears to be its mother. The photos are horizontally expansive; the imposing land animals are meant to make the viewer feel less powerful, Hunter said.

Hunter, who has Master of Fine Arts degrees in both photography and video, began focusing her work on animals 10 years ago. "Untitled (elephants 1 & 2)" is the result of a grant Hunter received from the Houston Arts Alliance. The cinematic magnitude of her prints comes from how she envisioned her work in its first venue given by the Houston Arts Alliance.

Though Hunter has been to Africa, she chose to photograph the elephants in the Fort Worth Zoo in order to emphasize the concept of humanity's relationship to these wild animals, Hunter said. Hunter's Photoshop manipulation of the photographs further heightens her concept of interspecies relations.

"I scanned the film and digitally removed the background so the viewers could see the subject more clearly," Hunter said.

The photos were shot in broad daylight, but Hunter darkened them to create a chiaroscuro effect that spotlights certain attributes of the elephants. The highlight of color on the trunk and backs of the elephants on the left panel and under the chin of the baby elephant in the right panel focuses the viewer's gaze on the exclusively elephantine features. From their versatile appendages to the hair bristles on their chins, these traits remind viewers that these are wild elephants in captivity.

"We're so desensitized that we forget that these are creatures. A lot will be extinct if we keep doing what we're doing," Hunter said.

Hunter left subtle remnants of the unnatural zoo habitat in the photographs - wire fencing, a rock wall and a wading pool - to paradoxically disengage viewers from the ethereal setting her editing had created.

"The photos seem more like a circus than a zoo," lecturer in visual and dramatic arts Paul Hester said. "It's like they're performing a dance."

The elephants take command of the composition, and Hunter's manipulation pulls the viewers' eyes in toward the colossal creatures. The photographs implicate viewers as a belittled yet possessive audience and compel them to reflect on not only how the animals are treated but also what that says about humanity, Hunter said.

 "It's a piece that raises and provokes questions but does not try to answer them," Hunter said. "That's what art should do."

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