African Textile Study: Elephant Inspired By Mlima's Tale

African Textile Study: Elephant by Shanna T. Melton

In October of 2019, I was able to see Mlima’s Tale by Lynn Nottage and it was one of the most inspiring and heartbreaking shows that I’ve ever experienced. It was inspiring because I have created two productions of The MAAFA Experience and it really gave me a love of and respect for theater production. The fable speaks of Mlima being the biggest and most protected elephant and how poachers came and managed to finally kill him by shooting him ten times. Elephants often have their ivory tusks broken to protect them but that did not work in this case as Mlima was so large. When elephants are killed their faces are cut off so the ivory can be taken, there were images of this woven into the play. Once Mlima is gone the tusks journey from Africa to Asia where it is highly valued and carved into art. The role of Mlima and Mlima’s tusks was played by a Black actor who never said a word but embodied the entire story through expressive dance. It was heartbreaking because Mlima’s Tale was a fable based on what really happens to elephants.

So the journey was very much like the one of Africans brought to America. They were hunted, taken and often killed, shipped to another country, sold and forced into an existence that was not built to honor their purpose. They were manipulated and transformed then sold to the highest bidder.

It was during this time that I was heavily steeped in the study and practice of painting African Textiles. I was using fabrics, books that I could find and incorporating my own designs inspired by the ones that I studied. I learned that many textiles are woven during the day because the artists don’t want the negative energy that can rise at night to be woven into the fabric. I began having to create this work during the day with respect to tradition.

When you look at my “African Textile Study: Elephant”, you see the cracked tusk. You see ten circular designs throughout the face and body that represent the times Mlima was shot. The orange, yellow and green with the textiles leaves and sun setting behind Mlima’s head resembling a halo represents the transition. This play is it’s own MAAFA Experience and it is done with awareness and grace. This work, much like my own, taps into the lack and need for respect of living beings.

"Her Dragon's Fly" was my exhibit hosted at The Barnum Museum, Bridgeport, CT from November 2019 - March 2020. This was one of the most celebrated works in the exhibit and I believe it is because it tells two stories at once as did the play. It is so important for us to tell our stories and put them into the world for others to experience. I learned about the suffering of elephants while many had to additionally learn about the suffering of a people.

Here is a link to "An Elephant's Tears" by Erin Keyes which will set you on the right path to understanding why these majestic elephants are killed and the importance of their tusks to their survival.

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