How The Art World Is Trying To Save Wild Tigers In Asia
As part of its global tiger conservation efforts, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has enlisted 60 artists from across the world to use their craft to spread awareness about the decline of tigers in the wild
If you were in Singapore a few weeks back and visited popular spots such as Gardens by the Bay or the National Gallery, you might have noticed some tigers on the loose. Tiger sculptures were on display around the city between February 26 and April 9 as part of the Tiger Trail 2022, organised by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
The initiative took root more than 10 years ago with the discovery of only 3,200 tigers in the wild, resulting in a decade-long conservation effort to rescue the big cats. Twelve years later, the number of wild tigers has increased, but they remain under threat from urbanisation and poachers in many parts of Asia.
The goal is to double the number of tigers in the wild. And to do so, WWF has recruited the help of 60 artists around the world to use their craft to spread the message.
In Asia, three Gen.T honourees were invited to be part of the campaign. Artists Red Hong Yi and Phannapast Taychamaythakool were enlisted to design a life-size tiger sculpture each for the art trail, while illustrator Sonny Liew created merchandise for sale.
We speak to the three artists to find out more about their motivation behind supporting the cause.
See also: In Pictures: WWF Tiger Trail Dinner
Wild tigers are particularly at risk in Malaysia and Thailand. To Red and Phannapast, what do these big cats mean to you? And what spurred the both of you to be part of the WWF Tiger Trail?
Red Hong Yi (HY) I was born in the year of the tiger—1986—and grew up in Borneo, where there are no tigers. But I'd hear stories from my mom and people of her generation about how tigers in West Malaysia would go into villages. We—me and those of my generation—will probably never get to see that, as there are only about 150 Malayan tigers left in West Malaysia. This made me think of future generations and if they would ever get to see tigers at all. So it was important to me that I helped to raise awareness about conserving tigers.
Phannapast Taychamaythakool (PT) Tigers are commonly described in Thai beliefs and folklores. When I was younger, I would often imagine them as fairies living in the jungle comfortably, but as I grew older, I learned that that was not the case at all.
I believe that every human on earth is important and we are all connected by invisible bonds. Our comfortable life could mean another is suffering, whether as a direct or indirect result [of our choices]. When we’re used to the comforts of our lives, we often forget about other beings that live alongside us. Tigers are one of the animals whose lives have been affected by our comfort. And I want to use my art to tell people that we are not the centre of the universe. We are connected to nature and we need to be respectful of other lives, human or not.
Sonny, how does the topic of wildlife conservation resonate with you?
Sonny Liew (SL) Life on earth is something of a miracle—and the particular organisms that exist today are the products of millions of years of evolution. Once lost, they will never be again. We, humans, have gained the ability to fundamentally shape the world around us; some suggest we are in the age of the Anthropocene. And as Uncle Ben told Peter Park in Spider-Man: With great power comes great responsibility.
Photo 1 of 3 Malaysian artist Red Hong Yi often uses her art to speak about issues on women, race and the environment. (Photo: Khairul Imran)
Photo 2 of 3 Award-winning illustrator Sonny Liew had his big break with the release of his graphic novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye
Photo 3 of 3 Thai artist Phannapast Taychamaythakool is best known for weaving Southeast Asian folklore and animal and floral motifs into her fantastical illustrations
Art has long been used to stimulate conversations about environmental and social issues. What is your take on how art can help enhance efforts of wildlife conservation?
HY The role of art is to spread a message, raise awareness and make people think and feel. The power of art is that people can feel connected with it emotionally in a way that they can't with numbers and data. Numbers can be overwhelming and the message they hold might not click instantly or visually with the viewer. With art, it can.
SL If we're talking about art as a visual medium or as a medium that includes a visual element, it can help to communicate issues in a different, arguably more accessible, way. From illustrations and paintings telling religious stories, to political cartoons and Ikea instruction booklets, art in that sense has a long history of being an important means of conveying ideas and arguments.
PT The Tiger Trail can help us all be more aware of the problems [facing wildlife]. It will also make us think about our own relationship with wildlife and stimulate important conversations about conservation.
Sonny, what inspired the tiger motif you designed for your merchandise?
SL I was hoping to draw something that people might find interesting enough to buy when used on the various merchandise, but ultimately it's about raising funds and awareness.
Photo 1 of 2 Red's rattan-covered tiger sculpture illustrates the big cat as an encaged animal on the brink of extinction. (Photo: WWF)
Photo 2 of 2 Through her sculpture, Taychamaythakool sought to illustrate the butterfly effect of how human ignorance can have detrimental effects on nature. (Photo: Phannapast Taychamaythakool)
Phannapast, Red, you each designed a tiger sculpture for the art trail. What inspired the approach you took for your own piece and what message did you hope to convey?
PT My [sculpture] illustrates how living creatures on earth are connected. The idea behind this is the “butterfly effect”. I wanted to show that our little acts of ignorance can have larger effects on other living beings without us realising it.
When I think about how we perceive the current condition of the earth, I’m reminded of a story I heard recently about a frog. If you boil a frog in room temperature water, it won't feel much of the rising heat, so it won't leap out of the water. But when the water starts to boil, the frog will die because it didn’t realise the severity of the situation until it’s too late.
HY For me, I didn’t want to touch the body of the tiger sculpture, so I left it bare. We only painted it an off-white shade to make it look fragile and almost invisible. We then tied rattan around it to show that tigers are encaged and endangered, even though they might be living in wild. [The idea is that] if we don’t look after them, they will be caged forever. [The sculpture] has claustrophobic feeling to it.
I got inspired after visiting a lion dance prop maker, Master Siow, in Kuala Lumpur, who has been doing this craft for 20 years. I drew parallels between tiger conservation and the traditional art of lion dance prop making, which will also soon disappear if no one continues to appreciate or conserve it.