Radhika Subramaniam, Director of The Sheila Johnson Center and currently Associate Professor of Visual Culture at The New School’s Parsons School of Design in New York City, applied for a grant to research the story of the elephant Abu’l Abbas for a work of narrative nonfiction, entitled “The Elephant’s I.” Radhika, who outlined the work in a lecture at the Compassion Arts and Culture & Animals Festival in New York City in October 2017, writes:
Abu’l Abbas . . . arrived on European shores, and therefore in the historical annals, as a gift from the Caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid to Charlemagne. For world history, this elephant tells a story about the circuits of diplomacy and trade that linked the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean, or fuels more speculation on the relationship of Holy Roman Christendom, with its most incipient idea of “Europe”, to the Islamic Caliphate. For art history, the beast is translated into the ivories, oliphants and imagery of elephants in the European imagination. Or else, the elephant finds his proper province in children’s fables. Although he appears regularly in any discussion of the period, Abu’l Abbas, like many other animals, remains a cipher. Through my research, which suggests the elephant was Asian and originally came from India, I have been reconstructing a plausible tale of his travels, which would undoubtedly have been in the company of a mahout or handler. . . .
The Elephant’s I is an experimental text that takes a historical elephant, his human companion and the writer/researcher as three prongs in the construction of the story. It explores the challenges posed to research and narrative by animal biography as well as its promise for re-articulating an interspecies relationship.
The CAF grant partly supported Radhika following in the footsteps of the elephant embassy — to Tunisia and across the Mediterranean to Genoa and a two-week walk over the Alps from Lausanne, Switzerland to Vercelli, Italy along a historical pilgrim’s way, the Via Francigena.
Radhika’s work was partly published as “The Elephant’s I: Looking for Abu’l Abbas” in Animal Biography: Re-Framing Animal Lives (Palgrave Macmillan 2018).