Natural History Museum

Interview with David Filer

In celebration of World Elephant Day in 2022, six life size drawings of Makavusi Herd elephants were unveiled at the Natural History Museum. The event was such a success that the museum decided to host it again earlier this year. Constantine provided transportation and careful installation for both instances of the event.

We had the pleasure of sitting down with the talented artist behind the drawings, David Filer, who told us more about the events at the Natural History Museum and his life as an artist from Zimbabwe. We also hear from our Exhibitions Coordinator, Olivia Smith, who successfully arranged the logistics for the event.

Thank you for talking with us today David. Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you became an artist?

“I grew up in Zimbabwe and was lucky enough to be raised in a house where my parents not only tolerated but encouraged my love for animals. I was always the introverted arty child and drawing my menagerie was just a natural subject matter for me. It wasn’t until I discovered the book ‘Cut to the Bone’ by renowned Zimbabwean artist Craig Bone containing photographs of his extraordinary paintings that I fell in love with wildlife art. The detail and beauty you can try and capture on paper quickly consumed me. I went to University in South Africa to study information design but I always knew where my passion lay and by the time I graduated, I was already working as a full time artist.”

The ‘Makavuzi’ series, formed of six intricately detailed pencil drawings, depicts a herd of elephants at varying sizes and orientations. Where did your fascination with elephants, or perhaps nature in general, begin?

“Growing up in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, we were surrounded by animals and wildlife and were lucky enough to spend most of our holidays in the bush viewing them. I have always absolutely loved elephants and even before I began work on the life-sized herd, they’ve always been my favourite subject matter. There is such empathy in their eyes and a spiritual wisdom that radiates from them, it is the greatest challenge to try and capture that essence of theirs on paper.”

Could you tell us more about the process of creating the series?

“The process for this Herd actually started 12 years ago when I decided I wanted to attempt this. What followed were years of trying to find paper big enough, realising the world doesn’t make paper big enough and so having to research and experiment until I ‘created’ a surface on which to draw on. I think my favourite part of the entire project was also the scariest – the beginning.

The bull elephant ‘Makavuzi’ was the largest of the herd and so took the longest. In total he took 366 days from start to finish and although there were moments where I’d look down at the empty canvas and realise how much I still had to do and I would outright despair, it was still the best year of my life. Coming through each morning to be greeted by my very own elephant in the room was something so incredibly special to me.”

I will always remember completing months of preparing the canvas, setting up the scaffolding and rearranging my entire house to accommodate the first huge canvas and finally it was time to begin.

Two of the artworks in the series, Makavuzi and Nzou, are of a particularly large scale – both measuring at almost four meters in height. What was the importance for you of creating the artworks at this scale?

“Makavuzi and Nzou were my biggest pieces; the bull and the matriarch of the herd. The whole point of this exhibition was to draw them life sized and show people the true size and scale of these incredible creatures. It was important for me to get their scale right because I’ve always had this idea that while you can see one in a book or you can watch one on the screen, until you stand infront of one, until you witness just how incredibly huge and beautiful they are, I don’t think it’s possible to truly wrap your head around what we, as a planet, are losing.”

The event at the Natural History Museum was a night to celebrate your artwork and you as an artist, within one of the greatest environments to compliment the subject of your artwork. How did the event come about and what were your initial thoughts on the idea?

“The Natural History Museum, upon reflection, was almost just the most natural logical step to this project. When I began, I had a few ideas of where I’d like the elephants to be displayed but it wasn’t until they started to unfold that I had the idea for the museum. A building that houses the fossils and skeletons of creatures now extinct was such a powerful juxtaposition and poignant statement when displaying the elephants. The grandeur of the building perfectly suited what we wanted to achieve when displaying the pieces – as a world first, I wanted somewhere equally as special.” 

It looked like an incredible evening and we’re honoured to have been able to work on such an exciting project. What was your experience of working with Constantine? 

“Constantine was my absolute saving grace with this entire project and I can honestly say I’m not sure what I would have done without them. Olivia was the most efficient and helpful person and when you’re riding the edge of sanity trying to organise all the factors that go into an exhibition, it was just such a relief to have a company that was so efficient and professional. With artwork this size, the logistics of moving them around London are obviously varied and vast; Constantine and in particular Olivia went above and beyond in helping to solve all of them.”

It’s been a privilege for us to work on these events with David Filer and to find out more about the ‘Makavusi’ series. Thank you to David for his time and if you’d like to find out more, please visit his website.

Of course, we wouldn’t be able to talk about the success of the event without the mention of Exhibitions Coordinator, Olivia Smith, who helped organise the logistics for it. We’ve asked her a couple of questions about her role at Constantine and how she became involved in the project.

Olivia, what’s your job role at Constantine and what would a typical day at work be like for you?

“I’m a Coordinator within the Exhibitions team here at Constantine. Day to day, I liaise between institutions, galleries and private collectors to co-ordinate the shipping of artworks travelling, both domestically and globally, for exhibition. My role involves devising transport schedules, lots of emails and phone calls, speaking across our many departments at Constantine and monitoring live transport.”

How did you first get involved with this project?

“I answered a mainline call one morning from David directly, who was in the midst of a slight art transport crisis! David explained that he had this amazing event coming up whereby his elephant artwork was to be showcased in a one-evening event at the Natural History Museum in celebration of World Elephant Day, but did not yet have a confirmed fine art agent that could assist with the transportation of the works. I was instantly intrigued by the project and keen to co-ordinate the safe and secure transportation of David’s incredible pieces. Constantine were officially and promptly appointed thereafter and that was the beginning of the exciting project that this became.”

David Filer’s artworks are detailed pencil drawings. Were there any measures you needed to implement or consider due to the delicate nature of what you were handling?

“Due to the intricate and delicate nature of the artworks, it was crucial that all parties involved handled the drawings at the highest levels of care at all times. For every movement of the artwork, we ensured that four technicians were allocated to provide added assistance and support if required. Two of the technicians attended a site visit prior to the event to determine the most effective routing of the artworks from our vehicle to their installation point. We put arrangements in place so that the artworks were installed as the last part of the setting up process to minimise any additional risks from external movements. One of our Senior Technicians, James Brightwell, was the lead technician on this project and provided valuable insight into what measures we needed to take for such delicate artworks.”

Due to the sheer scale, how did you overcome any issues regarding height? How were the artworks packed and installed?

“Due to the size of the artworks, we utilised an 18-tonne vehicle for all transport to ensure that the fragile canvases could travel upright at all times. As mentioned previously, we also had four technicians allocated to install and deinstall. We used the site visit as an opportunity to assess and flag any potentially tight corners or narrow passageways within the Natural History Museum which allowed our technicians to prepare in advance the suitable equipment and routing options.”

What was your experience of the project as a whole?

“It’s been great! Planning the night was so exciting and it has been an absolute joy to work alongside David. I feel very privileged that I had the chance to work on such an amazing event and am delighted that David reached out to Constantine. It was a great project to lead on – managing an extremely time-sensitive schedule with four technicians for a one night only event was a perfect opportunity to put my project management and coordination skills to the test!”

It’s a pleasure to be able to share this important project and speak with both David and Olivia. If you’d like to find out more about our transport and installation services, please get in touch with the team today.

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