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Ydessa Hendeles curates historical objects to examine how the meaning of a name mutates over time

The Dead Jumbo. is part of Ydessa Hendeles’s coming show The Milliner’s Daughter at The Power Plant gallery in Toronto.

Ydessa Hendeles's "The Dead Jumbo." is an allegorical reference to the largest systematic, state-sponsored extermination program in the history of the world. Originally made as a site-specific extension to her "THE BIRD THAT MADE THE BREEZE TO BLOW" (2012, Galerie König, Berlin), it includes wall panels based on material published in Harper's Weekly in 1885 and a Blomer & Schuler clockwork tin toy of a French bulldog (c. 1950) with the company's "Jumbo" logo on its collar tag. As The Power Plant gallery in Toronto prepares Hendeles's first retrospective exhibition at a public institution, the artist herself – a pioneer of curation as a creative practice – reflects for The Globe and Mail on the complicated history behind one of her most important works.

In my practice, I frequently take imagery and objects from one historical context and reorient them to precipitate insight into another. At a time when many cultures believe they have experienced a "holocaust" in their own histories, I summon the story of Jumbo to talk about how a name – like "Holocaust" – has definitive roots, but its signification mutates over time with use. Meanings change as shared values and belief systems play out in cultural and social dynamics – for better and for worse. The fate of "Golliwogg," explored in From her wooden sleep… elsewhere in the exhibition, provides a different example.

The four hanging elements in The Dead Jumbo. recreate in word and image the violent end of an animal that had galvanized attention in North America and Europe, but whose celebrity and influence became global. The illustration was derived from a news photograph that showed a crowd of people around the animal. The image as it was etched showed the carcass of the animal, with its constant human trainer and companion standing over the body, while the anonymous text, from Harper's Weekly, is an artfully written obituary that both records the event and provides a wry commentary on its circumstances and major characters.

The African elephant named Jumbo would become the first live animal superstar in popular culture, his celebrity appeal becoming equally great on both sides of the Atlantic and his influence pervasive and enduring. His name quickly entered the English language as an adjective to describe any supersized object, and his image and name is still used to market and promote a wide variety of goods and services, from hot dogs to jet airliners.

Hendeles’s “The Dead Jumbo.” includes wall panels based on material published in Harper’s Weekly in 1885.

Jumbo is one of the very earliest cultural icons whose widespread fame was both a product of and a shaper of the emerging mass media, a creature of hyperactive marketing and promotion and blatant manipulation.

The exact origins of the elephant are unknown, with accounts placing his birth in various locations around what is now Sudan and Ethiopia. As a baby elephant, he ended up in a diverse group of wild animals that a Bavarian-born animal collector, Johann Schmidt, assembled for shipment to Europe in 1862. African wild animals were already popular attractions in European menageries and travelling shows, exotic creatures that excited great interest at a time when the African continent was still being explored and opened for colonial development.

From Africa, the Italian adventurer and entrepreneur Lorenzo Casanova, Schmidt's boss, transported Jumbo to Trieste via Suez and Alexandria, and then by train on to Vienna and Casanova's home base of Dresden. Pressed for money, Casanova sold the animals to Gottlieb Kreutzberg (ca. 1810-1874), a Prussian impresario with a travelling menagerie that was part circus and part itinerant pet shop. All Kreutzberg's animals were for sale, and Jumbo, the first live African elephant seen around that part of Europe, was snapped up by the wealthy and prestigious Jardin des Plantes in Paris.

Three years later, in 1865, London got its opportunity when Paris offered to swap one of its three African elephants for a rhinoceros and other animals and birds. At this point, Jumbo was about four years old, but hadn't grown much since arriving in Paris and was not in good health. Matthew Scott (1834-1914), who would become Jumbo's principal keeper right up to the elephant's violent end, had a very poor assessment: "A more deplorable, diseased and rotten creature never walked God's earth."

In London, however, Jumbo thrived and became the storied mainstay of the animal collection. Just how he acquired his name is unknown, although some believe the elephant already had the name in Paris. One possible derivation is from Mumbo Jumbo, a West African holy man known from explorers' descriptions, who dressed in bark and leaves. On this account, Jumbo's sorry-looking state when he was bought from Paris might have suggested the holy man's appearance.

A Blomer & Schuler clockwork tin toy of a French bulldog (c. 1950) with the company’s “Jumbo” logo on its collar tag.

No matter what the origins, the name became so associated with the animal that the large size it attained itself gave the term new meaning. A generally even temperament and willingness to carry children, first by saddle and then in a howdah, made the elephant a beloved beast of burden and turned him into a folkloric character. But as it approached full maturity, its behaviour also became more unpredictable. In 1881, when he was about 20 years old, Jumbo's behaviour was particularly erratic, perhaps fuelled by the sexually charged state of musth in male bull elephants. Zoo superintendent Abraham Dee Bartlett (1812-1897) was so concerned that he wrote to the Zoological Society Council: "I may ask that I should be provided with and have at hand, the means of killing this animal, should such a necessity arise." In December of that year, however, Bartlett received a telegram that offered a different solution: "What is the lowest price you can take for the African elephant?" It was signed "Barnum Bailey and Hutchinson."

Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) was already one of the most flamboyant characters in American popular entertainment, an impresario and huckster whose travelling shows and entertainments – "The Greatest Show on Earth" – drew big crowds with a wide array of genuine and fraudulent oddities, freaks and sports of nature. After Barnum merged his operation with three similar shows owned by James Bailey (1847-1906) and James L. Hutchinson (1838-1902), the three were looking out for new and bigger attractions. When a scout cited Jumbo as the biggest thing he'd seen on his travels, the circus owners asked the zoo for a price. Bartlett set it quite quickly at £2,000. It took a while for the American showmen to follow through – ironically, Barnum was not enthusiastic initially – but they finally signalled their firm intent to bring Jumbo to North America.

The sale attracted little attention initially. But after Jumbo acted up violently on the first attempts to get him to the ship for transportation and was returned to the zoo pending alternative plans, there was a new wave of Jumbo-mania. The press, including such leading establishment newspapers as The Times, whipped up a public outcry against the sale that even raised questions in the House of Commons and resulted in legal action. Zoo visits skyrocketed again, with thousands of visitors a day in February, when attendance would usually be measured in the low hundreds. Barnum fuelled the controversy with a canny eye on Jumbo's prospects in North America now that the purchase had become an international incident. Even after the attempted assassination of Queen Victoria on March 2, 1882, Jumbo was still a bigger story in some newspapers.

A deal had been made, however, and despite protests and legal wrangling, Jumbo was hoisted aboard the SS Assyrian Monarch for the transatlantic crossing, with keeper Scott in attendance.

Anonymous text from Harper’s Weekly offers an obituary that records events and provides wry commentary.

Barnum, of course, had prepped the media for Jumbo's arrival, successfully rebuilding the hype around the elephant as the star attraction of his travelling circus. After an initial appearance at Madison Square Garden, Jumbo achieved the same celebrity status he had enjoyed in England. For the 1885 season, Barnum had revamped the Greatest Show on Earth program, and was laying plans to take Jumbo to western states that had not seen him yet and on an international tour back to Europe and to Australia. On Sept. 15, however, the show was in St. Thomas in southwestern Ontario, the town then being an important intersection for Canadian and U.S. railways.

After the show finished that evening, Barnum's crew packed up to move on to the next destination. There are numerous accounts of what happened, but it appears that Jumbo and a young elephant, named Tom Thumb, were moving down an empty railway track to board their own train when Scott, who was minding them, saw the lights of a freight train bearing down on them from behind. According to one account, Jumbo heaved the young elephant out of the way in time, though it's more likely that the train hit them both. Tom Thumb was injured, but survived; for Jumbo, the clash with the freight locomotive proved fatal. Scott, who by this time had been with the elephant for 20 years, broke down and reportedly lay on the body for hours weeping and sobbing.

Even in death, however, Jumbo exerted a powerful influence. Barnum lost little time getting the dead animal to a taxidermist, and for a while toured both a reassembled skeleton and a ghoulish replica made by nailing the animal's hide around a padded wooden frame. Indeed, in death Jumbo was truly larger than life, since Barnum encouraged his taxidermists to make the frame as large as possible with the injunction: "By all means … let him show like a mountain!" However, because they showed different sizes, the hide and the skeleton could not be displayed side by side. In the winter of 1889-90, Barnum's circus took both artifacts on tour to England, drawing huge English crowds once again.

Shortly after, the skeleton was loaned, then ultimately donated, to the American Museum of Natural History in New York – not to Washington's Smithsonian Institution as The Death of Jumbo. obituary text on view suggests. It was on display until 1975, and brought out again in 1993 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the first American circus (the museum promoted the return of "Jumbomania"). Barnum gave the hide to what is now Tufts University in Massachusetts, an institution of which he was a major benefactor. Besides being a must-see attraction, Jumbo became a Tufts mascot, the elephant logo and "Jumbo's" name still used by the college's sports teams. The hide stood in Barnum Hall until April 14, 1975, when a fire destroyed the building and its contents.

Hendeles’s “The Dead Jumbo.” is an allegorical reference to the largest systematic, state-sponsored extermination program in the history of the world.

The only purported physical remains of Jumbo today are in ashes collected from the site of the fire the day after in a Peter Pan Crunchy Peanut Butter jar, and a fragment of tail, apparently broken off by a Jumbo fan by accident years earlier and now in the Tufts archive.

Nuremburg-based Blomer & Schuler made the toy bulldog shortly after the Second World War, when Germany was still occupied. The "Made in Germany U.S. Zone" shows the historical geography of its manufacture, though the company's Jumbo trademark on the tag on the toy dog's collar harks back to the company's prewar success. So popular were its wind-up tin toys of Jumbo in the 1930s that the company adapted the image of the elephant for its logo. Britain's Moko Lesney, which developed the Matchbox series of toys, would issue its own clockwork Jumbo based on Blomer & Schuler's design.

Blomer & Schuler was well known for a variety of wind-up mechanical models, including carousels, helicopters and cars, including the Aero-Car design featured elsewhere in this exhibition. Here, however, is an animal from its toy menagerie – a small, rather wary-looking, pumpkin-coloured dog, who is a fan of Jumbo. In this composition, the dog appears to be reading the obituary of Jumbo, though he carries the legacy of the elephant in the logo on the dog-tag collar around its neck.

The Dead Jumbo. will be on display as part of The Power Plant's exhibition, Ydessa Hendeles: The Milliner's Daughter, running June 24 through Sept. 4 (