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Don't Buy Ivory Poster Focuses on Illegal Ivory Trade

In 1989, designer Kiyoshi Kanai depicted a charging elephant in his poster Don’t Buy Ivory, a work created for the World Wildlife Fund’s effort to raise awareness of the illegal ivory trade in Asian countries. “I designed the poster at the time feeling the fierce urgency to protect the African elephant from unnecessary slaughter,” said Kanai by e-mail. Unfortunately, 25 years later the slaughter continues driven by a demand for items made from rare materials including ivory. Don’t Buy Ivory is currently on view in the exhibition Drawn to Action: Posters from the AIGA Design Archives, Level 2, North Building.

Kanai created his elephant by using impressions from various seals. In east Asian countries such as China, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea people use seals-or stamps-as a method of identification similar to a written signature. They are traditionally used in place of signatures on documents, letters, or art.

Kanai said the small individual stamps that make up the elephant include his family name Kanai (金井), as well as personal seals he borrowed from Japanese friends living in New York City at the time. His use of this simple and traditional tool highlights the complexity of a modern global problem. Ivory has long been used to make seals and one that is custom-made from ivory signifies wealth for many people. “By showing an angry elephant, I wanted people in Asia to realize that a small seal that fits in your pocket must come from a large, dead elephant,” wrote Kanai.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, elephant poaching and ivory trafficking is at its worst in decades. U.S. buyers help to create demand for ivory and are a factor in the global market that threatens elephants in Asia and Africa with extinction. On November 14, 2013 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service conducted a huge ivory crush at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge outside of Denver. The goal was to try to slow the illegal trade in ivory and draw attention to the global elephant poaching crisis. More than six tons of ivory seized by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement from the late 1980s to the present, including tusks and carvings made of ivory, was pulverized using a rock crusher.

Drawn to Action: Posters from the AIGA Design Archives features selections from the American Institute of Graphic Arts Design Archives. The posters in the exhibit address issues concerning the environment, public health, equality, human rights, peace, and political ideology. This is the premier exhibit of work from the archive and coincides with AIGA’s Centennial Anniversary in 2014.

Image credit: Kiyoshi Kanai. Don’t Buy Ivory, 1989. Offset lithograph. AIGA Design Archives: Gift of AIGA. Image courtesy of AIGA Design Archives.

Donna Kerwin is the curatorial assistant in the department of architecture, design and graphics.  Donna has been with DAM since 2005, and when visiting the museum, she also recommends that visitors don’t miss the Davis W. and Ellen N. Moore Pre-1900 Design Gallery on level six of the North Building.