An elephantine task Now on display in the KKLB museum, the crowd-funded White Elephant project has been making waves through the blogosphere.

Issue: 3 / 2014
Sipho Mabona, an origami artist from Lucerne, has captured the imagination of people around the world by folding a life-sized elephant from a single giant sheet of paper.

It took Sipho Mabona and his team of a dozen four weeks on site to create the 3-metre-high paper elephant, in the process merging the ancient Japanese art form with digital culture: He not only financed his White Elephant through an internet crowd-funding site (raising over $26,000 from 631 funders across the world), but also made sure it was fully accessible online where it was streamed live daily and finally edited into a snappy stop motion video.

So how did it all begin for Sipho?

My love of origami started when my mum taught me how to fold paper aeroplanes at about five or six years old. You know when you're a kid and you break a toy and have to buy a new one? I loved that I could just take a paper sheet and build a new plane. I was a real enthusiast by the age of 19. By then I was training to be a teacher but I was bored, so the paper plane folding became pretty intense and I wanted to make other things, so I thought, "I guess I can take up origami".

After my teaching course, I was about to finish a psychology masters when, out of the blue, I got an email from the art director of the Onitsuka Tigers/ Asics advertising campaign. He said "I saw your origami octopus on your website. We like it. Could we use it in our TV advert?" I was like "Sure!" A day or two later he asked if I could I fold a tiger. I was pretty inexperienced and ended up folding non-stop for more than 24 hours, but sent through the photos and he said, "That's great! Now, can you do a Japanese pagoda?" I gave it a try, it worked, and they gave me the whole commission.

That campaign was to be my first big commercial break. I never went back to my studies. That's also where I learned to use stop motion video. I immediately loved the way it shows the process of folding origami – because when you're an artist, of any kind, you often don't get the chance to show people what's involved. The Asics/ Onitsuka Tiger advertising campaign won a lot of awards, and, after that, the commissions from other big companies like Toshiba kept coming in.

On the artistic side of my work, I'm different from most origami artists, who tend to fold representations of things. I like to create conceptually. About five years ago I started to work on exhibition pieces like my iceberg packed with polar bears falling into the ocean, or my work showing locusts folded from US dollar bills, referring to way banks were described at the time of the financial crash.

And now the White Elephant, which is of course a representation, but also a conceptual piece, recognising that there are no limits to what you can make from a single piece of paper. It's about seeing the scale of a life-sized elephant which shows that you should never be restricted by what you think or believe is your potential – you can always exceed your expectations.

The fact that White Elephant even exists is an example of that for me... I had hoped to finish it in two weeks but it took four. The sheer size of the paper (15 metres x 15 metres) made it difficult lift and fold. When we went from two dimensions to three we actually had up to 10 helpers at a time and even had to build a structure to lift the heavy sheet onto the elephant's support frame.

People often wonder where the money goes on a crowd-funded project like this, but everyone who pledges money gets an origami piece by me of varying complexity. Then there's the cost of the paper which had to be specially made in Minnesota USA from long flax fibres and then freighted over. Then there was the cost of the the assistants, the video equipment and the commission taken by the crowd-funding site. It all builds up. But I'm thrilled that so many people believed in me from all over the world. Not only did it push my origami skills but also my personal resources in organising the fundraising, sourcing the paper, logistics, dealing with people, social media and press; so staying on top of it all by myself was a great challenge for me.

I'm often asked if White Elephant is the biggest origami elephant in the world. Frankly, I don't care because I didn't create White Elephant to break records. In the same vein, a lot of people often ask if I'm an origami world champion – actually it's a bit like asking if you're the best painter or artist in the world. It's not about being the best but about the way you interpret the art form itself. For me, I love the simplicity of origami – being able to start with a single sheet and to do almost anything with it and that means there are no limits to where it can take me.


See the videos and conceptual work at:

See the White Elephant at the KKLB museum in Beromünster
Open 14:00 every Sunday
KKLB, Landessender 1-3, 6215 Beromünster

Author: Jennifer Davies

Jennifer Davies was the Editor in Chief of Hello Switzerland in 2014. Her career started as a news reporter and newsreader at the BBC and she is the only English language journalist ever to have been awarded the top broadcast journalism prize from SRF (Swiss Broadcasting Corporation). Jennifer has lived and and worked for nearly a decade in Zurich, during which she has edited 7 magazines and broadcasted for BBC, SRF and Monocle among others, including international corporate clients.

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