'IllumiNights: A Chinese Lantern Festival' returns to Zoo Atlanta with new sculptures

The phoenix is one of the lit-up art installations at Zoo Atlanta's "IllumiNights." (Courtesy of Zoo Atlanta)

Last year, Zoo Atlanta lit up the winter season in spectacular fashion with the first-ever “IllumiNights: A Chinese Lantern Festival.” Artists created beautiful, larger-than-life light sculptures from the HanArt Culture production company. The festival is open to the public again and runs through Jan. 18. “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes was joined via Zoom by Jennifer Smith, Zoo Atlanta’s vice president of strategic partnerships and initiatives, to talk more about this season’s lovely light display. 

“We looked at a lot of different opportunities to activate the zoo in a way that it had never been activated before, and I think that bringing a Chinese lantern festival to Zoo Atlanta is a great opportunity that aligns with our mission of showcasing and protecting biodiversity,” said Smith. It’s not your typical, traditional holiday-themed lights walk; the lit-up sculptures on display represent a gorgeous, glowing menagerie of diverse species of plants, animals and fungi, many of which have their real-life counterparts living in the zoo.

With many constructed on-site from textiles stretched over metalwork skeletons, the lantern creatures show off extraordinary skill by masterful crafters from the HanArt Culture collective. “The artisans that were part of the HanArt team started by shaping some of the metal right on site, kind of welding the structure together, and then the ornaments were covered with silk. They were designs that are cut out of the ornaments, and then some decorative fabric is put on. So it was really interesting to see the process from start to finish.”

Lantern marvels on display include a python wrapping around a tree branch, flowers that open and close, a cheetah peering from its perch in a tree, and two spectacular, towering dragons near the zoo’s entrance. “It’s pretty impressive; the two dragons that we have are facing each other, and … I would say the tallest point is about 12 feet tall, is my guess, and their heads move so they actually rotate and look at each other,” Smith explained. “Not only do you get the beautiful vista, you see all the airbrushing and the painting that was done.” Smith admitted her favorite sculptures on display are a magnificent phoenix (a mythical bird of harmony and rebirth) and a massive, 14-foot-tall giant panda that presides over Zoo Atlanta’s real panda habitat.

Zoo visitors should look forward to a different zoo experience than they may have had before; most real-life animals won’t be out and about during the after-dark hours of the lantern festival. The animals typically retreat in the evening hours, and Zoo Atlanta prioritizes their safety and comfort while human visitors enjoy the dazzling spectacle of their handcrafted counterparts. 

Tickets and more information about IllumiNights Chinese Lantern Festival at Zoo Atlanta are available at zooatlanta.org/event/illuminights