In September 2017, the Illustration staff team were offered the opportunity to curate an exhibition in the Bibiana Children’s Art House, Bratislava, to coincide with the Biennale. The team discussed ideas of displacement, crossing borders and refugees. From this they came to the idea of using the metaphor of birds, flight and migration. An open call was sent to children’s illustrators around the world using networks, social media and personal contacts asking for an image of a bird and a message to be sent on a postcard to become part of an exhibition. Shaun Tan generously endorsed the project and provided a foreword introducing the exhibition.
Foreword to MIGRATIONS: an exhibition of the International Centre for the Picture Book in Society hosted by BIBIANA.
An exhibition such as this is not just an exhibition. It’s more than a collection of poetic messages, a call to conscience, a celebration of humanist values, a contemplation of complex feelings over which is thrown the shining light of imagination, although these alone are already noble pursuits, and require no distracting prologue. But consider for a moment that beneath all of these small and generous creative acts, including the act of going to an exhibition, where every visitor is an important artistic agent (perhaps the most important one) there is a larger philosophical question. How can we, mere individuals respond to a great crisis? How can we affect change, help others, improve society, inspire children, or simply quell the restlessness that grips our hearts when we look upon great tides of misery, fear, despair and injustice that routinely flood our world? What good can a few pictures and words do? Enlightened as they are, truthful, considered and compelling, how can they counterbalance other social and political forces that beggar description, a world where ‘the worst are full of passionate intensity’ as Yeats put it.
Every artist – by nature always a small individual in the scheme of things – must think about these questions from time to time, and so must their audience, even if the purpose of art is not necessarily so purposeful, and nor should it be. Be still, really, can art effect change? Can creative thinking be a form of activism? And how? I thought about this again when I read the artists’ brief for this exhibition, which stirred such questions in a positive and realistic way:
‘Artists may not be able to change regimes, influence governments or save the migrants, but they can raise awareness of a reality that has become part of the contemporary socio-political environment. As visual storytellers and communicators, we can continue to pose questions and challenge indifference in the work we make, highlighting the positive impact that the migration of peoples, cultures and ideas has had across the globe.’
I don’t read this so much as a brief or statement of purpose as an observation of fact. That is, something that naturally seems to follow from creative work, just as meltwater flows to a river, a river to an ocean. Indeed, the moment artistic work becomes prescriptive, you know it will remain frozen – consider the managed vision of political regimes that are, in fact, the root of so much ideological blindness (as well as being really bad art). What is most interesting to me about making stories and pictures, particularly those of a free, politically and economically uncompromised imagination, not unlike that of a child, is not the communication of messages. It’s not even the raising of awareness. It’s the desire to craft an inspiring question, without always knowing an answer. To simply say ‘what do we think of this?’ As the exhibition statement says, to challenge indifference. That’s not as hard as the word ‘challenge’ might imply. It’s the welcome appeal to a natural, primal human impulse, instilled in us the moment we grasp a crayon or learn a word. When the first woman or man drew a person, animal or spirit onto a cave wall – probably after trekking vast distances to escape tribal war, creeping ice or prospective famine – they were doing something like this: challenging indifference. I saw this. I am still seeing this. I will always see this. They may not have even known what they were doing, or how art for humans has become so central to memory and survival.
Another thing that is fascinating about this urge to write and draw – and how it is so emblematic of childhood – is that it seems inherently positive, optimistic, life affirming. It doesn’t have to try to be so, it just is. Even when an image or story is dark or disturbing, there is something fundamentally reassuring about the act of putting it down, of basically trying to make sense of it. I actually think that some of the darkest stories in our culture are also some of the most positive, and similarly the most terrible subjects move us to sublime contemplation, because within the confrontation of a desperate reality there already exists the will towards resilience and redemption, to define in sharp relief what is good. The same is true of a social crisis, like many that we are facing now and will continue to face in every imaginable future. As always in history, there are roughly two ways we can go: fearful retreat or creative engagement. It may be trite to say this, but as a practicing artist I keep returning to the same conclusion: the difference between despair and hope is imagination. Despair is essentially an absence of imagined possibility. Hope is its abundance.
When the artic tern sets out for a new nest some 20,000 km away, it is not only aerodynamics, global winds or carbohydrates that keep it aloft, it is imagination. It would not be an anthropomorphic error to assume that, much like ourselves when travelling, the bird actually does have a particular sense of its destination held in mind, a vision – if we can stretch the meaning of the word – of an entirely non-existent but very hopeful future. And like ourselves, that vision may often be wrong: how many times has a new home, workplace, school, community or country been startlingly different to the wishful architecture of our dreams? But without the initial vision, the ability to imagine a possibility, to hope against despair, the journey would not be possible, and no physics, no resources at all would keep us aloft if the engine of visionary fiction did not first kick in.
All migration is an act of imagination, a flight of imagination. A hope that frequently exercises a human potential previously unknown, as we see in the remarkable success – regardless of real obstacles and political denial – of multicultural societies, with their endless challenge to indifference, their stream of complex questions about identity, life, and being human, self-awareness, the mature mindfulness of cultural tolerance. Migration is also an act of imagination that all too often ends in despair, from death at sea and psychological trauma to the intolerance of host communities, ignorant hostility, poverty, illness. Or worse, surviving all hazard in a world that does not care. For the immigrant, imagination, like hope, can easily come to be a curse. A fuel that runs out on an overcrowded boat, a breath that expires in a lorry, and thought that ends in the barrel of a weapon, behind walls erected by political opportunists. The universe of stars look down but does not even ask what must be done. That’s for us alone, the living, the thinking and feeling: the descendants of millennia of successful migration, whose distant ancestors dreamed of something better as they fled across deserts and oceans and ice bridges, and hoped that we would not forget. It’s left for us to imagine what to do, to pass on the dividends of hope that have been invested within us.
Perhaps this is where a humble exhibition such as this, contributing to millions of other small and large humanitarian actions happening simultaneously around the world, can actually make a difference. By creating, looking, and asking questions, confronting despair, we invest back into an economy far greater than any stock exchange, more ennobling than any political system, and far less compromised. We sustain the will to imagine a better world, for adults and especially children, for whom the positive inspiration of art and story can never be overestimated.
Not that we will necessarily achieve a better world, or even grasp its shape properly: the best creativity remains realistic, just as the best realism is creative. The odds against it can seem debilitating. But we do hold the image in front of us, like the artic tern, sailing along through the night with only the thinnest of magnetic songs for bearings, quite aware that the future is little more than an uninsured dream. A dream, however, as strong as the poles and as old as the planet, enough to outlive every government, legislation, fundamentalism and crisis. The promise of the unknown, as much as the fear of it. Should the imagination of some falter and weaken, whether that of the migrant or host community, perhaps it’s enough to look upon the thousands of other shapes just beyond our wingtips, all the other birds, still flying in vast formation, still dreaming of a safe nest for all who seek it, and know we will never be alone.
Shaun Tan, May 2017
A review of the exhibition can be found here: