9th November 2018 - 10th March 2019
“Journeys Drawn: Illustration from the Refugee Crisis” is the first ever UK exhibit to delve into the complexities of the refugee crisis through illustration. Held at the House of Illustration, it features the multi-media art of 12 contemporary artists, some of whom were refugees themselves. Among the diverse mediums featured are Iranian refugee Majid Anin’s winning animation (selected for Elton John’s 1972 hit song ‘Rocket Man’), an infinite zoom film by Karrie Fransman documenting the perilous journey of 4 Eritrean women, poignant cartoons by Mahmoud Salameh and manga by Asia Alfansi.
The exhibit is unique in the way it tells the stories of refugees: at once intimate and sensitive. It is humanising rather than objectifying. Its subjects are shown socialising, cooking, creating and dreaming rather than simply bleeding, starving, screaming. A far cry from romanticisation, it instead returns agency to the refugees and refuses to make a spectacle of their suffering – a suffering that isn’t lost in the artwork, only depicted in a more humane manner. For example, Olivier Kugler depicts the daily life of refugees in the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp in France in a comic book-like style, focusing on the objects they keep in their possession.
In this respect, the exhibit moves us without the hit-and-run shock effect of most mass media covering refugees. Such images, while delivering an instant blow to our conscience, desensitize us to devastating conditions and normalize violence and suffering, particularly on racialized bodies. A good example would be the gut-wrenching viral image of toddler Aylan Kurdi, a Kurdish asylum-seeker, lying motionless on a beach after drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.
“My main concern was to try to treat the subject matter in a way that was not patronising or cliched, and to create some kind of emotional connection with the viewer without resorting to shock.” —David Foldvari, featured artist
The political nature of these illustrations is foregrounded. Many of the artists are reportage illustrators, tasked with documenting the bleak conditions of war-torn zones or refugee camps for the education of an audience. Featured artist George Butler delineates the nature of his work, arguing that it’s more than simply drawing at a location: he likens it to photojournalism, and is adamant that reportage illustration “should tell a story, communicate an idea.”
Rezan and Rocca, 2015
Like any artistic medium, illustration runs the risk of lending itself to voyeurism, especially when it regards a group like refugees who have always been high in demand for public consumption. Nevertheless, this particular art form is perfect for providing artists with the opportunity to observe and document situations where photography may be banned or considered too intrusive. As a result, we’re presented with complex artwork that has been produced through considerable dialogue with its subjects simply by virtue of the drawn out (pun intended) nature of the artistic process.
This exhibit would interest those keen to learn more about the struggles of refugees in a sensitive way as well as artists looking to begin conversations about vulnerable populations like refugees in a more respectful and humanizing manner. While most of the artwork was created during the peak of the global refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016, the crisis is far from being over. Journeys Drawn points us to a way of moving forward in the kinds of conversations we have about it.