Journeys Drawn: Illustrating the refugee crisis

House of Illustration’s new show includes 40 works by different illustrators – three of whom are refugees themselves. We speak to curator Katie Nairne about how illustration allows artists to show a different side to an already widely documented subject

Creative Review: Why did you want to put on the exhibition now?
Katie Nairne: There has always been political debate around the subjects of asylum and immigration, but it seems it is often discussed in a way that can obscure the experiences of refugees themselves. The idea of the exhibition was to redress this balance by bringing together illustration that gives a glimpse of the individual journeys refugees have experienced, whether through reportage, comics or animation.

Although the number of people arriving in Europe was at its height in 2015, there are still many displaced people who are seeking shelter, not only here but across the world. The UN estimates that there are currently 25.4 million refugees worldwide, and this doesn’t include asylum seekers or people who have been displaced from their homes within their home countries..

David Foldvari
David Foldvari

CR: The refugee crisis has already been widely documented through mediums like photography and film. What do you think illustration brings to the subject that is different?
KN: In many cases where photographing or filming refugees has been inappropriate, invasive, or endangered their safety, illustrators are able to document situations and events that may otherwise have remained unknown. A reportage illustrator such as Nick Ellwood can draw portraits of those who might not want to be identified to give us a sense of people that he met in Calais. Many of the reportage illustrators in the exhibition have also said that using the medium of drawing allowed them to engage with people in ways that a camera would not. The much more personal, tactile quality of drawing and the time it takes to create allowed them to get to know their subjects and listen to their stories.

A comic creator such as Kate Evans can also show past events, interior experience and emotions to give background and context in an easily understood format. In her graphic novel, Threads: From the Refugee Crisis, she documents her own experience of volunteering in Calais, and the narrative is interspersed with her own reflections, political events, and online responses from readers of her blog.

Nick Ellwood
Kate Evans

CR: How did you decide which artists to feature?
KN: There are so many brilliant illustrators working to communicate refugee stories that it was very difficult to work out how to limit the scope of the exhibition. Eventually I decided to focus on illustrators who were UK-based (with the exception of Mahmoud Salameh) so that as far as possible, I might be able to meet them and understand their approaches.

CR: Was it important for you to include work by illustrators that are refugees?
KN: Absolutely. I think the illustrators in the exhibition who are not refugees were very aware that they were in a problematic position – often commissioned to go into a camp, draw refugees and then return to their normal lives to represent the people that they had met in a certain way. It would have been misleading to suggest in the exhibition that refugees do not document their own experiences. That said, the nature of their situations means that finding refugee artists working within the field of graphic arts was not always straightforward.

Majid Adin is an illustrator and animator, and the four films featured in the exhibition draw on his own experiences to create pieces that all have emotional impact, but vary in style and tone. His competition-winning music video for Rocket Man by Elton John reimagines the song as the story of a man who has fled his war-torn home and is waiting for his family to join him in the UK, and uses ink washes and line drawings to evoke the man’s nostalgia. Mahmoud Salameh creates bold political cartoons that comment on conflict, border imperialism and politics. Having spent 17 months in an Australian detention centre after fleeing Syria, his work channels his anger at injustice into subversive images that convey complex ideas through clear and simple line and colour.

CR: Why do you think the majority of the artworks in the exhibition are black and white?
KN: For some of the reportage illustrators, this is due to practicalities. When making a drawing somewhere like a refugee camp or war zone there may be a limited amount of time to make each drawing and so it’s more important to capture a scene quickly rather than taking time over colours. Working in black and white does have its own advantages as well. When dealing with difficult topics such as refugee experiences, black and white works well as it allows the illustrator to focus on their subject in a different way – to be subtle or dramatic where appropriate – and it gives the illustrations a weight and sense of authenticity as it references the medium of the newspaper.

CR: What do you want visitors to take away from the exhibition?
KN: If people can leave the exhibition with just one of the personal stories in their minds, I’d feel that the exhibition has had the right effect. It shouldn’t be so easy to forget that groups of people are made up of individuals, but with busy lives and news stories changing every day we don’t always consider the people behind the headlines. I also hope that the exhibition will give people a sense of the diversity of experiences of refugees, an insight into the process of seeking asylum, and the potential for illustration to comment on sensitive social and political issues.

Karrie Fransman
Olivier Kugler

Journeys Drawn: Illustration from the Refugee Crisis is on display at House of Illustration in London until March 24 2019;