The scale and horror of today’s migrant crisis can be hard to absorb. In trying to understand the experience of forced displacement, sometimes it’s useful to focus on a single story, a single person, or a single drawing — small moments that can add up to greater empathy and comprehension.
This is what Journeys Drawn: Illustration from the Refugee Crisis, now on view at London’s House of Illustration, attempts to do. It gathers 40 recent illustrations from 12 artists in an exhibition about the estimated 68.5 million people who have been forcibly displaced worldwide.
This small one-room show is underwhelming at first glance. But the stories in the artworks are affecting and powerful. In one illustration, Syrians in a French refugee camp cook breakfast while an older man deals with the flu for the first time; another depicts the relationship between a niece and uncle, named Rezan and Rocca, as they recount what they have and haven’t lost as they make their way from Syria to Germany.
Illustration is defined broadly in this exhibition, which includes watercolors, pencil sketches, comics, animation, and giclée. Some of the participating artists describe their work as reportage, and the quick strokes and simple lines make it clear that their primary aim was to document, not to stylize, what they were witnessing. British reportage illustrator George Butler’s watercolors, for instance, depict a Serbian warehouse where young men from Pakistan and Afghanistan gathered in 2016. Except for small bits of warm oranges and yellows offered by a few fires, these illustrations are rendered entirely in black and white.
Even starker are the prints of David Foldvari, which leave abundant white space in their depictions of unaccompanied refugee children at a Save the Children-funded center in Rome, which the artist visited in 2015.
Illustration is a good medium for depicting forced migration in Europe because it’s relatively quick and unfussy. The situations being illustrated are so dramatic that it can be useful to present them in a relatively straightforward way; the featured artists distill the human emotions underlying an immensely complex global crisis into simple, affecting visuals. This is true even of the manga-style drawings of Asia Alfasi, which are meticulously rendered yet appear effortless as they capture painful memories of childhood violence.
However, some of the illustrations look so unfinished that they seem unduly casual, as if not enough attention was given to particular individuals and stories.
On the other end of the spectrum, the most ambitious work is “North Star Fading,” an “infinite zoom” animation by Karrie Fransman. This seamless and hypnotic series of illustrations, based on testimonies of Eritrean women, follows a journey of violence, flight, and attempts to gain asylum in the UK. The vibrant visuals are accompanied by an equally mesmerizing poem performed by Lula Mebrahtu.
Like several of the other artists in this exhibition, Fransman was commissioned by a charity to produce her work. Artworks sponsored by refugee aid organization Help Refugees, child rights NGO Save the Children, and PositiveNegatives, which produces human rights-themed comics, are all on display here.
This type of arts sponsorship is an effective way to spread information about the refugee crisis — but it’s also a bit of a missed opportunity. Like most of the artists in this exhibition, the artists commissioned by European charities working with refugees tend to be white Europeans with no direct experience of forced migration. It’s well-meaning of them to be volunteering at refugee camps and producing books about these experiences, like Kate Evans’ Threads: From the Refugee Crisis and Olivier Kugler’s Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees; panels from both books are included in this exhibition.
Yet more space should have been allotted to refugee stories from refugees themselves. Just two refugee artists, and several other migrants, are included among the 12 illustrators in this exhibition. One is Majid Adin, who was forced to leave Iran due to his political cartoons and was smuggled to London in a refrigerator. His short animated films, depicting migration journeys, are in a range of styles. The other is Mahmoud Salameh, a Palestinian cartoonist born in a Syrian refugee camp who spent 17 months in an Australian detention center while seeking asylum. “Shading,” by Salameh, uses blank space to portray the power imbalances between asylum seekers and the governments trying to shut them out, as represented by a giant sign bearing a “Do not enter” symbol.
The contrast between works made by refugees themselves and works made by European observers becomes especially clear in British illustrator Toby Morison’s colored pencil and watercolor piece, “Yousef in Hamelin.” This consists of one central panel, featuring an illustration of ten-year-old refugee Yousef, and several side panels depicting experiences he’s reflecting on, from his childhood in Syria to his separation from his brother. “Yousef in Hamelin” includes one of Yousef’s own drawings: a childlike sketch of himself playing football in the midst of tanks and missiles. It’s a memorable moment.
Journeys Drawn is a strong exhibition, but it would be even stronger with more of these personal moments illustrated by Yousef, Salameh, Adin, and other refugees.
Journeys Drawn: Illustration from the Refugee Crisis continues at House of Illustration through March 24. The exhibition is curated by Katie Nairne.