‘You have to understand what exactly a city or country needs at this moment,’ says Emilia Kabakov. ‘In general the theme of the project is tolerance. But we listen to what the children bring up. In every city tolerance has a different meaning. In Chicago it is related to gun and gang violence. In Germany it is about refugees and immigration. In London it is […] about assimilation of different types of people. We try to adjust to what we hear.’
Emilia Kabakov: We tell them that there are a lot of problems in the world, and that situations could be improved. What do they think should be done? For instance, through their answers you start to understand that their parents are fighting. Or somebody is being bullied. Or there is the threat of gang violence. Children are very good at voicing their concerns. The younger the children are, the more they tell you. As soon as you establish a connection and trust, you can get a lot of information about the problems they have.
JB: Do you ask the children to paint anything specific?
JB: Do you consider yourself a refugee?
EK: Yes, I emigrated in 1973. I was a refugee from the Soviet Union and have been living in the US since. New York is my home now.
JB: Were you received well as an immigrant?
EK: Personally I was received very well. I was very lucky. But it depends on how you treat people. If you come with demands and your expectations are higher than reality, people will not like you. Nobody expects you or asked you to come. So you have to be nice to people. You come to a different culture, that has existed for a long time and you have to respect that culture. Both sides have to do some adjustments. You have to meet each other somewhere.
JB: Was it a helpful experience for you – a good school for life?
EK: I came with the expectation that it is going to be very difficult. I was determined to do anything possible to get a job, to survive. In the end I did not only survive, I made a fantastic life. But it was not easy, there were some periods of time when I had no food, I didn’t know what tomorrow would bring. But here I am! You better not wait for somebody to give you a place in this world. You must create this place. That is my mentality.
[caption id="attachment_35690" align="alignnone" width="1000"] Emilia Kabakov with the young sail-makers. Photo by John Ferguson[/caption]
JB: The Ship of Tolerance seems quite different from the work you and your husband have been presenting over decades in museums. Do you see the Ship as a natural extension of your work as an artist?
EK: It is very different, but of course it is connected on many levels. In our art we work with imaginary angels, with the theme of utopia. Utopia is some kind of idea which cannot be realised, it always fails. Capitalism, communism, socialism, it all starts with good intentions, but then it fails. On the way to utopia we always start with destruction. But maybe, you don’t have to destroy the past? You can try to change things to learn from the past, to integrate it into the fantasy of the future. You can build it on the empathy for others. We won’t have a perfect world, but definitely we can have a better and friendlier world. People in general have something good inside; you just have to bring it out. Even the worst people, unexpectedly, do something good.
JB: Do you feel that your art has an effect on people?
EK: We made exhibitions including pieces of paper where people could write their opinions, their thoughts. A 19-year-old girl wrote that she was thinking about suicide. Then she saw our angels and understood she had to fight for her future. If, as an artist, you can change the life even of one person, you can say art matters.
shipoftolerance.org (on the website you can donate to raise funds for the Ship’s future projects)