When Londoners first caught sight of the Ship of Tolerance in the Thames (30 August – 6 October), a lot had already happened behind the scenes. Children at schools, museums and community centres had been approached to talk about the problems they were having. In London, the Kabakovs cooperated with Nadja Romain and her organisation Art Action Change to realise the project. ‘We approach children, not just to educate, but also to learn from them, and create a safe place where they can have discussions about issues of our time,’ Romain tells. ‘They are bombarded with information about what the world is today. This creates a need to process information. It is important to hear what they say.’ For the Ship of Tolerance Romain worked with the Mayor of London’s office, which supported the project by sending out info to all schools. Teachers who responded received a curriculum that they could use to inspire their teaching. They also got paint, brushes, and silk so the children could make paintings for the ship. Three or four children worked together on one piece of silk. From the paintings a selection were chosen for the sail of the ship. Others were shown in schools and locations including the Frieze art fair.

‘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.’

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov
Jurriaan Benschop: What exactly do you ask the children?

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.

Emilia Kabakov talking with the young sail-makers. Photo by John Ferguson
Since the launch of the project in Siwa (which is in the Sahara desert), the Kabakovs have brought the project to places such as Rome, Venice, Moscow, Samara, New York, Havana, Miami, Zug (where the project took place in 2016 and will remain until 2021), Sharjah and Rostock. In each city a new version of the vessel is built. And local children deliver the paintings for the sails.

JB: Do you ask the children to paint anything specific?

The Ship Of Tolerance in Zug, Switzerland. The project was presented there in 2016 and will remain until 2021.
EK: It is up to them but it follows the discussion we have. Teachers talk with the children, and they make drawings. If you see the drawings, you immediately see what their problem is. A kid from Germany wrote a letter that at first he hated the project. Then he started to like it because he got a day off from school, to work on it. He made a drawing and then started to understand what it is about. He was forced to think for himself, and not just believe his parents or other people who say ‘We hate refugees.’

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)