DUMBO, New York -- Framed by the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges and set against the backdrop of lower Manhattan, Emilia and Ilya Kabakov’s Ship of Tolerance will grace the DUMBO waterfront until October 8th.
The pre-eminent feature of this 66-foot wooden vessel is its colorful sail, stitched together from paintings on 30” x 30” silk squares by New York City public elementary school students. The paintings express notions of peace and tolerance and hope for a brighter future.
There could not be a more apropos time to unveil the ship, noted NYC Commissioner for Cultural Affairs, Kate Levin in her welcome address at today’s unveiling, than during the General Assembly, “the most important week for peace and tolerance.”
More than 700 local school children participated in the project, which was carried out in collaboration with Studio in a School, an organization that brings art programs to children in underserved communities. Prior to picking up paint brushes, the students engaged in discussions and other activities focused on tolerance.
For instance, one Studio in a School instructor, Robin Holder, worked with students on a collaborative mural depicting a multicultural community.
“Everyone is different,” says her student, seven-year old Kaylee Gil, who was delighted to discover at today’s opening ceremony that her painting made the cut to be incorporated into the Ship of Tolerance’s sail (other children’s paintings are displayed throughout the city). “We speak different languages, we have different color skin and hair, we come from different places,” she continues, “and we should accept one another.” Asked what she will take away from this project, Kaylee says she will remember the lesson on tolerance “every time I see someone who is different from me.”
That is exactly what world renowned artists Emilia and Ilya Kabovok were hoping for when they conceived the Ship of Tolerance.
“Children understand tolerance amazingly well. They are mostly unspoiled by the prejudice often carried by the adults. If we listen to them, perhaps, we can alleviate some of the oppression we witness everyday,” commented Emilia and Ilya Kabakov.
The idea to build a ship came about in 2005 while the Kabakovs were traveling through the Siwa Oasis in a desert region of Egypt. The presence of a saltwater lake prompted them to reflect on the historical significance of bodies of water. They embarked on a project with local educators to teach children about the instrumental role ships played in Egyptian history by facilitating communication, trade, and cultural exchange. It resulted in the first iteration of the Ship of Tolerance, inspired by the UN’s annual “International Day for Tolerance”.
The Kabakovs had no intention of expanding the project beyond Egypt, “But there is so much violence around the world,” explains Emilia, “working with the next generation to overcome intolerance is our only hope for a better future.”
Since then, they have built versions of the ship in Venice, Sharjah, San Moritz, Miami, and Havana and plan to do it as least thrice more in Detroit, Singapore and in their native Russia.
Each time, they involve local carpenters, educators, and most importantly children.
While there is little fault to be found find in the idea of a community-based project with a positive message, some have criticized this particular project as shallow.
It is hard not to wonder, for instance, how engaging only around 5,000 children across seven cities (to date), can make meaningful strides against intolerance.
Eleanor Whitney, a casual observer who works in an arts organization in the DUMBO neighborhood, imagines the project was meaningful for the artists, children, and educators who participated, but admits that she didn’t quite know what to make of the seeing kids’ art on a ship as she rode by on her bicycle Monday morning. However, after learning more about the project’s mission and genesis through our conversation, she commented, “as a piece of social practice art, I think it is an effective vehicle for starting a conversation on tolerance.”
Taking a more critical perspective, Marc Boucai, a PhD Candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley and an expert on questions of diversity, inclusion in art and popular culture, was struck by the choice of tolerance, rather than a more progressive notion such as social justice or human rights, as the underlying theme. “Tolerance is not necessarily acceptance,” he notes, “it is simply the regulation of hatred.”
Moreover, while he supports the recent trend of blurring the line between fine art and community performance and he applauds the idea of The Ship of Tolerance, he feels its execution did not live up to its potential. “The utopian vision [depicted in the children’s] brown and yellow stick figures holding hands in the sunshine is beautiful, but simplistic,” he says.
Still, the mood at the unveiling was joyous as orange-clad cartoonish performers hopped as students from participating schools were treated to carousel rides, and dancing and music in the Brooklyn Bridge Park. It reinforced Emilia’s assertion that “this work is about dreams.”
The ship will remain stationed along the shores of the Brooklyn Bridge Park for the duration of the DUMBO Arts Festival, of which it is apart. From there, it will return (on a barge) to Staten Island, where it was assembled over the past few weeks, and will be on view at the Salt Atlantic Yard October 11th-13th.
Corresponding events included a free Ship of Tolerance concert at the New York Historical Society on Friday, featuring children performers from La Guardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York, the Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, the Spivakov Foundation in Moscow and Havana.