Baboró, the International Arts Festival for Children, is in full swing in venues across Galway city, and they have brought a wonderful exhibition to the O’Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance at NUI Galway.
Curated by Sarah Webb, 'A World of Colour' features artwork by two of the world’s most beloved illustrators working in children’s books today, Chris Haughton and Beatrice Alemagna. Haughton’s work may be more familiar to an Irish audience, as he is Irish (based in London) and his books are widely available here, even as Gaeilge.
While Alemagna, who is from Italy and based in Paris, has illustrated over 30 books and is a household name on the continent, her work has only been translated into English in recent years. Haughton names her as his favourite illustrator and provided a quote for one of her books, which gives the juxtaposition of their work an extra personal touch.
The exhibition is a combination of prints of artwork from several of their picture books and original collages, and there are copies of the books visitors can peruse. Both artists also wrote the text for the books included here, but it is mostly in the images that the story is told, and they provide additional information and sometimes tell a story that slightly differs from the text.
Their styles are very different – Haughton’s pictures are characterised by a deceptively simple, blocky arrangement, with flat and fewer colours, while Alemagna’s are brimming with details and texture –, but they share a love of collage and the freedom and flexibility it brings: moving things around, playing, exploring. Haughton's Shh! We Have a Plan originated in paper collages, and Alemagna uses all kinds of materials, from tissue paper to photographs and wool, to create her illustrations.
She likes to include small, often quirky details in her work that require the viewer to pay attention and loves the way that tiny things often move us the most and help to convey an emotion.
The impact of Haughton’s artwork comes from the interplay between the images and the sparse text, the rhythmically arranged shapes and powerful colour combinations (in Shh! We Have a Plan blues and black dominate, with most of the book printed in CMK only, with the Y in the birds, so the pink and orange bird the figures are trying to catch stands out against the dark cool background and an explosion of colour accompanies the surprise ending) and the expressive figures, mostly animals. His characters’ eyes are full of energy, mischief and caring, depending on the narrative.
Look closely at Haughton’s work, and you will also see the odd tiny detail he sneaked in: His passion for fair trade (he founded a fair trade social business in Nepal that he designs rugs for) manifests itself in Oh No, George! when Harris returns from the shop to the mess his dog George has made and his shopping bag bears the fair trade symbol. Later, when George is tempted by a bin, there is a small recycling symbol stamped on the bin.
Both Alemagna and Haughton have a background in design. In Alemagna’s work this knowledge is combined with the naiveté of her lyrical, childlike drawing style. She has come to value the fact that she didn’t receive any formal tuition in illustration, as she was free to invent her own techniques and 'retain a "purity", [...] a closeness to [her] childhood'. By ignoring the rules of perspective, she allows her work to carry a strong emotional current. Haughton employs clever design elements such as scale to move the story along, including pages of different sizes for all the animals going to sleep in Goodnight Everyone, from the tiny mice with their tiny yawns on a small page to the big bears, who receive a full page treatment.
I have been guiding tours of the exhibition and workshops for school groups this week and have been impressed by the children’s responses to the techniques and styles, as well as the content: A six-year old honing in on the fact that in one of the George illustrations, one flower is outlined instead of filled in like the rest of the image. A boy who chose one of the pictures for Beatrice’s Marvellous Fluffy Squishy Itty Bitty, the big clothes shop window display, told me he liked it because the artist achieved ‘a panorama, and we see the girl looking in from outside, but we are in the shop’. Another boy loved the texture in the ceiling of the train station in A Lion in Paris, while yet another child simply said they picked an image because it was ‘unique’.
It may be a sad sign of the times that a recurring response to my question ‘What will the child in On A Magical Do-Nothing Day do now that it has dropped the computer game in the water?’ revolves around attempting to salvage said game, instead of taking the clue from the picture of the child happily exploring nature and the shape of its orange raincoat eventually coming to resemble the toadstools in the foreground. But it is heartwarming to see the children engage so enthusiastically with the books.
For the portraits for What is a Child? Alemagna spent years observing children in the street. She wanted to capture the fragility and innate poetry of children and show them in all their variety. There is a boy picking his nose and a tender portrait of a girl with braces and glasses. Mixed media provides the tools for expressing a multitude of personalities, showing how 'mixed' we all are. As Alemagna says, as a child she cried a lot and laughed a lot: we are all mixed emotions. She never felt adapted to the world, and combining her need of drawing and writing with that feeling was ‘the most sincere thing to do’. Her books are very personal. ‘I am the lion’, she says of the lion touring Paris in a melancholy state, and the book includes a photo of her friend collaged into a scene. Her work is against limits and fundamentally always the same story: a fragile being that finds strength within themselves.
Similarly, it is the smallest figure in Shh! We Have a Plan who has the successful, kinder approach to catching a bird, though he gets hushed by the others.
There is both humour and compassion in these books and images, and the overarching message – one of acceptance and inclusion, against perfection and standardisation – is never preachy, but delivered with subtlety and love and wrapped in a beautiful, colourful narrative.
This exhibition is a treat for children and adults alike. It has been extended to run until Monday, October 23rd (open 9:30am - 5:30pm), and in addition to this exhibition visitors can also enjoy photographs of collages and drawings made by children who came on the tours.
The information panels accompanying the exhibition were compiled by Valerie Coghlan, and the activity sheets were created by Jenny Duffy.
Interview with Beatrice Alemagna on Fine Little Day
Salisbury, Martin & Styles, Morag: Children’s Picturebooks. The Art of Visual Storytelling, Laurence King, London 2012
Picturebook Makers: Beatrice Alemagna
Video about the making of What is a Child?