magine Noah’s Ark: the vessel that saved human beings and other species from extinction during the Great Flood. For some, it symbolises the rebirth of living beings on the planet earth. In another context, it is a unique example of coexistence and tolerance. Predators and prey were on a journey to an unknown destination, yet there were no killings. Mankind arrived safely at the Mount Ararat after being in the company of tigers, leopards and wolves. Sparrows and pigeons remained unharmed in the presence of eagles and cats. Rats were not threatened by snakes. Hens, goats and cows were not sacrificed for human diet. Insects were not picked by crows or other birds; and scorpions did not bite anyone.
The voyage without any casualty was a miraculous demonstration that humans and other creatures can survive each other, despite their instinct to attack, hunt and devour. In most societies animals are slaughtered for food consumption, or to extract ivory, fur and other products; but extermination is not specific to these animals. Humans, too, become the target. Not long ago, the country witnessed several attacks by terrorists, who tried to massacre people praying in their mosques, because the militants were not prepared to tolerate a different interpretation of faith.
People are not killed on the basis of religion alone; they are also eliminated due to the colour of their skin (George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was murdered in 2020 by a white policeman in the United States. The death led to the Black Lives Matter movement); because of the gender (the shameful ‘honour’ killings); for political reasons (Benazir Bhutto, Leon Trotsky, Mahatma Gandhi), on ethnic grounds (the Holocaust, Khmer Rouge’s execution of Vietnamese Cambodians and the Serbian genocide of Bosnians).
There are other intolerances and aggressions as well: in a domestic environment, at the TV screen, during an office meeting, on the playing field; people try to diminish one another using words and gestures. Just tune into a political talk show on a popular TV channel, and you’ll see people deafening, defaming and destroying their opponents. An exhibition of 80 posters on tolerance is one of the best sights in this context.
The posters are the vision of Mirko Ili : a New York-based graphic designer, who “was inspired to launch the Tolerance Project following the House of Tolerance film festival in Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2017. He asked 28 artists/ designers to create a poster each about tolerance, the only requirement being that they write ‘tolerance’ in their native language. After a successful 10-day show in Ljubljana, Mirko decided to exhibit the posters globally.” Thus the posters arrived in Pakistan. Here, curated by Aarish Sardar “a Lahore-based graphic designer, writer and design educator,” these are on display from September 16 to 20 at the Packages Mall, Lahore. Sardar “aims to take this exhibition to other cities across Pakistan and beyond.”
People are not killed on the basis of religion alone; they are also eliminated due to the colour of their skin; because of their gender; for political reasons and on ethnic grounds.
The choice of the exhibition venue is significant. The place is visited not just by the art fraternity but also a huge number of the general population. Those who may feel intimidated in front of an abstract canvas, can still read, recognise and respond to another visual format: posters sent every Sunday with the newspaper, glowed on the city walls, illuminated in the middle of the road or projected on the publicity hoardings. The upper floor/ foyer of the Packages Mall is an appropriate setting for this kind of show, since it seeks to communicate with public in a familiar, everyday language. The shopping centre, due to its upmarket outlets, luxury stores, expensive eateries is associated with an affluent class, but strangely and admiringly, the place is also visited by people from other backgrounds, including those who intend to spend hot summer hours in the cool corridors of the mall.
Using such a widely-visited venue requires communication with the consumers. Hence Mirko Ili ’s demand from the artists to write tolerance in their local language; met by Umair Abbasi, who has created his piece on the Urdu word Bardaasht, adding green and red: two complimentary hues. In this poster, Abbasi suggests the notion of how differences can attract, and interlock. Another participant from Pakistan, Samya Arif has depicted a mirror image of two females. One of them is shown praying with a rosary in her hand and the other worshipping a Hindu god, yet both resemble each other, especially in their taste for sunglasses.
Posters, generally considered a means of mass consumption, are often of two types: vocal or mute - with text or purely pictorial. These 80 posters from 50+ countries include the word tolerance, either in English or translated in Spanish, Persian, Arabic and other languages, but one feels that it is the visual that completes the story. A number of artists/ designers have created works which deal with tolerance – or intolerance of various kinds; easily grasped due to their choice of imagery. In the work of Michel Bouvet (France) a cat is sitting in front of a dog. The generations fed on the Tom and Jerry cartoons could identify with this message of peaceful cohabitation. There are other visuals addressing the tolerance of sex and skin colour. US-based Melinda Back’s poster illustrates fingers of a white person intertwined with those of a black individual, a concept also explored by Finn Nygaard (Denmark) in a portrait composed of various tints and with a subtitle: Tolerance, The Colour of Our Family.
One realises that tolerance probably is best practiced in the realm of sports. The French national football team competing in the last FIFA World Cup, was primarily an Arab and African squad. Intriguingly, in a sport event based on national identities, there have been mergers and acceptances. Coaches for a number of national teams are hired from other countries. Nevertheless, there is still substantial hatred for ‘outsiders’ in many cultures, especially towards the refugees. This has been indicated by Portugal’s Nuno Martins, in his image of a raft occupied by the illegal immigrants in the midst of vast dark waters. The text, “Tolerance is Life” adds content. Likewise, the tolerance of ‘the other’ is suggested by Kit Hinrichs (USA) who has constructed a mug shot with stripes of male and female faces, belonging to England, Kenya, North Korea, Liberia, France, Congo, Sweden, Yemen, Japan, Serbia, Germany, Russia, Nigeria and Vietnam.
Every poster included in the show signifies a different route to the prevailing issue of intolerance. A number of entrees do not require a text, but some with simple shift have managed to put the message across. For example, Harry Pearce, from the UK, has reversed the word ME into WE to suggest that an individual is not about singular concepts, practices, areas, but a collective: the entire world.
This project offers a rare opportunity to revisit the idea of tolerance around the world in 80 posters.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.