The Ship of Tolerance Sails in New York

Published September 20, 2013

This year’s DUMBO Arts Festival will berth a new sort of craft. The Ship of Tolerance, a wooden boat created by Russian artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, will drift down the East River on Friday before docking at the Brooklyn waterfront for one week, afterwards moving to the Atlantic Salt Yard. The sails and sides are covered in children’s drawings of tolerance, however they dream it to look. Included are compositions from local public school children and drawings made for past ships, starting with the Kabakovs’ first iteration of the project in Siwa, Egypt in 2005. They’ve since created ships in Venice, Italy; St. Moritz, Switzerland; Sharjah, United Arab Emirates; Miami, Florida; and Havana, Cuba.

There’s one hitch. “Right now, frankly, I have a problem,” shares Emilia Kabakov, 68, who’s been 80-year old Ilya’s wife and collaborator for nearly three decades. “I have hundreds of drawings, and many of them have text. They are in different languages. And I can’t read them. So I’m nervous to put them up. Because how do I know if it’s a bad word or a good word?”

It’s probably an interesting word. As expected, the kids, who range in age from five to 13, have come up with fantastic and very adorable ideas. Guess how a plate of fruit with lingering flies and a spider fits in: “‘It’s simple. The flies want to eat the fruit, but they’re tolerant so they don’t. The spider wants to eat the flies, but he doesn’t because he’s tolerant,'” Emilia says the boy who drew it explained.

Uncertain renderings aside, the artists found an easy time gathering components for the ship, which was originally modeled on an ancient Egyptian sailboat. They discovered the strongest support in earnest strangers. Philanthropist Agnes Gund’s arts education non-profit Studio in a School connected the Kabakovs with public schools in the five boroughs. Once that was settled, “We didn’t have a budget to pay for the masts,” recalls Emilia. “Then someone called me from Long Island, saying, ‘I build ships. I can do it for free.’ Then another guy does flagpoles. ‘I can do it for free. I want to be part of it.'”

The flagpole guy delivered for free, too. “This project brings out something very good and altruistic in people,” says Emilia. Little demonstrates this better than the Kabakov’s initial request to organize the Ship in Havana, Cuba in 2012. “The first question was, ‘What do you want from us? What do you want from our children?’ And I said, ‘Well, what do you want from your children?'”

Emilia answered honestly. “We want for your children to be free, to be able to say what they want, to travel where they want, and live lives where no one tells them what to do.’ And the woman started to cry. Next morning, we got permission.”

THE SHIP OF TOLERANCE WILL LAUNCH AT THE DUMBO ARTS FESTIVAL ON SEPTEMBER 27. THE KABAKOVS ALSO HAVE AN EXHIBITION AT THE PACE GALLERY OPENING NOVEMBER 2, COINCIDING WITH THE PREMIERE OF THE DOCUMENTARY ILYA AND EMILIA KABAKOV: ENTER HERE AT FILM FORUM.