George Butler at Bankside Gallery
Intimate stories of human and animal migration are examined side by side in Anima Mundi, which collects the sensitively observed sketches of award-winning reportage illustrator George Butler at Bankside Gallery.
Through his black pen lines, ink splotched canvases, and rich watercolours, George Butler’s drawings of zebras in the Savannah, labourers in Tajikistan and tourists in Venice communicate the vulnerability and resilience of populations on the move across the world. Collecting these drawings together, Butler asks: “Things move and why should we be intimidated by that?”
Butler’s illustrations have been published internationally, from The New York Times to Der Spiegel, and previously shown at the V&A and the Imperial War Museum.
Mostly drawn in situ with pens and brushes, the daily habits of his subjects are captured through shrewd observation. In combat zones he dons a ballistic vest, though he doesn’t see himself as pursuing an adrenaline rush.
“I’m not trying to scare myself, or to compete with frontline photographers,” he told The Observer in October. “The inspiration comes from sitting down with someone I would otherwise never have met, and having a connection with them.”
His mode of work enables him to tell big stories in a few, nuanced strokes. His striking use of white space, dappled by select flashes of colour, bring sensitivity and immediacy to his subjects while suggesting things unfolding outside of the frame.
In Dushanbe, we see how men looking for construction work leave their power tools on the pavement, “with a telephone number and a hopeful note.” The queue they form is “a litmus test for the Tajik economy. The alternative is to board the four day train to Moscow.”
Where he has found humour, he has laced it into his illustrations. ‘Look Out Crossing’ depicts a convoy of 4x4s witnessing a wildebeest migration in Kenya’s Maasai Mara reserve. “They all follow the one in front, mostly without knowing where they are going in an odd way mirroring the migration they are trying to photograph, or draw” the caption notes wryly. Another pictures a Romanian man laughing while pretending to drive a car being towed by horses to scrap.
Butler’s illustrations most admirably depict the vulnerability and humanity of the people he has met. In one image, silhouettes of young men from Afghanistan and Pakistan sit in a dark warehouse, burning clothes, railway sleepers and cardboard to stay warm. Economical brush strokes stand for architectural struts, and for the light from the fires and the windows cracking through to lift the shadows inside.
Others seem to meditate on the banality of life in trying circumstances. One renders a West Bank bomb site from 2014 being cleared by labourers, who collect the steel rebar, straighten it, and then sell it on. In others we see the family of a fridge mechanic plying an important trade in Iraq’s Domiz refugee camp, and a falafel shop buried beneath rubble in West Mosul selling to people who have returned to rebuild their home.
‘Mouhammed’, a ten year-old Palestinian boy in the E1 zone of the West Bank, is the subject of a portrait in which he wears a gas mask as one would wear a cap, with the straps dangling over his ears. The mask is a leftover from an Israeli Defence Force tear gas operation in an area where Israel has aspirations to expand its settlements.
Sometimes Butler has used multiple pages to create larger panoramas, to which he has added found ephemera rich with local colour, such as pamphlets and posters. The ruins of West Mosul is represented in a July 2018 collage of such artefacts found in the rubble.
The scenes in Anima Mundi depict with compassion and nuance people experiencing dramatic change. Assembled beside his drawings of animals, birds and fish, who move around the earth to maintain the conditions that they have adapted to, helps us understand movement as an anthropological necessity—something that becomes necessary to survive after normal circumstances are dramatically disrupted—and as a biological impulse shared across the living world. Butler invites us to take responsibility for all things on earth, and proposes “a more gentle and open definition of migration – something that can mean so many different things to so many different people.”
This impression is tangibly conveyed in a globe built by specialists Bellerby & Co, which reworks a large map of the world Butler conceived in Greece, 2015, when he watched a barbed wire fence being constructed in front of refugees. It describes a world of moving populations, encompassing butterflies in North America and camps in Calais.
Anima Mundi: Drawn Stories of Migration is at Bankside Gallery until 6pm, Sunday 25 November. George Butler is a trustee of the Hands Up Foundation, which supports health and education projects in Syria. Learn more about George Butler at his website.