Shaun Tan – a small collection

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In this inaugural exhibition on the Right Now website, celebrated artist, illustrator, theatre designer and animator Shaun Tan has drawn together a collection of works from his many picture books which explore the relationships between his work and human rights. Shaun’s surreal subjects and expressive style address complex social and political themes while still allowing for a compassionate understanding of human experience and diverse interpretations. We asked Shaun to tell us a bit about each work, what inspired him to create them and what ideas and messages lie behind each one.

A large steel ship arrives at shore, stylised rabbits dressed in formal sailing clothes walk onto the land

‘They Came by Water’ – Copyright Shaun Tan 2011

“This painting was for ‘The Rabbits’ written by John Marsden. It is an allegorical tale about the strange arrival of colonial visitors, told from the point of view of an imaginary native animal. There are obvious references to the European invasion of Australia, and the problems of ‘introduced species’, but beyond this surface reading  it’s a tale of tragic miscommunication. Preoccupied with an ambitious vision of industrial development, the mysterious Rabbit civilisation ignores all questions of justice or sustainability, with terrible results.”

Stylised rabbits dressed in formal clothing with top hats hold up forms with official stamps on them, there are also kites floating in the sky

‘Stolen Children’ – Copyright Shaun Tan 2011

“An illustration from ‘The Rabbits’ in which the removal of indigenous children from their parents is represented as a flotilla of box-kites pulled across the sky by cast iron ‘boats’, enforced by abstract documents presented by bureaucrats. This image conveys the idea of unbridgeable distance, as well as a feeling of incomprehension.”

A suitcase sits on a kitchen table, and man and a women stand over it.

‘The Suitcase’ – Copyright Shaun Tan 2011

“‘The Arrival’ is an immigrant story, set in a world that is somewhat familiar but also strange and surreal. My original concept was to tell a story entirely from the point of view of a migrant entering a country about which he knows nothing, and for this reason the book is a wordless novel, with the ‘narrative’ unfolding as several hundred drawings, as if from an old album that has lost all annotations. Although set in a fictional universe, the people, places and events of the story are based on my research of real-life migrant experiences in Australia and the US throughout the 20th century.”

Giant people in suits that cover their entire bodies, suck up people from the ground using huge horns. There are old buildings in the background.

‘The Night of the Giants’ – Copyright Shaun Tan 2011

“A drawing from ‘The Arrival’ where one immigrant recalls the collapse of his home country, represented as an invasion by mysterious oppressors. Throughout the book, there is a silent comparison between utopian and dystopian societies; the latter characterized by some form of intolerance, whether in the form of racism, political silencing, class division or civil war.”

A man stands on a ladder with a box full of pieces of machinery. He is throwing them into the top of a large red steel barrel which is full of octopus like arms

‘Feeding Time’ – Copyright Shaun Tan 2011

“The ‘Lost Thing’ tells the story of a hapless creature that is adopted by an introverted boy. Everyone else in the story is able to see the ‘thing’, but each is unwilling to face the conceptual problem it represents; namely, that it does not belong anywhere and cannot be categorized. This creature seems to be a great metaphor for a lot of things we encounter in everyday life, at both a personal and political level.”

A book lies open on a table.  Standing on the pages of the book is a small black character with three points on its head.

‘Eric’ – Copyright Shaun Tan 2011

“A tale of cultural miscommunication, although one with a more optimistic outcome. Eric is a foreign exchange student that comes to live with an Australian family. They enjoy his company, accommodating him politely, but have trouble understanding his more peculiar interests and unclear emotional responses. This turns out to be not such a bad thing in the end, and if anything, the story is about respecting difference and not measuring everything by conventional notions of what is ‘normal’.”

A large steel panelled structure with tubes coming out of it looms over an ordinary suburban landscape, people are standing by observing it

‘The Amnesia Machine’ – Copyright Shaun Tan

“This short story and illustration was inspired by federal elections, and the way that the misdeeds of any governments are able to be tactfully ‘unremembered’ at the time of a critical poll. I was particularly interested that voters seemed remarkably untroubled by the way they had been mislead over issues of refugees and the war against Iraq, and continuously unaware of the relationship between government and commercial media. The ‘amnesia machine’ seemed an apt metaphor for successful electioneering, which can be more about revising the past than promising the future.”

A colour image of a the rooves of suburban houses, interspersed with the rocket ships of all different colours, birds fly in the sky

‘Alert but not Alarmed’

“A story about a government program encouraging ordinary taxpayers to look after the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missiles in their own backyards: and to wash them on the first Sunday of every month. After a while the public begin secretly disarming them and painting them in a personalized way. It was actually inspired by an story told to me by a taxi driver from Lebanon, about how a dud missile landed in his neighbourhood, in the middle of the street, and locals immediately cut it up to sell as scrap metal. This got me thinking about how the ambitions of governments and people are often completely mismatched.”

A small truck drives along a highway overpass, chased by dogs.  In the background are huge industrial chimneys emitting clouds of smoke

‘The Turtle Rescue’ – Copyright Shaun Tan 2011

“A story that is essentially about political activism, with the central question: how can you move forward in the face of overwhelming odds? In this case, the protagonists are risking everything to save a small group of turtles from some unmentionable fate. It’s far less than they hoped to achieve, and likely a futile gesture, but is it a failure? Perhaps not when considering the alternative: the cost of doing nothing, or accepting in one’s own helplessness.”

A small person in a coat draws their own outline onto a wall. The wall is already covered in drawings and marks.  Birds cluster around the figures feet.

‘The Red Tree: self portrait’ – Copyright Shaun Tan 2011

“Perhaps my most popular work is actually a book about depression, loneliness and isolation, which my publisher had many initial reservations about, perhaps because it has no overt moral message. It’s always been my approach as an artist to create work as honestly as possible, and let the observer decide what it means.”

A scared looking rabbit-like creature runs across the image, in its hands is a small bird wearing a crown

‘The Bird King’ – Copyright Shaun Tan 2011

“This random drawing is from one of many sketchbooks. Virtuous ideas are often small and fragile, and need to be held carefully like a bird, especially as you go running through the dark.”

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  • Raffaele Caputo

    It’s amazing how the more we try to standardize or fix things, the more we lose. I really admire every piece here.

  • i love u shaun tan u books r so good at art and writing ily xoxo

  • Amanda Ulyatt

    Thank you for creating and sharing insightful multifaceted perspectives that echo the historical voices of the minorities of Australia. I look forward to inspiring future generations through sharing Shaun Tan’s works when I’m at the chalkface .

  • Shaylea Strinati-Kerr

    Shaun Tan has such a way with art that it drags you into the graphic novel, in the arrival you could understand the feelings experienced by the character, even without words. Shaun Tan is an amazingly talented illustrator and author.