I was very happy to be asked to do a drawing for this amazing collection of illustrations celebrating freedom and migration. I am also very proud to be one of the artists whose picture appears in the book.
When I was asked to contribute a drawing to the project, I was working on my latest picture book and to be honest, I did the very first thing that came to mind. A flying ostrich. A flying ostrich is not something you see every day.
A similar thing happened with the text for the picture. One sentence from a song by the great artist and musician Laurie Anderson, came to my head; “you were born free – so happy birthday ” she said.
On the card I wrote; “Everything is possible. You were born free”.
I was born in Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia, soon after the Second World War, became a communist country. In the sixties the political situation eased up a bit and things were looking better, more hopeful. But just a year after I was born, in 1968, Russian tanks drove into Prague and occupied my country. This time the Russians stayed in my country for a long 21 years.
So I grew up in communism. I grew up thinking that it’s normal not to be able to travel out of the country, to be told how and what to think, what to read and what not to read, what is good and what is bad and what is good art and what is unacceptable, I was even told by the authorities what to wear and what not to wear. I was used to open corruption and I was used to being bullied by the authorities and police. I was told that is perfectly OK to put those, who think differently into prisons, because they are enemies of the people (whoever the people were). As a young teenager I was used to it, because I was the generation of children who didn’t know any different. I was born into it.
And then I started to realise, that there is something fishy going on in the country I’m living in. Not everybody went with the flow. I realised, that there are people, who would rather go to a prison for freedom of speech. I was ten years old when a dissident group – Charter 77 – was founded. From today’s point of view this small group of people hadn’t done anything bad. All they did was that they wrote a manifesto asking the Czechoslovakian government to follow basic human rights. All these people, their families and their friends were badly persecuted for it. Many of them, including the future Czech president – Vaclav Havel – spent many years in prison. Some of these people had to emigrate to be able to save their lives and lives of their close ones.
And so it happened, that yet another wave of highly moral, well educated, talented and interesting people started to leave the country.
It makes me amazed to hear that some people believe that emigrants are just a dirty nuisance – who come to infest our beautiful flourishing country. People may be born in different circumstances, may experience different lives, but we all feel the same. We feel sadness, pain, loss and cruelty as well as joy and happiness and generosity. We all may look different, but inside we are the same.
To be able to leave behind everything you ever had, your family, parents, friends, your home, your culture, your language, your country, you need to have a hell of a good reason and for sure, you won’t be doing it for fun.
People were always migrating. It’s in human nature. We all try to move forward, move forward towards something better. Something better in the world, or in ourselves. And it is good.
I was a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague and I was on the strike committee for the Academy during the Velvet Revolution in 1989. I was 22 years old and it was a very exciting time. The Velvet Revolution was called ‘ velvet’ because luckily nobody was shot or hung during that time. 1989 and the beginning of the 90s were times of huge changes and overwhelming happiness and the joy of freedom.
And after a couple of years of freedom, it became apparent, that some people misunderstood freedom. Some people were even frightened of it. They actually preferred being “so called” looked after and being told what to think and what is good and what is bad.
BECAUSE these people suddenly realised, that freedom is also a responsibility. Responsibility for your own actions. Freedom is very, very fragile and we should keep this in mind at all the time. And these days more than ever.
I would like to thank everybody who participated on the project and also on the publication of the book. The list is long, starting with the hundreds of names of all the artists, finishing with the great involvement of Worcester University, especially the illustration department and people such as Piet Grobler and Tobias Hickey. And of course the publisher, who published the book - Otter-Barry.
Otter-Barry is a young publisher, but it became very quickly apparent where they are heading. In a very short time Otter-Barry has published beautiful books by many well known authors and illustrators and they are not scared to take risks publishing titles which some other publishers would find a bit risky or, let’s say, difficult to sell.