In the late 1980s and 1990s, what has become known as “politically correct” became culturally ubiquitous. United Colors of Benetton, the Italian-based brand that embraced multiculturalism with its advertising campaigns featuring models from around the world, was at the forefront of this cultural movement, taking risks at a time when the world was changing, standards of norms being tested, social and political conflict being resolved as well as challenged, and pop culture and the news media forcefully responding to these changes. One might say artist James Mollison has been in the thick of such things, artistically, culturally and socially. Born in Kenya in 1973, Mollison grew up in England, and after studying Art and Design at Oxford Brookes University, and later film and photography at Newport School of Art and Design, he moved to Italy to work at the United Colors of Benetton creative lab, Fabrica. Since August 2011, he has worked as creative editor at Colors (Benetton) Magazine. Mollison has an eye for the relevant, with a keen sense for the color and movement of the moment and how best to capture it with inner artistic sensibilities, and with a broad aperture on the world.
Playground, the current show of the artist’s work at Brigham Young University Museum of Art, creates a territory that allows Mollison to reach new breadth and new depth, to express himself as an artist and a journalist in a way that meets an engaging measure of both. The exhibit features 30 large, lucidly colorful photographs taken from a book of the same name in which demographic, economic, geographic, social and political spectra of playground situations are thoughtfully taken into consideration as subjects for the work. Many of these playground situations are captured in politically precarious parts of the world, such as the West Bank, but are juxtaposed against more affluent and politically stable locales.
As indicated in the exhibition material, Mollison began his school playground project by photographing children at his own school in the UK, which then spurred him to explore other schools in the area. From there, Mollison was intrigued to photograph children in other areas. “I became fascinated by the diversity of children’s experiences, depending on their school,” he says. “The contrasts between British schools made me curious to know what schools were like in other countries.” Thus, the similarities and differences between schools around the globe, and similarities and differences between children around the globe, became the critical focus for his lens.
Mollison’s ambition with Playground was prodigious and his ultimate accomplishment is monumental. To see it housed at BYU’s Museum of Art lends a sense of its artistic and global capacity. It is truly a work of contemporary vision at its most meaningful, along the lines of the artist’s accomplishment with United Colors of Benetton, blending artistry with relevancy; poignancy with truth. Mollison has an uncanny eye to visualize his subject with an aim for pure honesty and accuracy, whether the reality be harsh or lofty. Through the artist’s eyes, the subjects are either fiercely current or forcefully relevant, but always genuinely recognizable.
The images of these playgrounds can be read for different layers of meaning in myriad contexts; all are the product of post-modern, globalized cultures of today. “Rajkumar College,” in Rajkot Gujarat, India, reflects the most affluent conditions. This might be a Versailles in miniature — complete with manicured grass and a chateau —but the boys don’t seem to take much notice of the opulence, other than, maybe, how the smooth lawn effects their leap-frog performance. The rough and tumble of play, and goofing about as much and as hard as possible, seems to be what is on their minds and not aesthetics. Following this image with “Al Khan al- Ahmar Primary School,” from Jericho, in the West Bank, raises some concerns. These boys’ antics seem a bit more heightened, only because they have the crudest, misshapen, metal framework to climb on, to balance upon; and no lawn whatsoever — the school is set on a completely arid embankment, but this does not seem to bother the students in the least. It is a crude environment, but like the boys in India, these Palestinian youths are simply happy to be out of doors and playing together.
Mollison embarked on his project to examine the diversity of play environments in different parts of the world and found plenty of it. At the “Adolfo López Mateos Primary School” in Mexico City, he says, “Twenty-one students in grades one through five are taught in a single classroom in a forty-foot-long train car. That car also contains the school office and library. The children’s parents were railway laborers and the children accompanied them as they worked.” “Shikin Maoz School,” Sderot, Israel, could not be more different. An experimental kind of school, Mollison says it is, “a secular, government-funded program school focused on art, music, and dance. There are 274 pupils and 30 teachers.” But other than matching neon blue T-shirts and a Frank Gehryesque school structure, the children we see, in this playground moment, the energy, their spirits, seem no different than the school in Mexico City.
Says Mollison, “I was struck by the similarities between children’s behavior and the games they played.” Mollison’s is an art with an acute sense of realism. To walk the gallery and see the quantity of playgrounds with infinite variations and numberless children is like seeing the nuances in Monet’s lily pads, creating a heightened sense of being and authenticity. The viewer of the show at BYU or the reader of Mollison’s book, begins to sense an egalitarian sensibility to these photographs, and a message of egalitarianism from the author of them, a metaphor on a global scale, and one that can be learnt from children, and in the world today. The playground is a host for unity, it might also be said it is a global leveler. On the playground, Mollison has discovered a place for togetherness, a reality with which all might relate, one that has drawn this artist around the globe searching and finding truth in togetherness.
CODA: The curators at BYU’s MoA have made an already impressive show something special, especially for families, with the creation of an interactive playground within the gallery space, complete with Legos, children’s books and coloring books, listening and viewing stations. On the wall, they have hung metal clips and made available colored slips of paper, four of each type, to respond to four prompts: What can be done to reduce bullying in schools? How does play contribute to a child’s growth? Share your insights about this exhibition. What are the pros and cons of school uniforms?
Four responses: Be a good, kind example to bullies. Play helps a child test out social skills, and interact with others in a safe environment. I thoroughly enjoyed the snap shot into people’s lives and the interpretation you can draw from them. Pro: Easier to choose clothes in the morning. Con: We would all look alike.
“Playground,” photographs by James Mollison, BYU Museum of Art, Provo, through July 8.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.
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