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Drawing human rights into everyday life

Drawing human rights into everyday life

The 13th September 2009 marks the second anniversary of the UN General Assembly's adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. To mark the occasion, author and…

The 13th September 2009 marks the second anniversary of the UN General Assembly's adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. To mark the occasion, author and artist Michel Streich has created the first ever illustrated book of the Declaration, to be published in association with Amnesty International. He speaks to Laura MacIntyre.

Illustrator Michel Streich was browsing at a Sydney bookshop in 2006, wondering where he could pick up a copy of a famous document first adopted by the United Nations in 1948. He couldn't find a copy of the text of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and wondering why, he struck upon the idea of illustrating a small handbook of the document for everyday readers.

Streich approached Australian publishers Allen & Unwin with his idea, and the project came to fruition in 2008. This month a second book has been published, featuring the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Declaration), endorsed by the UN in 2007.

The two books are closely linked, with Streich's instantly recognisable illustrations distilling down the essence of the texts into graphic form.

"Obviously the vehicle was [chosen] because I'm an illustrator; if I was a filmmaker maybe I would have made a film about it," Streich says.

"I was also thinking how can you present these two documents in a way that they are not just interesting to legal professionals, because it's not something that people generally pick up for leisurely reading. [The Declaration] is easily accessible on the internet, but people don't seem to go and access it."

The project was also inspired by political circumstances, particularly policies unfolding under the Howard government.

"At the time there was this whole war on terror going on with David Hicks, and WorkChoices legislation and changes to privacy laws, so there were a lot of attacks on rights," Streich says.

"I really thought that there must be a lot of ignorance about human rights, and I was wondering where it came from."

Australia was one of only four countries to vote against the Declarationwhen it was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2007. When the Rudd Government also seemed reluctant to endorse the Declaration, Streich hoped the publication of his second book would raise awareness about indigenous rights.

"I really thought this [Declaration]would be a good document to publish in the same format; at the end of 2008 most people had never heard of it."

Streich's thinking was in step with public sentiment, and the Government signed the Declaration just as the book was going to press.

"As it turned out, just as we were going to press the Rudd Government decided to endorse the Declaration which is great - but it caused a bit of panic here [at the publishers]; we had to hold the presses, especially regarding the essay at the end which said 'hopefully it will be endorsed in the future'."

Originally from Germany, Streich says his interest in human rights issues was an unconscious development, rather than a manifestation of his German heritage.

"How I came to it was thinking about how societies work, and how they interact ... I look at nations more like that, like your family. Some families are more bad than good - so how do nations deal with crimes or atrocities in their past?"

The latest book is a companion piece to the first declaration, following the same format as the first. The text of each article of the Declaration appears on the left hand page, accompanied by striking black and orange illustrations on the right. Streich says the two are intrinsically linked, and it was a deliberate choice to have the first illustration of a hand holding a dove mirror the cover of the previous book.

"I really wanted to tie this in, the whole [Declaration] is not just about protecting minorities, this is really just human rights applied to a different situation or a specific situation," he explains.

While many illustrators are commissioned towards the latter stages of such a project, Streich conducted his own research - dipping into the historical background of the first declaration and the more recent events in Australian history involving indigenous people.

"I think the illustrations and the book design probably took about three months, but then I also read up on the background information and the history of it all, so there was a period as well while I was reading and preparing and scribbling."

Streich came to the table with a clear vision for the visual aspect of the project - avoiding a derivative approach to indigenous art, he forged ahead with a more universal vision of indigenous people across the globe.

"Because I'm not Aboriginal, I didn't want to copy Aboriginal art, and I also really wanted it to look modern and contemporary, because I think as far as I see it Aboriginal society is so varied.

"You've got traditional life, and then people in business and people in academia - and I also tried to put it in an international context, that it's not just Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people, that it's really a worldwide situation that stems from European colonialism."

The simplicity and vibrancy of the illustrations will appeal to children and adults alike, and the book is likely to become a staple in classrooms in Australia, if not around the world.

Streich himself hopes his books make their way onto bookshelves and perhaps even into a few handbags and back pockets.

"It's always hard with books because they go out there, and once they get published, it's like seeing them off at the station. Every now and again you get a report back on what they are doing; I just scatter the seeds and hope some of them will turn into plants."

About Michel Streich

Michel Streich studied visual communication with an emphasis on drawing and illustration in his native Germany. After graduating - with a drawn reportage on the Northern Ireland conflict - he moved to London, where he worked as a freelance illustrator for several years. In 2000, he based himself in Sydney and his illustrations have appeared in publications such as The Times, the Financial Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian Financial Review and the Bulletin. He has exhibited his drawings in group exhibitions in Germany, London and Sydney, and in several solo shows in Sydney.

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