Sculpture in Saffron Walden shortlisted for art prize

PUBLISHED: 11:48 21 September 2018

Sculptor Ian Wolter, left and Lord Alf Dubs, right at the unveiling of The Unaccompanied Children of Calais in Saffron Walden

Sculptor Ian Wolter, left and Lord Alf Dubs, right at the unveiling of The Unaccompanied Children of Calais in Saffron Walden

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The Unaccompanied Children of Calais, a statue near St Mary’s Church in Saffron Walden by the town’s sculptor Ian Wolter, is up for a major art prize.

The Unaccompanied Children of Calais by Ian Wolter, shortlisted for an art prizeThe Unaccompanied Children of Calais by Ian Wolter, shortlisted for an art prize

A copy of the piece will be displayed at one of the two Pall Mall galleries next month.

While he was creating the work, he went to Calais to see for himself what is going on. But the children he met there are not the models for the children in his sculpture.

“None of them are directly represented for a couple of reasons. The boys are wary of having their picture taken as they aren’t sure where the pictures will end up. The CRS (French Riot Police) who deal with refugees and migrants are very aggressive, but also I wanted to portray the refugees as English children because with that thought possibly we might treat other people’s children better than this.”

The child models are all from Saffron Walden or nearby, including his own 10-year-old daughter Hester.

In February, Wolter visited a safe house for child refugees in Calais run with the French charity Secours Catholique.

He says: “I was there with Art Refuge UK which provides art therapy to refugees and migrants of all ages.

“I joined a group therapy session with a group of about six boys and by the end there were 10 or so. I’m not a therapist so I kept my conversation with them relaxed and friendly and we did some model making.”

But he did talk to some young adults at a drop in centre. “I asked them why they didn’t want to stay in France. They replied in perfect English. They had been to school in England, they went there as child refugees and were deported (back to places like Afghanistan) once they reached 18.”

He says the concept for his sculpture took two years. He and his wife, the author Clare Mulley, had asked their then MP, Sir (now Lord) Alan Haselhurst why the government was stalling on the Dubs amendment.

“We were concerned that unaccompanied children were not being allowed here even when they had family in UK. This is counter to our responsibility under the UN Charter.”

Lord Haselhurst said it would only encourage more refugees to come.

Says Wolter: “The children are being used as a deterrent. It’s inhumane that we keep children, even unaccompanied children, as refugees. We forget that they are real children at real risk and in real danger.

“They are not some theoretical statistic. It’s terrifing to think of children alone like that. When they were going to be allowed in, there was talk of some of them not looking like children. I have a daughter of 16 and I wouldn’t want her on her own in Calais knowing no one. I wouldn’t want that even if she was a boy.”

Wolter, 52, chose his home town for the first edition of The Unaccompanied Children. There may now be copies across the world.

Its unveiling in June coincided with a Rodin exhibition at the British Museum in London including Rodin’s masterpiece, The Burghers of Calais, which commemorates the English seige of the town in the 100 Years War in the 14th century. As Wolter says: “The English King (Edward III) said he would spare the city if six burghers came out with nooses round their necks and the keys to the castle. They are shown walking to their death, resigned to their fate.”

The Unaccompanied Children are in similar attitudes to the burghers, some thoughtful, some resigned, some in torment, facing different directions,and there are six of them, too.

Wolter went to Cambridge School of Art, aged 45, after selling his recruitment business.

“I’d long planned to go to art school but life got in the way. It could have been a great disappointment, but it wasn’t. I had a great group of students to study with. Mostly they were a lot younger than me but we got on. The lecturers were all committed and interesting. So I had three years to experiment, read, learn, debate.”

Graduating in 2015, he has already won international prizes: a global sustainabilty prize for a piece about climate change denial, and an award in Venice for a piece called The Holy See Gets It. He also won the Art Roma prize for his Ectoplasm of Self-Delusion.

The Unaccompanied Children is moving, people lay their hand on the shoulder of the youngest child.

He says: “It has worked as I hoped it would. I hope it will make us check our consciences. We are better than this. We don’t need our foreign policy to be shaped by being mean to children.”

The prize that The Unaccompanied Children of Calais is shortlisted for is the 10th Passion for Freedom art competition.

A copy of the sculpture will be displayed in London from Monday, October 1 to Friday, October 12 as part of an exhibition across two galleries in Pall Mall, the Royal Opera Arcade Gallery and La Galleria.

The piece will be part of a showcase of art from all over the world promoting human rights, highlighting injustice and celebrating freedom of artistic expression.

This is the 10th year of the prize. Over the decade, 600 artists have entered from 55 countries attracting 15,000 visitors to the exhibitions.

Passion For Freedom is a charity, started in London by a group of friends who initially wanted to use art to highlight issues.

The winner will be announced at a private view on Saturday, October 6.

There is no cash prize because the organisers do not wish to have sponsors.

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