Anaïs López, The Migrant

JTF (just the facts): Self published in 2018 (here). Hardcover, 120 pages + booklet of 16 pages, with 46 color reproductions. Also includes silk screen prints, newspaper reproductions, phone screenshots, illustrations by Singaporean cartoonist Sonny Liew, and a handmade paper pop-up by Moon Brouwer. Design by Teun van der Heijden. In an edition of 450 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

The artist has also produced a 5 part video series of The Migrant (here). She has also turned the project into a live performance (here).

Comments/Context: When I picked up and flipped through Anaïs López’ self-published photobook The Migrant, my first response was delight. So many photobooks are indirect, nonlinear, mannered, and almost abstract in their efforts to communicate with seriousness and gravitas that it was haltingly refreshing to see a relatively straight line story actually told with vivacity and cleverness. And like any engagingly told tale, The Migrant has twists and turns, heroes and villains, and a breathy pace that keeps us turning the pages. It never allows the complexity of its construction or the aggregation of its ideas to overwhelm the forward momentum and pacing of the main story, and this leads to a photobook experience that is fresh, vital, and contagiously fun.

The Migrant has two protagonists who drive the story along, the photographer herself and a mynah bird, and narrative unfolds almost like a children’s story, with short vignettes and encounters that are easy to follow. The two meet when López went to Singapore for a documentary photography masterclass, the mynah tapping on her hotel window and cawing. When López later decides to go outside, she finds the bird waiting for her, and proceeds to follow it around the city for five hours until she eventually loses sight of it. But this first encounter sparks López’ curiosity, and off she goes to find out more about mynahs.

Without revealing all the bends and switchbacks in the story, a few high points are worth understanding. Mynahs originally came from Indonesia, and were introduced to England, and then to Singapore as pets in the middle of the 20th century. But their once beautiful songs were contaminated by the ambient urban sounds, the birds adapting their tunes to croaking caws that mimicked the voice of the city. This was particularly true in the post independence Singapore of the mid 1960s, where booming development created a cacophony of noise. Mynahs quickly lost their popularity and many were turned loose, and as the wild population grew (along with the crows), they were soon marked as a public nuisance.

The story then jumps to the modern day, and like a scrappy reporter on the trail of a big story, López tracks down dead birds around the city, meets a professor who is documenting the systematic poisoning of the birds (presumably by the government), and tags along on a secretive mission to shoot the birds with a mysterious Mr. D and his gun club. But fear not, the story has a happy ending – the mynahs somehow migrate to Myanmar, where they are no longer persecuted; instead, they are revered for their divine ability to bring wishes to the gods above.

López uses both conventional and unconventional methods to build her narrative. This is first and foremost a photobook, so of course, there are photographs. Most are in color, and capture the mynah in the city, the crowded skyscrapers of Singapore, and later, the shady adventures of the nefarious gun club and the happier days in Myanmar. The best of these images give the birds a splash of personality – a mynah skipping across a yellow striped crosswalk, a cluster of birds in the trees set against a salmon pink lit backdrop, a hunched bird sitting on a branch against a blue sky, and a bird singing while perched on a black iron railing. Others set the broader scene: towers shooting skyward, bird cages on poles, the interior of Mr. D’s car (complete with buddhist charms and shotgun), and hands tenderly clutching the birds in Myanmar.

But López gives the narrative richness and magic by interleaving additional elements that support the story. Some of the more atmospheric shots of birds have been printed in gold ink on dark green paper, the silhouettes often reversed. Flocks of birds whirl through the darkness, perch solemnly in trees, and flutter their wings up close (almost like a less ominous version of Masahisa Fukase’s ravens), the hustle of the city reduced to serene monochromatic views that soften the harshness of the urban environment.

This moodiness is balanced by the enchanting playfulness of cartoon pages that pull the narrative along. In these pages, and in small illustrations that dot the bottoms of some of the image pages, the artist and the mynah bird alternate telling the story in the first person, so sometimes we get inside the bird’s head to hear his thoughts and reactions. López also inserts newspaper clippings here and there to provide both the broader context of Singaporean politics, as well as the human interest angles (and complaints) published about the mynah problem. When López gets involved with Mr. D and the gun club, she uses screenshots of the text messages she received on her phone to drive the suspenseful narrative. And when the birds finally migrate to Myanmar, the pages turn from white to bright yellow, with the captions printed in the curving Burmese alphabet. The feel good ending is capped off by an intricately cut paper pop-up that jumps out from the final page, the happy birds now spreading their wings with glorious energy.

All of these many features (cartoons, paper stocks, printing methods, etc.) come together in a way that feels easy going and natural; the disparate elements are integrated with care, so the forward flow builds rather than being diverted. The Migrant isn’t afraid to be quirky and offbeat, and it is these unorthodox choices that give it its original flair.

We’ve definitely reached a point in contemporary photobook design where there is a real danger that too many construction bells and whistles can lead to a photobook that feels overdone, risky efforts at innovation becoming a hot mess in the blink of an eye. But even with all its layers, The Migrant never gets lost. It stays true to its commitment to plucky playfulness and wonder, and that intentional lightness of spirit (even when the story turns dark) is hard to resist.

Collector’s POV: Anaïs López does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this point. As as result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

Read more about: Anaïs López, Self Published

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