Yoko Ono’s ‘Refugee Boat’ Invites Visitors To Participate and Spreads a Powerful Message of Hope

Refugee Boat (Add Colour) by Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono, “Add Colour (Refugee Boat),” concept 1960, installed in YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND, Tate Modern, London, 2024. (Photo: © Tate, Reece Straw)

First conceived in the 1960s, Yoko Ono's Add Colour series invites people to participate in creating a collective piece of art. With Add Colour (Refugee Boat), currently installed at London's Tate Modern, Ono asks us to think about the power of collective action in relation to today's immigration crisis.

The current iteration, which is part of the Tate's YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND exhibition, began with a white boat in a white room. Visitors are given a blue marker and asked to write messages of solidarity and peace or concern for themselves and today's minorities. Over time, the space transforms into a vast blue ocean of thoughts and ideas, becoming a container for different perspectives.

The installation, which was first realized in 2016 and has been mounted in museums worldwide, is close to Ono's heart. Though not a refugee herself, Ono immigrated from Japan to the United States in 1952 and faced her own challenges as an Asian woman. As such, she empathizes with those who are forced to leave their homes and was moved by the imagery she saw on the evening news.

“Just like you probably did, when I saw the boat with many people in it, it hit me, and I clearly heard my heart going, bump, bump, bump!” she told The Guardian in a 2019 article about the piece. “But at the same time, I immediately thought it’s a good subject for me as an artist. I wanted to share that feeling I had in my heart with the audience and invite them to participate.”

By giving space to anyone who desires to participate, Ono allows the public to openly express their feelings on the topic. And in doing so, perhaps sparks action in individuals who can see the tangible, visual result of the collective whole. In this way, Add Colour (Refugee Boat) is also a physical manifestation of Ono's belief that “we are sharing this world,” and therefore have a responsibility to it.

Add Colour (Refugee Boat) is on view at the Tate Modern, along with over 200 other works by the artist, until September 1, 2024, as part of the YOKO ONO: MUSIC OF THE MIND exhibition.

Add Colour (Refugee Boat) is a participatory piece of art by Yoko Ono that speaks to the current refugee crisis.

Refugee Boat (Add Colour) by Yoko Ono

Photo: © Tate (Reece Straw)

Participants are asked to write down their messages in blue, creating an ocean of hope.

Refugee Boat (Add Colour) by Yoko Ono

Photo: © Tate (Lucy Green)

The work is currently on display at London's Tate Modern, which is hosting a retrospective of Ono's work.

Refugee Boat (Add Colour) by Yoko Ono

Photo: © Tate (Reece Straw)

Yoko Ono: Website | Instagram | Facebook

My Modern Met granted permission to feature photos by Tate Modern.

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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