At the start of lockdown in March, Boris Johnson wrote a letter intended for every household in the UK, urging residents to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. In response, Jonny Banger, the head of the fashion label Sports Banger, issued a call-out over social media. In it, he invited children under 16 from across the UK to customise and give their own take on the letter, as a way of articulating their feelings – including about the government’s handling of the crisis and the NHS.
The call-out was simple: “If you’ve received a letter, design a poster.” There were very few rules outside of the fact that the artwork had to be straight onto the letter itself and there were to be “no digital” interpretations.
Now over 200 of these artworks are going on display as part of a new exhibition at The Foundling Museum, a museum in London housed in the building once occupied by the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity and first public art gallery, and which today works to transform the lives of disadvantaged children through the arts. Called The Covid Letters: A Vital Update, the exhibition will open tomorrow (24 October) and runs through to January 2021.
The range of the artworks is impressive. Some submissions were done by toddlers, others by teenagers; some are witty and playful, while others take a more earnest interpretation; some are more abstract and colourful, while others depict caricatured versions of leaders including Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. All of the children who entered received a certificate (making them an honorary pirate of the “Banger Fleet”), a bootleg Blue Peter badge, and a couple of T-shirts.
One particularly impressive artwork, by 12-year-old Ayla, depicts Boris (sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Brexit is my bae”) deciding how to communicate the new restrictions with the British people, before getting distracted by what we can only describe as a haunting representation of Trump in lingerie. Otto, aged ten, has instead decided to cover the page, with its 10 Downing Street letter-head, with a face mid-puke (it’s unclear if this is a reference to the government or Covid, or perhaps both). Meanwhile, seven-year-old Lorelai from Colchester takes a more typographic approach, writing over the prime minister’s words with “We need PPE” over and over again.
In these children’s hands and with the help of pens, pencils and paints, the letter becomes a canvas for protest, dialogue, debate and also a vehement defence of our health service. The Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, the Foundling Museum Trustee who invited Jonny Banger to show the works, described the project as “the best art to come out of lockdown”. He went on: “They are funny, naughty and angry in equal measure. I can’t wait to see all the rudeness and righteousness in the same place, and in the same spaces, as paintings by William Hogarth, who I am sure would have loved this work.”
In a statement, Jonny Banger said: “I couldn’t be happier using my platform to give kids a voice. Little anarchists spreading joy. The Foundling Museum is an important part of the social history of London and the UK, its story more relevant than ever. I’m so happy the exhibition is showing here, it actually means something.”
The Covid Letters: Kit, 3, from Bristol (Copyright © The artist, 2020)