If a picture says a thousand words, Ninna Thorarinsdottir has already produced a small encyclopaedia on Water for Development, the topic of this year’s World Water Week. Ninna is a Göteborg-based designer and illustrator from Iceland and one of the artists at the conference, which is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Her project, RainWall, is all about interaction between conference participants and the artist. Participants are invited to discuss their own interpretation of Water for Development with Ninna, focusing on a single idea that is important to them. After the conversation, Ninna translates their ideas onto paper—producing a hand-drawn sketch contained within a raindrop—and the picture gets put up on the wall.
When I meet her, she is sitting at a table with a stack of empty raindrops waiting for the next conversation. There’s also a sketchbook of raindrops “in progress”, ranging from ones that are nearly ready to go up on the wall to others that are proving more challenging to finish.
“I write down their idea and try to visualise it straight away,” says Ninna. “If I can’t, it’s still in my book.”
It’s no surprise that some of the raindrops are still in the sketchbook. The ideas can be abstract, especially some of the more popular themes such as collaboration and communication or women and water.
She shows me a half-finished raindrop featuring a globe that illustrates the idea that water is crucial for the world, and another that contains miniature scissors and dotted lines where different people are trying to divide up, as fairly as possible, a single drop of water. Then there’s a raindrop that’s set aside for the idea that water exists at vastly different scales, from huge oceans to individual molecules. “I’m waiting for inspiration for that one,” she laughs.
Ninna’s aim is to cover the whole wall with raindrops by the end of the conference. It’s already about one-third full and looks like a patchwork quilt of images, showcasing the diversity of participants’ thoughts and feelings about the topic of Water for Development.
It reminds me of a game we used to play with small picture cards in my Swedish language class, where we would each take a card and try to say the Swedish word that was being represented. Except with RainWall, the words are not things like ‘library’ and ‘taxi driver’ but ‘open defecation sanitation’ and ‘water pollution’.
This is the first time that World Water Week has included such an interactive art project, but it’s proving popular.
“On the first day, people just ran past,” says Ninna, “but then they ran slower and slower and now they’re looking at the wall.” In the short time I sit with her, several participants stop to take in the raindrops that are slowly spreading along the wall. One man, who works as a teacher in Ghana, tells Ninna that he will make his own RainWall with his students when he returns to the classroom.
With participants from a range of backgrounds at World Water Week, Ninna gets to hear about a diverse and complex set of ideas and emotions and there is pressure to represent as much as possible on paper.
“It makes my head work,” she admits. “When I go home after a day here I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus!” But she’s not complaining about the challenge. “I love it! I work a lot as a freelancer at home. Most of the time, it’s easy stuff and my brain doesn’t get this exercise. I’m amazed by my luck.”