The Ship of Tolerance sails on Lake Zug in central Switzerland. Credit: Daniel Hegglin

During a recent orientation on the Ship of Tolerance at MacArthur Middle School in Prospect Heights, Russian artist Emilia Kabakov posed two questions to the students: What problems did they expect to see in the future, and what could they do to solve them?

“They’re very concerned about the future, more than we understand,” Kabakov says. “But the main thing they all say is, ‘We have to unite. Only by being together, we can save the world and have a better future.'”

This message of unity is a core tenet of the Ship of Tolerance, a multisite conceptual art project launched by the Ilya and Emilia Kabakov Foundation in the mid-aughts. The ship has been installed in 16 cities around the globe since its start in Libya in 2005. Now Chicago is the next stop on the journey toward tolerance.

Presented as part of Expo Chicago, the Ship of Tolerance docked at Navy Pier on Tuesday, September 17, and will remain on display through Sunday, October 6. Construction of the 50-foot-tall vessel began in early September, but programming has been in the works for two years, says Chicago project manager Nadia Taiga.

Taiga, a Chicago transplant who hails from Russia, says she thinks Chicago is an ideal location for the ship because it’s a “community-oriented” city. “You can make things happen here,” Taiga says. “If the idea is great and somehow benefits the city and other local organizations, then people will be very supportive.”

She says there are more than 50 partners and sponsors involved in the project, including the Chicago Public Library, Chicago Children’s Museum, Bronzeville Children’s Museum, Hyde Park Art Center, and Lumiere Children’s Therapy. Local schools like MacArthur also participated as educational partners tasked with leading tolerance workshops for children ages six to 15.

Although Kabakov provides an introduction to the workshops—with the help of her granddaughter and “ambassador of tolerance,” Orliana Morag—she prefers that local educators take the lead in determining which issues are most important to their communities.

“It could be bullying, or gun violence. Every city has a different situation,” Kabakov says. “We’re trying to adjust the Ship of Tolerance to local problems, and that’s why we prefer teachers who know this, and know the children, and know how to work with them.”

The workshops not only addressed themes of peace and unity through discussion, but also through collaborative artwork. In a true test of tolerance, the children worked in small groups to create silk paintings that would later be stitched together to make up the ship’s sail.

Kabakov estimates that the children who participated in Chicago tolerance workshops have made more than 500 paintings over the past year. For the first time in Ship of Tolerance history, Kabakov is also using paintings from other cities that have participated in the project to create a multinational sail. Paintings from London, Moscow, Havana, and more will be displayed alongside the Chicago artwork, and Kabakov brought some paintings from Chicago with her on a recent trip to Europe.

The spirit of tolerance and international collaboration will also be reflected in concerts taking place at Navy Pier and the Chicago Cultural Center this weekend. Ever since the ship’s installation in Havana, Cuba, in 2012, Kabakov’s daughter Viola Kanevsky has organized concerts that unite children from different countries through music.

“We started to put these concepts together so my kids could see how their music allowed them to communicate with kids from completely different socioeconomic backgrounds, from different countries and languages,” Kanevsky says. “They could not speak to them at all, but they could all sit down and put together a chamber concert.”

At the concerts, local musicians and dancers will perform on the same stage as artists from Canada, Russia, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Germany, and Canada. After sharing their specialties, the groups will unite for a collaborative number that they put together in just a few days.

Kanevsky says many of the musicians performing in Chicago, including her own son and daughter, have played at other Ship of Tolerance sites in the past. The groups keep in touch between projects, she says, and they continue to act as ambassadors of tolerance long after the music stops.

What’s more, she has noticed an effect on the children’s parents as well. She says while they may not be as open-minded as the kids, they find common ground when they realize that they all want the best for their children.

“We can then put aside all of our differences and realize that the person who’s sitting across from me, who doesn’t speak my language, who doesn’t look like me, is really exactly the same underneath,” Kanevsky says. “And I feel in the world the way it is now, it’s the only way to go forward and fix what’s wrong.”