Meet Artist & Designer Behind New Postage Stamp
By Pamela Wilson
In May, Canada Post issued a new postage stamp to commemorate the centennial of a shameful episode from the nation’s past, the Komagata Maru incident. The artist and creative director responsible for the stamp, Mark Summers and Louis Gagnon, took me through their process. But first: some background.
The story of the Komagata Maru is familiar to many Sikhs in North America today. In 1914, Gurdit Singh chartered a Japanese steamship, the Komagata Maru, to carry Punjabis living in India and East Asia to Canada, where they could earn better wages. Because Singh was unable to charter the ship from Calcutta, the voyage began in Hong Kong.
Canada had an exclusionary law on the books between 1908 and 1947 that required newcomers to arrive via a “continuous journey” from their country of origin. It was no coincidence that all ships from India stopped in China or Japan en route to Canada: the law was designed to put an end to South Asian immigration.
Gurdit Singh planned to fight the “continuous journey” law in court upon arrival in Canada, reasoning that all of the Komagata Maru’s passengers were British subjects who should be allowed to visit any part of the British Empire they chose. But when the Komagata Maru arrived in the waters off Vancouver, it was not allowed to dock and the passengers were refused entry to Canada.
After two months of legal wrangling during which the ship was stuck anchored offshore, sometimes without food or fresh water, the Komagata Maru was forced to turn back and return to India. Upon arrival, around 20 organizers of the journey were arrested for being agitators, and another 19 were shot.
In 2008, at a mela in Surrey, British Columbia, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology. He said, “Canada is renowned the world over for its welcoming embrace of immigrants. But like all countries, our record isn’t perfect. We haven’t always lived up to our ideals. One such failure . . . was the detention and turning away of the Komagata Maru in 1914, an event that caused much hardship for its passengers, 376 subjects of the British crown from Punjab, and which for many of them ended in terrible tragedy. . . .
“This May, the Government of Canada secured passage of [a] unanimous motion in the House of Commons recognizing the Komagata Maru tragedy and apologizing to those who were directly affected. . . . Today, on behalf of the Government of Canada, I am officially conveying, as prime minister, that apology.”
In May, Canada Post released the postage stamp commemorating the Komagata Maru incident. The artwork for the stamp was created by Mark Summers, and the stamp was designed by Paprika, a graphic design and strategic marketing firm located in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, under the leadership of creative director Louis Gagnon.
Paprika Communications has been working with Canada Post since 2009, and the firm has designed several high-profile stamps. With all this experience, Paprika Creative Director Louis Gagnon knows: “The challenge with a stamp is always the same: limited space. Our goal is to maximize the message, to get the image right, and to make sure the typography is legible, despite the small format.”
Historical photos were at the center of this project. Canada Post provided a folder of research, which included several photos. Paprika staff also collected photos of their own. Gagnon proposed a composition that highlighted the faces of the Sikh passengers as well as the ship. Then Paprika brought in artist Mark Summers, who refined their composition and adapted it to his style.
Crucially, Summers visited three libraries on his own to look through their archives in order to find just the right photograph of the Komagata Maru to work from. He also worked from archival photos when rendering the faces of the turbaned Sikh men and boys on the stamp. “I was looking for a mixture of young and old, and I was also looking for interesting shadows so one face could flow into the next.”
Summers’ medium is the scratchboard. He explains, “The drawing seen on the stamp started off as a black square and all the lines you see are etched into the black using a knife. It gives an engraved feel to the work.”
The next step was color, which was added by Paprika using a computer. Says Gagnon, “The name of the game is to be creative and allow the stamp to evolve.”
Just after the stamp went public this spring, Summers remarked, “Having my studio littered with dozens of photographs of [the passengers of the Komagata Maru], I couldn’t help but empathize with their pain.
“I had never heard of the incident prior to this and, to be honest, I found it quite shocking. The first shock was that I hadn’t heard about it before. The second shock was that it ever happened in the first place. Being the son of an immigrant, I couldn’t believe this attitude once existed—and during the past century—in Canada.”
Gagnon concurs, “We were very touched by the subject. Happily, Canada has evolved a lot since the time this incident took place. It’s distressing to see that an incident like this could occur. The mixing of cultures is a big part of our country, and it’s important to highlight events like this one so we don’t forget them.”
You can order this stamp though Canada Post and they will ship internationally!