No one is immune from the effects of Brexit, it seems, even rabbits. In her most recent work the Taiwanese artist YiMiao Shih, illustrator in residence at the House of Illustration, London, envisages “Rabbrexit”, an alternative scenario in which the UK has voted not to separate itself from Europe but rather to expel the nation’s rabbit population. As a result, her curiously uncutesy creatures find themselves cast out of a country they have long called home.
In her imagining, while rabbits may have been embedded in British culture — starring in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, in Watership Down and Alice in Wonderland — that is no defence in a Britain where nationalism, retrenchment and polarisation hold sway. She tells the story of the rabbit exile through a variety of delicate and witty artefacts — embroideries, airline safety cards for the departing creatures, specially-minted coins — that ask both what Britishness has come to mean and shows something of how we appear to the outside world. No more afternoon tea for her creatures, no more friendly words of greeting — they don’t even qualify for a full English breakfast any more.
Although her message is straightforward enough, clumsy even, Shih does not labour the point. Social comment and high art have usually made for an uncomfortable fit and her methods tie in to folk art and the old traditions of homely rough-and-ready crafts — quilting, whittling and collage. Her nod to this vernacular strain is another gentle prod to John Bull’s ribs.
Shih is not the first to adopt this approach. Grayson Perry, for example, has been at it for some time, weaving tapestries that celebrate ordinary if fictional lives and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and where we come from. It was Perry who selected one of Shih’s rabbit embroideries for inclusion in last year’s RA summer exhibition. Shih, though, has a lighter touch than the often ponderous Perry and, although a satirist, she also shows a profound understanding of protest art. Amid the skits in her work — rabbits sliding off the Mad Hatter’s tea party table or being struck off the character list of the Hundred Acre Wood — are echoes of the Jarrow marchers’ banners and the coins struck to commemorate the Corn Laws protests or the struggle for the repeal of slavery.
In her hands, what could so easily be either ponderous or, worse, twee, ends up both fresh and affecting. What distinguishes Shih’s jeu d’esprit is its charm and wit, qualities that have been in vanishingly small supply during the whole Brexit imbroglio. That itself is quite a rabbit to pull out of the hat.
“Rabbrexit Means Rabbrexit” is at the House of Illustration, Granary Square, King’s Cross, London, until July 14.