The UN General Assembly might seem like a sober affair, but one French artist sees it differently. Yann Toma has sketched all of the 120 world leaders at the event this year, a process that has revealed to him both passion and evil, he says.
French contemporary artist Yann Toma found himself at the UN General Assembly by the very unlikely way of the Chelsea Hotel, when he was introduced to the then French ambassador to the United Nations, Jean-Maurice Ripert.
In 2007, he began the illustrious task of portraying the entirety of United Nations, which he describes as a “parallel universe with permanent intrigue”. From heads of state and ambassadors to the cleaners and security members who remain at the building long after the diplomats and aid workers have gone home, Toma has been photographing and filming the workings and encounters of the world body for seven years.
"I try to capture the energy that circulates at the UN". Yann Toma speaks about his portraiture work at the world body, which he has been documenting since 2007.
This year, he decided to change medium, opting for coloured charcoal and an easel. “At first I was worried about getting in the way of the press,” he said. “But then people started taking an interest in what I was drawing, and how I captured each person, especially if it was their own head of state.”
Toma, a professor and researcher at the Sorbonne in Paris, won’t say who he’s enjoyed drawing the most -- his enthusiasm would suggest numerous candidates. Michelle Bachelet of Chile has “a flame; a passion” while US President Barack Obama is “poised, centred and has an animal magnetism that sways the audience”. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas “lacks fluidity when he speaks but finds solutions”. Others take a purely diplomatic position, and fail in their efforts as a result, Toma believes.
“There’s plenty of evil onstage at the assembly too,” he says, although he’s not mentioning any names. “The problem today is that b***ards talk like sweethearts. That’s diplomacy. Brutes, killers, the worst types talk of peace, love, sustainable development, environment and the liberation of Palestine. They’ve got great advisers. And great theatrics.”