Painting the truth with strokes of fact: Molly Crabapple is bringing art back into journalism

Molly has caught international attention with journalistic illustrations from places like Guantanamo Bay, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.
Painting the truth with strokes of fact: Molly Crabapple is bringing art back into journalism
Painting the truth with strokes of fact: Molly Crabapple is bringing art back into journalism
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American artist, activist and journalist Molly Crabapple is perhaps best described as an experience. Her way of dropping absolute bombshells of tragic irony with a cheery laugh, is like the captivating images she uses to tell some of the most difficult stories from around the world.

Sample this gem she drops on her unsuspecting Bengaluru audience at a discussion on Friday of her latest book, Drawing Blood. “Guantanamo Bay likes to pretend that it’s just an ordinary naval base in the middle of the Caribbean. So, they have a little gift shop that’s filled with Caribbean kitsch that says Guantanamo Bay on it. For instance, t-shirts that say, ‘It don’t Gitmo better than this.’ I have a shot glass that says, ‘Guantanamo Bay – Dive in’. It’s like they're selling beer signs at Buchenwald (the Nazi concentration camp) and just don’t see what’s wrong with that.”

Molly Crabapple in conversation with journalist Rohini Mohan (right) and artist Shilo Shiv Suleman (left) in Bengaluru; Photo: By Arrangement

In a world that long ago abandoned illustrations for photo and video, Molly has suddenly found a place for bringing art back into reporting, using it to bring to life subjects and life stories in ways that photographs don’t seem to anymore. She’s also a biographer’s dream, though something of a nightmare to properly capture under the tyranny of a word count.

There’s her childhood, raised by an illustrator mother and a Marxist professor father. From her mother she got her early “monomania about art”, a stubbornness to make good art that eventually got her where she is today.

But most importantly, she tells her audience, “she taught me that art is an adult way to make a living. So many children they grow up thinking that art is some pie in the sky ideal that you’ll starve if you do. That it’s just something for other people. But my mom taught me that art is a job, an often prosaic job that put food on the table, that paid for my clothing, that paid the rent.”

From her father, she tells me after the event, she got her early lessons in being anti-authoritarian. “He would make up these stories about these Communist pirates, when I was a little girl, who would liberate sugar plantations, and like, kill the imperialists,” she laughs.  

Then there’s the unusual route by which she arrived at her present activist journalism. One of her early careers, she says, was as a naked model, and as an illustrator for a magazine by and for people in the sex industries called Spread.

“It was an incredible moment in New York and in America, where women who worked in the sex industry – or were in jobs that were like the sex industry like mine – were collaborating with each other. They were putting out magazines, they were putting out books, asserting, ‘We are smart, we have voices. No one can speak for us. We’re not something that should be policed, we’re not something that well-meaning upper-class feminists can tell us that we’re all oppressed people. So I got a lot of my early politics from that,” she explains.

But what’s most striking about Molly is the energy, rigour and relentlessness with which she pursues her journalism, reporting from across conflict zones and areas of oppression around the world, drawing together stories from people in Guantanamo Bay, Syria, Palestine, refugee camps in Europe, migrant labour camps in the Gulf nations and so on.  

Raqqa city in Syria: Illustration by Molly Crabapple; Courtesy:

“The way I decide who I want to draw, and what stories I want to tell, what I am always interested in is pushing against cliché and pushing against what people think they know. In showing that the world is far vaster than people might have ever imagined. And especially in pushing against the narrative of the victim,” she tells her audience.

So, she picks up on narratives of people who don’t simply get oppressed by systems unfairly rigged against them, but who fight back in whatever ways they can. Early in the discussion she gives the example of a young migrant worker on Saadiyat Island off the coast of Abu Dhabi, who learned five languages and supplies information to the media that makes greater fodder for investigative journalism.

For all this, she explains, she draws strength from her art, which gives her a sobering access to the realities around her in ways little else does. “To draw and to draw well, you have to look, you have to look hard. And you have to look in a way that is destructive of everything you thought you knew. You have to look in a way that burns clichés to the ground... Just looking and giving yourself permission to look can be a revolutionary act.”

Of course, she says, responding to a question on being underestimated as “just an artist”, most people don’t realise just how much power art can give. But that very underestimation opens doors for her, such as at Guantanamo Bay. The camp had strictly monitored press junkets, she tells us, where journalists were given a guided tour of empty prison blocks and allowed to watch pre-trial hearings of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre. “I basically just approached them and said, ‘I’m an artist, I’m just a girl that draws pictures,’ and they were like, ‘OK, you’re an artist, you can’t be any trouble.’”

“While I am sure that in myriad ways my art has been underestimated, I focus on the strength and the power that it gives me, and I focus on how it sneaks you into places and it can work as a lock-pick. How it could almost be like the fancy gift wrap you could put around a bomb,” she says.

Migrant labourers on Saadiyat Island, off Abu Dhabi: Illustration by Molly Crabapple; Courtesy:

Most importantly, she points out, art provides a way around rules of censorship that straitjacket photographs which are seen as evidence. Again returning to Guantanamo Bay, the operational rules of the place are so frustratingly strict, says Molly, that almost the only thing anyone can photograph there is their own feet. “As an artist, I have the option of drawing around that. When I was forbidden to draw people’s faces, I gave them these blank death masks where faces would be so that I could draw the whole room. Ultimately that was more effective because the point wasn’t whichever 19-year-old was guarding, the point was them as parts of this machine.”

Of course, like fellow Americans with Left leanings, the most difficult challenge facing Molly right now is the impending Trump presidency. “When Trump was elected it was a sign that the world had fundamentally changed. It’s the latest victory in a long string of authoritarians rising to power around the world, and it’s also the crumbling of the old neo-liberal consensus in America,” she says at the very start of her discussion.

Confronting this fundamental change, the big question for her is how she can respond as an artist. The answer, she says, lies in an important learning from the Trump victory – the power of telling stories. “Demagogues try to spin the idea that there’s two types of people – there’s the silent, aggrieved majority that’s been so put upon and then there’s the foo-foo other in the cities that’s having lots of sex and having all these good parties and laughing down their noses at the terribly aggrieved majority. But both of these concepts are utterly fictitious.”

This is where art can intervene, “What art can do is, art can show how hollow and vapid both of those categories are. Art can defiantly say, “We exist. We are Americans, we are Indians, whatever group is being marginalised. We exist and we are not going away and the country and the world is ours as well’.”

Of course, she admits, when we talk after the discussion, the hard part is maintaining a balance between telling stories that appeal to more people and still maintain a coherent sense of politics. There are no easy answers to this question, but, “I guess I continue to believe that if we tell real stories, unexpected stories, and we tell them with rigour, and with craft, and with beauty and with fine prose, that they will still grab people.”

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