By Shikha Sreenivas
At some point during the last year, I had become a cynic. Right now, it isn’t a difficult time to be a cynic — with the rise of the alternative right across the world, the hopeless case of the neoliberal left and the violence one reads about in the newspapers every day. It took me a while to realise how deeply disappointed I was by almost everything.
Maria Popova, the founder of Brain Pickings had once written, “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.”
This balance between hope and critical thinking — that I have been trying to reach and understand — is what I saw in Molly Crabapple’s memoir, Drawing Blood.
Molly is an artist and writer living in New York. She has written and drawn for The New York Times, The Paris Review, Vanity Fair, The Guardian, CNN, and Newsweek. She began as a nude model and a burlesque performer, and went on to become disenchanted with the formal structure of a sketching class. She founded “Dr.Sketchy’s Anti-Art School” where artists sketched, drank alcohol, and played art games.
Molly never conformed, rejecting traditional methods and approaches to art. Her journey into politics through art began with posing as a nude model, and grew when she made posters for the Occupy Wall Street movement. After that she went on to draw and report in Abu Dhabi’s migrant labour camps, as well as in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. She’s one of the three artists who have been allowed to the Guantanamo Naval Base since captives were brought there 11 years ago.
Last Thursday, at the Rooftop in Bose Compound in Bangalore, Molly, was in conversation with Bangalore-based journalist Rohini Mohan, and artist Shilo Shiv Suleman. Rohini is the award-winning author of “The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War” on the three decade long civil war in Sri Lanka. Shilo is the founder of the Fearless Collective, who protest gender violence through art.
Rohini began by asking Molly about the way our art and responses change with the world. “The election of Trump punched me in the gut,” she said. She spoke about the despair that had consumed millions across the world after Donald Trump’s win. She also spoke about how hard the media fought the Trump campaign with “facts”. But, she stressed, that “Trump is a liar who lies with such hallucinatory madness that it subverts the very concept of reality”. She explained that Trump made his supporters feel a certain way, and the media’s fact checking couldn’t really change this. “To fight fascism,” she said, “you need to tell a story better than theirs.”
In a time of despair, even her drawings of ISIS-occupied Syria, Guantanamo bay, and Hurricane Sandy do not drain me of hope. The lines of her drawings are like spools of wool that have gone wild in a box; they weave through each other, into darkness and into light — narrating stories of not only pain, but of resilience, love and friendship.
Molly’s drawings and her book read like a history of a girl and of a city. “New York was one of the first things I was thinking about. New York, and sex, and class, and the way those things rub up against each other and transform each other,” she said.
She talks about her childhood in Drawing Blood, when she first reached puberty and how her breasts began to show through her T-shirt — a transformation her body was making not just physically, but in how it was seen. She writes: “A girl doesn’t so much realise she can attract men as notice she’s being watched. Her body, formerly her instrument, is now the reason she must be fetishised and confined.”
We are assaulted by images today — the advertisements on billboards when we walk down the road and the memes and photos of feet against floors when we endlessly scroll through Instagram. It’s in this ocean of images, that the threat looms, of an image becoming “objectified and confined” by a certain aesthetic language. “To draw is to objectify; to go momentarily to a place where aesthetics means more than morality,” she writes in Drawing Blood.
“The demagogues try to spin the idea that there’s two types of people,” she said to the audience present. “There’s the silent aggrieved majority that’s been so put upon, and then there’s the other in the cities that’s having a lot of sex, parties, and laughing down their noses at aggrieved majority.”
But art, she goes on to explain, fights this wedge that’s being driven between us, creating different groups of people, and undefeatable enemies. “Art can make visible the people the demagogues try to erase.”
A major part of one’s job as a journalist and an artist is convincing people. But one of the big problems with the liberals in America, Molly explained, is that they have become obsessed with “an exclusionary language” that builds an “aesthetic conformity”. According to her, this creates a clubhouse, rather than a movement. “We need to speak in language and aesthetics that are resonant to people outside our club.”
Rohini asked her about the struggle of representation, and what we do with the fragile responsibility of representing people and telling their stories. Molly responded with my favourite anecdote of the night, when she was on work in Gaza, in a neighbourhood called Shujaiya.
Gaza was bombed and wrecked during the 2014 war, Molly remembers seeing construction workers taking the rebar from a building that has been bombed. “If you’ve ever seen rebar from a building that has been bombed, it is an evil-looking material. It’s like coiled snakes; like nettles.” She saw two men taking the rebar and straightening it with rocks and tools. And in it she saw an image of resilience, taking the rebar and turning it into construction material. Because your city maybe wrecked, but “goddammit, you’re going to rebuild anyway!”