Academia Activism Illustration

Drawing The Other: Illustration and Representation

I have been sitting on posting this online for a very long time! It was written specifically in response to the theme/provocation of the 6th Annual International Illustration Research Symposium in November 2015, held at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island, USA. The theme was “Illustrator as Public Intellectual.” I also presented it at the ICON 9 Illustration Conference in July 2016. After reading it for my Modern American Illustration students (and a few times for a friend’s Illustrative Activism students), it finally feels like time to share. I’ve also interspersed my slides throughout the talk – it is really meant to be read out loud, with all of the annoyed and sassy vocal inflection I usually have when I talk from my heart about politics. I realize a lot of this may be contentious, and I’ve decided not to share the names of illustrators whose work I find problematic, in the interest of not putting those individuals on blast. Indeed, this is a systemic, structural, institutional problem, and all of us are implicated in it. I have provided the names of illustrators who I frame as ‘getting it right’ in the interest of signal boosting those individuals. Please feel free to share widely; I think this research is incredibly important, and I plan to conduct a more extensive, quantitative study for academic publication very soon. Until then, this is a bit more popularly accessible. This is the initial research I provided to the BBC, who quoted this paper in this article: “Women Who Draw website reveals world’s ‘hidden’ female illustrators.” Thank you in advance for reading. Every time I have given this lecture it has been well received; if you have any concerns, feel free to contact me. Trigger warning for images of gendered and racialized violence.

Abstract: If we take illustration seriously as a form of intellectual and cultural production that influences, reproduces, and reinvigorates public and private discourse, what do the pictures we make and the way we represent human bodies within them say about our personal (as private persons) and public (as creative professionals) understandings of race and gender? Do most of today’s award-winning illustrations challenge dominant power paradigms, or consolidate oppressive hegemonic representations as common sense? What happens when illustrators try to depict The Other? How can we avoid these pitfalls and their consequences? I examine the most recent ten years of award-winning work in the American Illustration annual, and consider the implications of what these selected works say about how illustrators and jurors perceive, represent, and validate representations of race and gender. Following this analysis, I discuss the cultural significance of socially responsible illustration, and present some suggestions for illustrators and educators interested in rethinking how they approach the representation of gendered and racialized bodies in their own work, and that of their students and peers.

The aim of my paper is to determine the answer to one simple question: do today’s award-winning illustrations challenge dominant power paradigms, or do they consolidate oppressive hegemonic representations as common sense? In order to do this, I have examined the most recent seven years of award-winning work in the American Illustration annual, and consider the implications of what these selected works say about how illustrators and jurors perceive, represent, and validate representations of race and gender. Following this analysis, I discuss the cultural significance of socially responsible illustration, and present some suggestions for illustrators and educators interested in rethinking how they approach the representation of gendered and racialized bodies in their own work, and that of their students and peers.

I looked through nearly 3,000 images and recorded how many contained people – white people, men, women, and people of colour. What are some problems with this methodology? Not everyone who “looks white” is white. While enforcing black and white binaries aren’t always useful in the ontic sense, when it comes to representation it is vital. There is an incredibly disproportionate representation of individuals with peach coloured skin. Existence is far more complex than black or white, male or female. I don’t want to forget people who are multi-racial, I don’t want to forget light-skinned people of colour; I don’t want to forget transgender and gender non-binary people. Their lives matter, and it is important that we as illustrators are aware of their existence. They are our peers and colleagues.

However – there is something useful to be gained by the kind of boundary-driven qualitative analysis I have undertaken. We can learn, at a glance, how award-winning illustration has changed over the last seven years, and what types of representations are deemed worthy of public praise. We can learn, in short, what type of representations are happening and being recognized.

So. What did I find?

I’m going to show a bunch of images throughout the rest of this talk. I know illustration is very context specific – or, at least, it can be – and I am asking for you to trust that I did not take this work out of context. In the course of my research, I examined many of these illustrations and looked up the articles or projects they appeared alongside. A lot of these images are beautiful to look at. A lot of them have some semblance of a smart concept. Some are very witty. Despite this, however, some may leave something to be desired in their representation of “the other.”

In the most recent year of winners, humans featured in 75% of illustrations. This was an increase between 10-20%, depending on the year. Interestingly, the representation of white men has declined in recent years – something I perceive to be a little ray of hope. During the last seven years, on average white men appear in 55% of AI award winning illustrations; the highest number in the collected data was 65%. The representation of white women has remained fairly steady at an average of 32%, as has the representation of men and women of colour, whose seven-year averages are 8% and 4%, respectively. On average, men were drawn to be nude or nearly nude 2% of the time. On average, women were drawn to be nude or nearly nude 30% of the time. The only dead bodies depicted during the timeframe of my analysis are those that belong to men of colour.

In seven years, these are the only two images of Indigenous peoples in American Illustration.

(If you’re not sure why these two images are problematic, please have a chat with me afterwards.)

Social justice. Respectful representation. What are these things, and why should we care? It may seem like an obvious question, but when I hear endless talk of how ‘social justice warriors’ and ‘political correctness’ are restricting creativity and making the world less fun, I wonder if illustrators, designers, art directors, and artists have lost our way. I hope that we can – at least for a moment – come together in conversation and seriously question what it is that we are doing, and why.

If we take illustration seriously as a form of intellectual and cultural production that influences, reproduces, and reinvigorates public and private discourse, what do the pictures we make and the way we represent human bodies within them say about our personal (as private persons) and public (as creative professionals) understandings of race and gender? Furthermore: whose human bodies are we representing? Do we just draw ourselves, and, when we are tasked with drawing other people, do we flounder? Do we only hire and work with people who look like us?

Despite our best attempts and insistences that we do not have sexist or racist thoughts, after undertaking the requisite analysis it has become more and more clear to me that the illustration industry does in general reflect the sexism and racism within typical North American culture in the images we make. Rather than provoking critical thought about power relations, the pictures we make and sanction via public professional praise often contribute to these problems – in how we depict relationships between different genders and races.

White men often are used as a ‘netural every-person’ in illustrations. Desptie being a very specific subject position, if the work does not specifically reflect race or gender, images often depict a white man. The white man is a default.

But it’s not just about depicting more women and people of colour. It’s also – crucially – how we are representing them, especially if we’re white male illustrators, art directors, designers, artists. People of colour are rarely depicted just doing every day things; instead, they are usually figures in the background, in images of cities and streets from a far-away view, wherein many different small figures with different skin colours are depicted. I have noticed that in order to be depicted as more than backdrop filler, people of colour need to be famous.

What types of people of colour are depicted? Images of people of colour often include associations with violence. Often, black men are only depicted if they are sports stars or blues musicians. Or, if they are dead. In the most recent AI awards annual, the only deceased figures represented were men of colour – most notably a very literal depiction of Michael Brown lying in his own blood.

Can we draw attention to the violence inflicted upon racialized bodies without perpetuating further violence against people of colour and especially black and indigenous peoples? I think we can. I think we can make work that is smarter than this. We can make work that doesn’t just reproduce the same old images.

We can do this by drawing attention to the vehement practices of white supremacy and patriarchy. Draw black people succeeding. In every day life, doing every day things. Running busineses. Hanging out in the park. Black lives matter: in illustration, too. Or, at least – they should. So, too, should the lives of women.

When we represent stories other than our own – stories of “The Other” – we need to do our research. We need to think carefully about it, and look at the topic from many angles and points of view. We need to consider the lives of those involved. We need to be kind.

You need to be kind.

I need to be kind.

We need to be smarter about the images we’re making. We need to look at them not just as individual works on their own merit but as components in a larger conversation. We need to think. Really, really think.

Step outside of our comfort zones.

Yes, your image of a naked white chick sticking her ass out may be a really great drawing. Your painting of dead men of colour may be very well composed. But: do we really need MORE of these images? They are already everywhere. Are we only giving awards for how we think people of colour and women should be represented? Why do we consistently create work that always places white men at the center of the conversation and only depicts women of colour 4% of the time? And even then – when they are drawn – they are dead, raped violated. As a collective of creators, we need to take responsibility for this.

Of award-winning “selected” AI illustrations in the last 7 years, of those that contain women, women are nude or nearly nude 30% of the time, compared to the average of 4% for men. Of all of the ‘selected’ pieces from the last 7 years, only one or two images of men showed them to be sexualized in any way. For women, this was much more common. I noticed a strangely persistent trend of drawing women only as legs, a blatant sexualization and objectification that is difficult to miss.

I’m not saying that these illustrations aren’t good or smart. A lot of them are witty, clever, technically proficient, well composed, beautiful to look at with a unique style. That’s all well and good.

But what I am saying is – when award winning illustrations of women mostly show them as sexualized or as partial body parts, and when award-winning illustrations of black people link them to slavery and prison and death and violence… I want to ask everyone in the room to think about this with me. Really, really think about it. What does that say about us? What exactly are we doing here? Why do we – as an industry – continue to “punch down”?

This illustration appeared alongside an article about a black woman being raped.

These illustrations are from two different series, by the same illustrator. They, too, depict rape – primarily the gang rape of a Middle Eastern woman.

I look at these images, and I can’t help but ask myself: what, exactly, is it that we think we are doing? Do we really think illustration is such a frivolous medium? Do we really have so little to say that the only way we know how to talk about violence is to literally depict it and retraumatize and revictimize survivors, rather than to say something about the reprehensibility of racialized and sexualized violence and trauma? At first glance, these illustrations may seem raw and edgy and transgressive. They may seem radical in their bluntness.

But they aren’t.

It is not activism to draw more dead black people. It is not activism to show more womens’ cleavage, more women with their butts in the air, seemingly asking for it. It is not activism to draw women being raped. This is not radical. This is nothing new. If we think we are provocative or interesting or smart for making these images, we are sadly mistaken. This work is not intellectual, ‘public’ or otherwise. It is not taking the job seriously.

It is not justice.

It is not responsible.

You: yes, you in this room, you sitting here right in front of me. I ask you: think of all the people you know. Think of yourself. You, whether you know it or not – you know people who have experienced race and gender based violence. You know them. They are your friends, your colleagues. It might even be you. Even if you haven’t told anyone.

Will drawing black people being shot and women being raped create social change? Who are we trying to ‘create awareness’ for? Who is it, exactly, that doesn’t have awareness about these things that are so easy to see if we just step outside of our own selves for a fraction of a second? Some people have the luxury to look at a literal image like a woman being raped or a black person being killed and take something abstract from it. Some people have the luxury to distance themselves, to say, Oh, this is good because it creates awareness. But: some of us, well – we’re already aware. We’re aware every day of our lives. Actually, it’s most of us. We already know.

I think, deep down – you already know, too.

So: you’re with me. You know.

What do we do now?

I want to show you some pictures I like. Some pictures that are getting it right. Some pictures that are doing something a bit different. The two images on this page are saying something – very intelligently – about race and power.

When we’re thinking about representation in illustration, we can consider:

What power relationships are depicted? What are the power dynamics between the figures within the image?

What about the power dynamics between these illustrations and the others we have already seen – whether in this presentation or otherwise, out in the wild? As illustrators who take what we do seriously, we need to look into what else is happening in life and cultural production – in illustration and beyond – and see how we and our work fit into that conversation. What role do we play? Are we just reinforcing harmful stereotypes, or are we actually changing the conversation for the better and making an intelligent statement?

I am asking us all, right now, to hold ourselves accountable. Hold your friends and colleagues accountable.

I wanted to conclude with some suggestions for how to do this, and I really do think they apply in illustration and design classrooms with students, as well as for each of us creating work for clients and for ourselves. This stuff takes time, and it’s not always easy. It takes commitment. You’re going to mess up. I still mess up sometimes. As illustrators, we’re storytellers. Whether we like it or not, whether we think we’re merely interpreting or offering a witty commentary – or even if we just see our work as decorative – there’s story there. The kind of work we make can show what is important to us, and how other people behave towards each other in the world. It’s never just one image. It’s never just the image you made last week or last year. It’s the collections of works we make throughout our careers, both individually and collectively, as a larger community of people who think and create with images.

Maybe, together – we can help change those numbers I told you about before, so the next seven, ten, fifteen, twenty years of awards winners don’t just feature women of colour 4% of the time. Maybe, together – we can draw women as more complex than just being naked and sexualized one third of the time. Maybe, together – we can draw pictures that inspire, that reaffirm how black lives matter. Maybe, together – we can educate and inspire. Maybe, together – we can tip the scales.

Thank you.

 

NOTE: Names of illustrators in last few slides – Byron Eggenschweiler (girl with books), Anthony Freda (blackboard illustration, last slide), Brian Stauffer (N illustration), Marcos Chin (kama sutra), Olaf Hajek (black Marie Antoinette), Brian Cronin (tightrope), Christopher Silas Neil (bicycle). I have not included the names of the illustrators who drew the more (IMO) problematic pieces because this is very much a systemic industry-wide problem. I am interested in the picture our industry paints as a whole.

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