Molly Crabapple says that her art and journalism
“bleed into each other”. The 32-year-old radical artist, who recently published
a memoir titled Drawing Blood, was in conversation
with William Dalrymple at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2016.
In an illuminating session, Crabapple spoke about her art and politics, from her teenage years, when she spent time at the iconic Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company, to her time as a burlesque performer, as well as chronicler of burlesque dancers at the infamous New York club The Box, where she was resident artist for a number of years.
Crabapple spoke about her involvement with the Occupy movement, and her subsequent work as a Vice columnist, which has involved travelling to Guantanamo Bay, Abu Dhabi, Gaza, and Iraqi Kurdistan, among other places.
She has illustrated and reported on the people she meets in these places, and the unequal conditions that they must navigate: migrant labourers, prisoners held without charge or trial, refugees forced to make dangerous journeys. Drawing Blood, which was released in December 2015 chronicles all these journeys that Crabapple has undertaken as an artist and a witness journalist.
Aside from her illustrative journalism at Vice, Crabapple works as a professional illustrator and helms a number of one-off art projects. Excerpts from an interview:
You’ve been quite critical of the Western gaze when it comes to West Asia and other parts of the world. You refuse to use the term “refugee crisis” that has been popularised by this discourse. How do you negotiate this within yourself, since that’s also a position that you’re in?
Of course, that’s absolutely true. I think the big thing is that I have friends from these communities who will call me out on my shit, and I have them read over my work. That’s probably the best thing. Even with my book, you know, I’d write about Turkey, or Morocco, or even experiences I had when I was young, just as a person, and I would ask my friends… am I being stupid here? Am I missing something? Basically, I just try to avoid fucking up by having people tell me if I’m wrong.
Have you encountered Islamophobic reactions to your work?
I have, a few times. It’s really gross, a lot of times if you’re a woman and you’re writing about this in America, the reaction is a lot of people writing things like, oh, you should have ISIS rape you, or something. It’s a disgusting American discourse. There’s a conservative American thing that positions what they’re doing as the defence of American white womanhood or whatever. They’re like, “oh, those people are the real bad ones!”
Do you feel that the discourse pits two minorities against each other: the straw Muslim man versus the American woman?
Exactly, yeah. As if these fucking men were ever even the defenders of women. No!
It’s also patronising, the idea that someone needs to defend you.
Yeah, like I need some random dude who doesn’t know anything about the world to jump to my defence. My knight in shining armour.
Do you think that travel advisories given to western women travellers who go to particular countries are an extension of the state doing the same thing that these men are doing?
I’ve looked at the ones in tour books, but I haven’t looked at official State Department ones. I mean, New York is also a place that has lots of street harassment. And I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to warnings against going to New York. It’s a place where people scream shit at you, that’s how my city is. So I’m not opposed to warnings, but the State Department stuff, I’ve only seen their general warnings to Americans – they’re so paranoid, and so silly, and they’re ludicrous.
Speaking of ludicrous, you use absurdity in your visual work a lot. Would you say that it’s a cartoonist’s eye?
I think so, I think there’s a part of me that’s ultimately like the little girl in class who wasn’t paying attention and just drawing mean pictures of people (laughs).
It is only when you got involved with Occupy Wall Street that you really began to think of your art as political. In retrospect, has that changed, and do you now think of your work chronicling burlesque dancers as equally political?
I do. Even though I was already trying to do the burlesque art in a political way, I wouldn’t have defined it as political, like a larger thing, because I was scared, I guess, and I was down on myself. I didn’t think it was something the world thinks of as smart. I think the world looks down on feminine women, it looks down on sex workers, it looks down on femme, sexy spaces so I had internalised some of that, and thought of my work as trivial.
I don’t think of the skills I used there as being different to what I did afterwards… It’s still drawing fast and being perceptive, capturing a scene around you, viewing things outside of the distinction that society wants to foist on you, it’s the same thing in both things. But when we do something that’s about the feminine and about sex and performance, people think of it as stupid. And when you do something traditionally defined as masculine, people think of it as smart because the world is just fucking down on women.
In your open letter to Lena Dunham, you said you wouldn’t work with her as long as she opposes the decriminalisation of sex work. She signed an open letter about this that…
It’s basically gender apartheid, yeah.
What do you think of this understanding of sex work as essentially victimhood, and that sex workers can’t be political and can’t ask for rights?
I view sex work as work, and work can be horrible, and work can be good, and sometimes it can be horrible and good in the same job. And workers have the right to organise whether they’re feeling empowered by their job or not, they have a right to have rights. As I understand it, though, there are some very organised sex workers’ unions in India, right?
Yes, like VAMP in Maharashtra.
Yeah, I’ve seen pictures of their demonstrations and they look amazing. I think that it’s really something admirable that sex workers around the world can learn from.
What is the significance of Diego Rivera in your life?
I love his work! First of all, there’s something about being a muralist who worked on this giant scale. Usually with art, people can choose whether or not to go up and look at a work, whereas when you’re working at that scale, you’re really owning the space, like they don’t have a choice. I love his work, the god-monsters of modernism that were just going to consume the whole world, and they were so greedy for everything. To take up space, to do the biggest subjects, I found this greed of art so inspiring. As a Latino Marxist, my father obviously loved Diego Rivera so much and I always saw his murals when I was growing up. I just love him.
You co-founded Dr Sketchy’s Anti-Art School, which has now spread around the world. What do you think of some of the Sketchy’s groups you’ve visited?
It really comes from who the organiser is. There’s one in Paris that I think is the most amazing. They did one on Bastille Day that was called Revenge of the Aristos that was all the beheaded aristos coming back as zombies, and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world (laughs).
You’ve also done an unconventional steampunk comic, Puppet Makers. The genre is usually so inflected with nostalgia.
Oh yeah totally, and I was totally against this, I was like “Steampunk is horrifying!” The thing that inspired me, I heard this story about a courtesan who was being presented to the Queen, and she has to do these very ritualised series of bows, and it was so physically taxing with all her stuff on her that she fainted. I thought it was ridiculous. All these rituals are so stupid that they ought to be done by machines, and not people. And that’s how I figured out the world of the comic: a society that is basically fucked up, and also has this technology - basically a mechanised Versailles, with the countryside stripped bare just to feed the vapid mechanised court rituals.