When I ask Sara Drake how she prepared to spend this November and December in Cambodia, the Chicago artist says, “I’ve been watching a lot of Cambodian horror films.” These movies were the first to be produced by an industry still recovering from Khmer Rouge repression. On September 29 at Quimby’s Bookstore in Wicker Park, Drake presented drawings inspired by the Cambodian horror film The Snake King’s Child (2001), which is based on a myth about a snake god’s half-human daughter. Her ethereal green-and-orange illustrations reflect Southeast Asian aesthetic influences.
The recent SAIC graduate’s slide show introduced Anne Elizabeth Moore’s reading of Cambodian Grrrl(Cantankerous Titles, $7.95). The slim memoir recalls the Chicago writer-activist’s experiences living in a Phnom Penh dormitory for two months in 2007, as she taught self-publishing and zine making to the first women to attend college in Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge closed the country’s universities in the 1970s. Now Drake, 23, who studied with Moore at SAIC, is teaching young Cambodian women how to make comics.
Moore told the audience at Quimby’s that six of her 32 Cambodian students became journalists. Drake hopes her comics classes, arranged through Moore’s Independent Youth-Driven Cultural Production in Cambodia, have a similar effect. Because of societal pressure, government censorship “and the fact that women have been accidentally left out of the education structure in Cambodia,” she explains by e-mail a day before traveling to France, en route to Phnom Penh, “these women haven’t been allowed to think that self-expression is possible or useful. Making comics, self-publishing and distributing them gives these women direct access to interacting with their culture in a way that is tangible to their lives.”
Drake’s own work as a cartoonist has evolved from the stark, black-and-white Arty Party (a comic she coauthored and self-published with friend James Payne), to a more whimsical, colorful style. At SAIC, she edited the student-run comics and drawing zine Xerox Candy Bar, co-organized last year’s Small Press and Comics Symposium, helped curate the recent Rymer Gallery exhibition “CartoonInk!” and taught several comic-making workshops. “I always feel like I’m curating, making a community, inviting people,” she says.
Moore invited Drake to get involved in the IYDCPC project after the duo collaborated on “Ladydrawers,” a column about gender and comics that Moore contributes to Truth-out.org. Drake had to submit her course proposal to Moore and her IYDCPC collaborators, who include representatives from Pannasastra University of Cambodia and Strey Khmer, a human-rights organization focused on women’s empowerment.
While Drake’s trip is partially supported by Arts Network Asia, the artist raised additional funds through Kickstarter to pay for travel expenses and class materials. She’s bringing comics with female lead characters to share with her students—a group whom Moore assembled from Pannasastra University and Strey Khmer—as well as pencils, ink and Bristol board to chronicle her stay.
Drake wants to create a space where women can share ideas and collaborate. “Comics is an ideal medium for storytelling,” she tells me. “It’s exciting and can do things that words alone can’t. More importantly, comics are really fun to make. The best possible accomplishment would be if my students enjoy making comics to the point where they want to teach other young people how to do them.”
For more information about Drake’s work in Cambodia, visit iydcpc.wordpress.com.