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Interview with Molly Crabapple, artist and activist

A prolific, writer, artist, and activist, Molly Crabapple visiting Melbourne for Melbourne Writers Festival to talk about art as protest and her 2015 memoir Drawing Blood.

Molly Crabapple
Photograph: Clayton Cubitt

Molly Crabapple is an unflinching, unapologetic artist and writer, whose awakening as an activist came about during the Occupy Wall Street movement during the 2008 economic recession in the USA. Her earlier work explored the New York burlesque scene and often depicted scenes with beautiful women, sex, and nightlife, and if they had any social critique they were veiled behind the subjects. The shift in her artistic voice can be seen in her bold illustrated commentary of the Occupy movement, and her work has since evolved further and pushed even more boundaries as she covered live in Guantanamo Bay, Syrian refugee camps and daily life in Syria and Iraq. 

“We live at the most photo-saturated, video saturated time in history. While this is an amazing thing, it also means that people often become numb to photography,” she says, when asked about how her illustrations contribute to the media landscape. “Drawing, because it is clearly done by hand, gets past this jadedness.” 

Credit: Molly Crabapple

Crabapple uses drawing as a tool, much like a traditional journalist might use photography. Her illustrations of life inside Guantanamo Bay, which was published on VICE along with her article on the tour, are among the few images anyone has seen of the notorious detention camp. Drawing was a way to get around the heavy censorship and severe restrictions on photography, and she has made the most of this in her drawings of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the leader of the 9/11 attacks, and Guantanamo’s Camp X-Ray, where the first photos of detainees were taken. 

When refugees and immigrants are often portrayed as a poor, foreign, mass, Crabapple pinpoints the human connection. “I try to draw people as people: complex, flawed, heroic, broken, and strong,” she says. “I also try to learn as much as I can before I cover any topic. Over the last two years, I've been seriously studying Arabic – both for journalism and because it's one of the world’s great literary language, and I feel so grateful for the nuance that being able to read and write it has given my work.”

Credit: Molly Crabapple

Among Crabapple’s most eye-opening projects is her collaboration with Syrian writer Marwan Hisham on his article for Vanity Fair in 2015. Hisham relayed cellphone photos to Crabapple, which she then drew into ink-splattered depictions. “I'm deeply honoured to work with Hisham, illustrating his impossibly brave work in Isis occupied areas of Syria and Iraq. We're currently doing a book together, called Brothers of the Gun.

Her visit to Melbourne for Melbourne Writer’s Festival will see Crabapple discuss her memoir Drawing Blood, as well as debate the virtues and limitations of art as a tool for protest. Even as a respected artist and writer, defining the influence of her work can still be a struggle. “I try to be skeptical and… aware of my limitations and biases,” she admits. “Sometimes art feels as vital as food, other times I worry I'm just doing a weird archaic hobby, like whittling. I want to say it can give us glimpses of the world we're fighting for, as well as a means to fight.”