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New York artist and activist Molly Crabapple talks art as protest ahead of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas

Delima Shanti

Molly Crabapple’s awakening as an activist came during the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2008. Back then, she was known for her illustrations of New York’s burlesque scene; today, she is lauded for her bold illustrated commentary of the Occupy movement, and her subsequent coverage of life in Guantanamo Bay, Syrian refugee camps and daily life in Syria and Iraq.

Crabapple – who was born Jennifer Caban – uses illustration in a way that a traditional journalist might use photography, and for very specific reasons. “We live at the most photo-saturated, video saturated time in history,” she says. “While this is an amazing thing, it also means that people often become numb to photography. Drawing, because it is clearly done by hand, gets past this jadedness.”

Drawing was also a way to get around the heavy restrictions around photography at Guantanamo; her illustrations are among the few images anyone has seen of the notorious detention camp. The medium also allows her to bring out things that she wants viewers to notice. “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 languages, and I feel so grateful for the nuance that being able to read and write it has given my work.”

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.

Crabapple’s visit to the Festival of Dangerous Ideas will see her on stage at Sydney Opera House talking about getting art out of the galleries and back on the streets. She’ll discuss her memoir Drawing Blood, as well as debate the virtues and limitations of art as a tool for protest. “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.”

Molly Crabapple’s talk ‘From the Frontline’ at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas takes place on Sunday September 4 at 2pm. Tickets start at $27.

For a rundown on all the speakers at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, read our interview with FODI co-curator and head of talks and ideas at Sydney Opera House, Ann Mossop

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