Over time, illustration has appeared on the street, on the covers of magazines, in videos, animations, murals and, of course, through social media—whether that’s in form of posters and signage from memorials, rallies or protests. But, as Rea puts it: “I don’t think illustration necessarily has more power over, or is more effective than, other messaging approaches (video, lettering, signal and murals), and that may seem strange coming from an illustrator. But if I’m being truthful, some of the most powerful imagery and messaging I’ve seen has been through live video, photography or hand-lettered signs,” he adds, noting their effectiveness in the women’s marches and black lives matter protests, as well as the New York Times written listing of 1000 people who had died as the US surpassed 100,000 deaths from Covid-19.
Comparatively, this multi-tooled approach lends itself greatly to Mona Chalabi’s practice, a British data journalist residing in New York who focuses much of her work on post-truth politics. Making a case for how illustration can be a critical tool for activism, she says, “Charts can provide crucial information about injustice, but I think they can hide behind the veneer of objectivity while they’re delivering information.” In this sense, the subjectivity of art opens a window to human empathy that might not have been achieved through the solo and illicit display of words and numbers.
Much of Chalabi’s work has garnered great attention over the recent months, with her colour-inflected graphs and bars visualising facts on Covid-19 and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. An activist with purpose, her data-centred illustrations are undeniably direct and accessible. “I’m trying to do things differently,” she adds. “I want you to feel something when you look at my illustrations that show data about inequality, racism and abuse of power. Maybe you’ll feel angry but above all, I hope you feel compelled to do something.”
Guatemalan-Slovak illustrator and multidisciplinary artist Ludi Leiva also advocates for the power of visual storytelling. As visual beings, she views illustration as a necessary and emotive one: “The common thread between my work, regardless of the medium, is my belief in the power of storytelling for creating empathy, solidarity and making the world a more equal place.” In this sense, illustration goes hand in hand with activism, and is only heightened by humanity’s dependency on storytelling. “Illustrations can help us to tell important stories, make sense of things and feel connected to ideas or other people. Visual art can be a really crucial conduit for positive change and growth, both individually and collectively.”
This is precisely why Leiva has found herself increasingly gravitating towards visual art, following a career in freelance journalism. While it’s never been more accessible to reach a wider audience through the internet, she argues that with this accessibility comes greater responsibility. “To me, it’s important to be walking the walk and not just talking the talk; there can be a lot of virtue signalling, especially right now, and so I think it’s important for artists to consider how they can be having the most positive impact,” says Leiva. This means acknowledging when it’s time to step back or make your voice heard, and thinking about how you can take it further rather than simply creating graphics or illustrations (or posting a black square, as a recent example). Otherwise, there’s also the caution of creating something “embarrassingly obvious or tone deaf”, agrees Rea, which can spur on negative consequences and backlash in the digital sphere.
So how can illustrators responsibly use their platforms to steer change? And should they? “I don’t like the word ‘responsibility’,” Rodriguez points out, “it seems to be something that is imposed on someone.” Having grown up in a Communist country where artists were forced to create propaganda for the government and “be ‘responsible’ to the ideology or the people”, this means that he does not subscribe to this specific term. “Every artist should feel the need to share their ideas. They should use their voice to express themselves, however that may be, the same way a writer or a singer does.” It’s precisely this political dominance, subjectivity and inherent personalisation of the medium that makes illustration and activism so complex.
Broad and interchangeable, it really is up to the individual and goal at hand. “Art is a reflection of culture and society,” says Rodriguez, “and there isn’t one way to express all of that. Being irresponsible can be its own form of expression.” However, this puts added pressure on fact checking and keeping work “sharp and direct”, all the while making the image universal and easily understood by a variety of cultures and backgrounds. Rodriguez adds on the matter: “I think that’s the key to a strong image; sometimes one has to put aside more personal and abstract ideas to make something that is widely understood.”