“You can’t avoid an image”: why illustration is a powerful activism tool

Political illustrator Edel Rodriguez, street artist Joe Caslin and House of Illustration curator Olivia Ahmad spoke at Offset Dublin 2019 about why imagery can be more arresting than words, how art can educate people, and the challenges that come with using creativity to protest.

© Edel Rodriguez

Images can “give a voice” to protesters and cross language barriers to share messages about cross-cultural issues around the world, says political illustrator Edel Rodriguez.

He was speaking as part of a discussion about the power of using illustration for activism and the challenges activist creatives face, this year’s Offset Dublin design festival and conference.

As well as Rodriguez, the panel consisted of Olivia Ahmad, curator at the House of Illustration and editor of illustration magazine Varoom, Joe Caslin, a street artist and teacher. It was chaired by Lou Bones, membership manager at the Association of Illustrators.

Cuban-born Rodriguez is best known for his work interpreting political subjects on magazine covers including Time and Der Spiegel, with a focus on criticising Donald Trump’s presidency.

His work, which he has also exhibited as posters around New York, includes images of Trump in a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) hood, as a comet hurtling to earth and as a baby sitting on a missile alongside an illustration of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. He has also tackled subjects such as the so-called Islamic State (IS) terror campaign and Che Guevara’s rule in Cuba.

“I feel like more of a journalist”

Despite his provocative depictions of many political issues and figures, he said: “I don’t know if I consider myself an activist.

“I feel like more of a journalist. I am just telling the truth and it just happens to activate people.”

Surrounded by politics from a young age, he spent his early childhood in Cuba but immigrated alongside his family to the US during Che Guevara’s reign. “From the age of nine or 10, I was trying to figure out why this had happened to me, why I had to leave my town and my grandparents,” he said.

Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr, he said he was motivated early on to create work which had meaning.

“In college, I would paint a still life and think ‘what is the purpose?’” he said. “I would always say art has to do something, otherwise why am I wasting my time painting it?”

Illustration can be “therapy”

Irish illustrator Joe Caslin said he had not set out to be political, but things had angered him enough to do something about them. He has commented on issues including equal marriage, creating giant murals depicting same-sex relationships on buildings in the lead up to Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum.

His most famous works include a large mural featuring two young men embracing on a building in Dublin, known as The Claddagh Embrace, and another of a lesbian couple kissing on a building in Belfast. People in Ireland voted to legalise same-sex marriage in 2015.

Other issues he hopes to challenge with his work include drug addiction being treated as a health issue rather than a crime, suicide prevention and the quality of Direct Provision, a system for providing shelter for asylum seekers arriving in Ireland.

“[I use] drawing to show we have huge [problems] that need to be talked about,” he said. “I also use it as a kind of therapy, it’s my way of getting things straight in my head.”

As an editor and curator, Ahmad said her job is to “build conversations” around various topics and “highlight work”. Exhibitions at the House of Illustration touching on political issues have included a show exploring state-controlled graphics and packaging from North Korea and more recently, a show featuring illustrations by and about refugees.

Making an impact without words

The panel discussed the power illustration can have when it is used as a form of protest and to express dissent. Rodriguez, whose illustrations are regularly used on protest posters, said illustrators can “give a voice to people” by capturing a situation or point of view.

“There are times when people have come to me and said thank you for expressing [the issue] as I wouldn’t know how to,” he said.

He adds that unlike words, imagery crosses language barriers, which means it can be understood by people across the world, regardless of what language they speak.

Putting images out into the world can also spread messages and help “educate” people much faster than words, he said — it’s much harder to ignore an illustration than writing, as it makes a visual impact.

“You can’t avoid an image,” he said. “But you can avoid an essay and just not read it.”

The reach of social

The group spoke about why social media is a useful tool for spreading positive messages through imagery.

Caslin said the power of social is that it can create a “huge audience” for work. He said just a few people might walk past his murals each day, but “if you put something on social media, you could have 100,000 interactions in a day or two.”

For Rodriguez, part of the “power” of social media is “not having an editor or boss to say no” to content, meaning people can post almost whatever they like, which can lead to other people taking action and making art their own.

“I’ve uploaded my work and told people to download it, share it and use it for protest,” he said. “It’s exciting for me when a nine-year-old takes my illustration and says, ‘I’m going with mummy to the protest’.”

Ahmad praised Rodriguez for being so “open” with his work, adding that it was “refreshing” to see an illustrator say: “take [my work] and do what you need with it”.

Bones asked if the deluge of content on social media meant it was now harder for an image to stand out compared to before such platforms existed.

Caslin replied: “If you create an image that tells the truth and is strong enough, it won’t get lost in the din.”

Critics and challenges

The group also spoke about the challenges that come with using illustration for activism, which include finding a platform or funding to get work out there.

“About 90% of my work is self-funded,” said Caslin. “If you want to put up a piece about drug addiction, where are you going to get that money? You’re talking about something that not many people in power want to hear about and they are the ones who have access to funding.”

Rodriguez said he had trouble in the past getting his work in some exhibitions due to their controversial nature. He recalled being asked to take part in a show at a US university, but said his submissions of Trump beheading the Statue of Liberty, and another of Trump in a KKK hood were rejected, so he pulled out of the show.

In terms of dealing with critics, Rodriguez said he has had many incidences of people being angry about his work and is happy to converse about it if they approach him reasonably but will ignore those who send hateful comments on social media.

Caslin said that as a teacher, it is harder for him to avoid criticism of his work and there are times when he has had to engage in difficult conversations.

Bones asked if those who are artistic, such as illustrators, have a responsibility to use their language-defying skills to contribute to conversations about political and social issues, and human rights.

“I don’t think anyone should be motivated to do anything they don’t want to do,” said Rodriguez. “The worst political art comes from people who have no clue what they’re doing or have no feeling for it.”

This talk took place at Offset Dublin 2019, which ran 5-7 April 2019 at The Point Square, East Wall Road, Dublin 1 Dublin, Ireland.

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