We were just 10 minutes away from the Rooftop at Bose Compound and doing some last minute reading up on Molly Crabapple, I came across a description of her on the Guardian as a heroine from a Tim Burton film. Nothing could have been more accurate. With her large and undaunted eyes, Molly Crabapple is beautifully scary and her presence in the room is an assured one.
Yet, it was not an image that matched with that of someone repeatedly underestimated. Not just as an artist in a world where art is looked at as simply “pretty stuff”, but also as a nude model, working in the deep end of New York city.
It is 7:30pm when Raghu Karnad, opens with a round of introductions. In the little room on the roof, the rows of yellow chairs are all taken and people now settle on the floor in the aisle, some even spilling onto the terrace outside. Right in front, are the two artists; Molly Crabapple (who is also contributing editor of Vice) and Shilo Shiv Suleman (founder of the Fearless Collective). With them, guiding the conversation with her questions, is journalist Rohini Mohan.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise then, that as the speakers drew from their own stories to detail out opinions, observations and answers, the evening progressed into a particularly visual and politically charged one. Their words dealt with politics but spoke in images, both artists pausing to paint the setting or person before going on to talk about it.
The face of a “Tangerine Trump” for instance, was hard to keep out of the conversation. Speaking about the defeat of America’s liberal-left, Molly Crabapple attempts to pinpoint their failures. It is enveloped by a certain “aesthetic conformity” and “exclusive language” that only those with University degrees or Tumblr accounts can relate to, she explains . Art on the other hand, is a medium that can cross social barriers and “resonate outside our club”. It is not about trying to ‘convert’ the other side, she adds, but rather about defiantly asserting one’s own.
Indeed, in the images they create for the audience, both Molly and Shilo seem to share this desire to assert rather than convert. There’s the massive sepia brown mural of two women staring down from a wall in South Africa that Shilo describes, explaining the need to begin with simply “occupying spaces”. Then the street art in Oklahoma depicting a black, Spanish and hijab wearing America that Molly refers to as something a “young, black, queer woman” could stand in front of and draw strength from.
When Shilo speaks, she often resorts to the ‘we’ pronoun rather than the ‘I’, her sense of identity as an artist merging with that of the Fearless Collective. We see fear, and respond to it, she says. But Rohini pulls them back to their personal stories, asking about their mothers (both of whom were artists as well) and searching for a beginning to their long, wild journeys in the field. Molly takes the mic and pauses before she speaks, looking the audience in the eye as she frames her thoughts and then laughs. Her Tim Burton character takes over and it isn’t hard to imagine her as every bit the bold, rebellious, snapping teenager that she says she was. “My demographic was myself” she explains and Shilo nods yes, inner work on yourself, for yourself, is necessary before outer revolution.
Bringing up Molly’s protest poster work for the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, as well as her work in Syria, Rohini asks how it all became so political. It is clear much Molly belongs to New York when she speaks then, of her time working for $pread magazine and the nude modelling industry that it sought to represent. Her politics emerged from that close-knit group, she explains.
Apart from the Tim Burton parallel, Molly Crabapple is also described as “straddling the two worlds of journalism and art”, and on Thursday evening, sitting between Shilo and Rohini, she did just that.
On one hand she was bonding with all the journalists in the room, addressing the “moral angst” of a career that ultimately makes money out of other people’s tragedies. Describing a young Palestinian who challenged the point and purpose of her work, Molly talks of never being certain of the change either art or journalism can make in real terms. Of it being 99% hopeless what she is doing, but a 100% hopeless without it.
On the other hand, Crabapple speaks as an artist when Rohini asks her with some amazement if she finds it scary that in art just a“single image says everything”. At this Molly gets very excited, “images lie man!” she exclaims, images and words need to work together. Conjuring another image for us of her work in Gaza, she gives us the flip side as well. We imagine the curled, twisted, hungry black rebars being straightened out by refugees to use as construction material, and she tells us how nothing else could have captured their determination better.
While many parallels may be drawn between illustrative journalism and photography, Molly also points out that the underestimation of art has often worked to her advantage. Guantanamo Bay is the most frustrating place for a photographer to be, she laughs, animatedly describing how all the rules about cameras (no photographs of faces, of windows, of chairs, of food, of equipment et cetera ) leave one with nothing to photograph but one’s own feet.
As she speaks of drawing death masks on the guards to work around rules about including faces, Molly mentions a 19-year-old guard and something in her tone reminds me that behind all the humour, this is someone who’s been to places and heard stories that no one would ever feel like laughing about.
Bringing us full circle, a man stands up during the question-answer and asks Molly outright, why we should care about Trump when the president of the American empire (whoever it is) ends up with the same thousand dead Iraqis agenda. Nodding like this is an argument she has often considered herself, Molly however, has another point to make. Some presidents are massively more harmful than others she says, going on to add that she’s sick of Trump’s face and wants to never ever draw it again. And plans for 2017? asks Rohini, smiling. To make anti-fascism look cool, she replies. And there is a mischievous glint in her round, almost glass-like eyes.
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